On campus or online?

By on November 4, 2009

Type “University of” into Google’s search box, and you may be surprised with the first auto-complete suggestion.

It is not the University of Florida, which boasts more than 59,000 enrolled students. It is not the University of Minnesota, with their Twin-City campuses and more than 60,000 students.

It is the University of Phoenix, with a staggering enrollment of 420,700 students, and with campuses, well, almost everywhere.

The University of Phoenix is currently the world’s most popular online institution of learning, and while the University has two campuses in Arizona and Nevada, associate to doctor’s degrees can be earned entirely on the web.

The University of Phoenix is the leader in web-based education, something that all educational institutions have taken steps toward.

But Irene Silber, director of public relations at the online Capella University, made it clear that on-the-web and on-campus demographics were very different. She said 82 percent of Capella’s students are currently enrolled in master’s or doctoral programs.

“We exist to serve working adults,” Silber said. “We don’t try to be everything for all people.”

According to Capella’s Web site, their mission is to extend educational opportunities to “adults who seek to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

And it appears that a newer market of learning is where money can be made. Silber pointed out “The Other 85 Percent,” a blog by Capella Vice Chairman Michael Offerman. According to Offerman, 15 percent of students involved in higher education are in the traditional 18 to 22-year-old demographic. The other 85 are a new, older breed of college students.

“As the face of the typical student has changed, so must the institution of higher education itself,” Offerman advised in the “About” section of his Web site.

But the traditional late teen demographic has not disappeared, and according to some, does not mesh well with an online education.

One 20-year-old student at Quinnipiac took an online class through Quinnipiac, and was disappointed with the experience.

“Unless you’re the most motivated person ever, you’re not going to get much out of it,” junior math major Alicia Marino said. “I hated it.”

Marino, a computer science minor, enrolled in Computer Science 111 during the summer of 2009.

“It’s so much harder to learn without a teacher right there,” she said. “It makes asking questions a lot more difficult. I’m the type of person who learns as I do-so if the professor talks me through it. I didn’t have that option at all.”

Equally as difficult was time management for Marino, who worked full-time over the summer.

“For one, there was no motivation,” she said. “Everyone in the class rushed to get stuff done. I don’t think anyone finished on time.”

Marino’s class actually had to be extended a week so students could complete the curriculum.

But her troubles, according to Silber, may speak to a greater issue in online education.

“Social interaction is really important for the young students,” Silber said of the 18-22 demographic. “It’s a necessary experience, and those students need that.”

But Silber felt that for an older student, with a job that keeps them occupied, an online education was a more accessible option.

“There’s no facilities needed, and no parking or driving necessary,” she said. “When I travel and wear Capella gear, people often ask me where it’s located. I say, ‘everywhere.’”

Silber did admit, however, that the undergraduate program was growing at Capella, and so have the online undergraduate programs across the globe. So while high school students begin to weigh their higher education options, the online college is a viable one. But does the value compare?

“I wouldn’t say one is better than the other,” Silber said. “I went through a traditional education, and I think both have real merit.”

In a direct comparison, a Connecticut undergraduate could save about $4,500 dollars per semester by commuting to Southern Connecticut State University than taking classes online with the University of Phoenix. Tuition and fees for a SCSU student in the 2009-10 academic year is $3,789 per semester, while the University of Phoenix costs $530 per credit, and an $85 course materials fee per course.

Marino, a Long Island native, had a cheaper and what she felt to be more educational experience taking summer classes at SUNY Stony Brook than her online classes at Quinnipiac. Four credits at Stony Brook totaled $800, while four credits online with Quinnipiac cost $2000.

Both the University of Phoenix and SCSU are accredited, and according to Silber, the comparison of job opportunities with their respective degrees is unknown.

“Obviously someone with a master’s from Columbia is going to have a better chance than someone from Capella,” she said. “But that’s prestige.”

Silber said the “majority” of Capella students report getting jobs six months after graduation, but “really didn’t know” whether the online part of a student’s education had an impact.

And for those looking for a top-shelf education for free, even that is available online. Starting in 2001, MIT began publishing their course tools, assignments, and curriculm online, and now offer 1,900 courses, free of charge, on the MIT OpenCourseWare Web site. Video and audio lectures, course materials, and class notes are available.

Educational options online have continued to grow, and according to Silber, almost all colleges have some education opportunity available on the Internet.

“Even some high schools are doing it now,” she said.

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