The average yearly tuition cost for brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the US today is more than $20,000, an expense that has increased 1,120 percent since 1978. By comparison, students of all ages can often earn an online education for one fourth of this annual cost -- and more businesses are starting to acknowledge online degrees.
It’s small wonder that online course enrollment growth has been in the double digits in recent years, with a current online education student population of more than six million students.
Yet, not all is perfect with online education, either. In recent years, students have joined forces in federal lawsuits against online colleges, alleging that these colleges put them into a mountain of debt without giving them accredited degrees, forcing them to take courses over at brick-and-mortar schools. In California, plaintiffs filed 20 lawsuits against five different online law schools, alleging that the schools lured students with promises of bountiful employment opportunities they would find after obtaining a law degree -- at a time when jobs for lawyers are in a dramatic decline.
So, what do you do if you’re a student and you’re considering an online education?
Look before you leap
It pays to ask prospective employers how they value online degrees in the hiring process before you enroll in an online program. In IT in particular, online degrees have met with recent success. The reason? Many online courses have the ability to closely simulate the work environment, because students actually do their lab work and technical projects on computing platforms that they will ultimately use in business. The IT educational community has also put considerable effort into building strong online courseware and attaching rigorous testing and certification to it.
Suited for the role
Online education is self-directed. The plus side is that it allows people with fulltime jobs to study when they have the time -- and to participate in their studies from anywhere. The disadvantage is that individuals who like to learn in collaborative settings are challenged in this “do it yourself and alone” environment. Then, too, there are few online universities that do a good job in providing a personal instructor or mentor who is available to students when they have questions. “One of the differentiators we hope to put in play is to actually have instructors available to answer student questions on the spot when students have them,” said one online technology college entrepreneur. “Today most online schools fall miserably short in this area.”
Is your online school accredited? And by whom? Accreditation is a major hurdle for many online schools. It isn’t just because they’re startups -- or because many in the education business believe that they are second-rate. The challenge is also political, since established brick-and-mortar schools have a vested interest in preventing online schools from cutting into their tuition fees by offering students similar education for less money. If you are a student considering online education, this means you should confirm that any school you are considering is accredited. If an educational association won’t recognize the school, it could be that a future employer won’t, either.
Mix your learning styles
For most students, a mix of face-to-face and online learning works best. Online education has yet to replace the intangible “human elements” of learning that enable students and instructors to feed off each other when they are collectively working on a project or question in the same room.
The bottom line on online education is that it has its shortcomings, but it is also here to stay. Brick-and-mortar schools have recognized this as they roll out their own online learning programs. The key for those students considering online education, as with most things, is to know themselves. The more you know about what you want to get out of your online learning experience, the happier you’re going to be with the results.
— Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data