The Boston Globe - Traditional schools grow online

Boston Globe - Traditional schools grow online

Students lured by cachet of brick-and-mortar schools’ reputations

By D.C. Denison

When Cheryl Killoran, a registered nurse from Worcester, wanted a master’s degree to strengthen her resume, she did as millions of other prospective students have done and searched online. After considering two of the major Internet players, the University of Phoenix and Walden University, Killoran opted for UMassOnline.

For the University of Massachusetts, enrolling Killoran is a win against the pioneering Internet providers that still dominate the online education sector. UMass is one of several Bay State brick-and-mortar colleges whose aggressive expansion into the virtual classroom is finally paying off. Students seem to prefer the mix of real and virtual campuses at traditional colleges, as well as the status conferred by a degree from an established brand.

“I liked that it was local, and that it offered online and classroom instruction,’’ Killoran said. “The name UMass means something to me.’’

Killoran, who works at UMass Memorial Medical Center, took three courses that combined online and classroom instruction, and one course that was taught completely online. In June, she received her master’s of science, with a specialty as a nurse educator. She said there were no special incentives by the hospital for her to choose UMassOnline over other programs.

Online offerings for college and professional students are growing dramatically. In the fall 2008 term, the most recent available statistics, 4.6 million students took at least one online course, a 17 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Sloan Report on Online Learning. In fall 2008, 1 in 4 enrolled students were taking an online course.

The best-known online players include the University of Phoenix, Walden, and Capella University, with the for-profit Phoenix’s current enrollment of 476,500 students making it the biggest university in North America.

But the brick-and-mortar competition is catching up, from the likes of Northeastern University, Lesley University, and Boston University, while smaller institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, in Manchester, are promoting online programs, too.

“It’s hard to think of a college that’s not building its online capability,’’ said Carol Aslanian, a senior vice president of market research at EducationDynamics LLC, a marketing firm that specializes in higher education.

In a typical online course, students download the educational materials and interact with the instructor and other students via online discussion groups. Assignments and tests are submitted electronically. Many courses also webcast video and audio lectures.

Although the private, for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix, are perhaps the best-known online educators, there are so many online programs that traditional colleges are now teaching the majority of them.

“Three-quarters of the students who are taking online courses are taking them at public institutions, like community colleges,’’ said Jeff Seaman, codirector of Babson Survey Research Group, which produced the Sloan report.

In building these online programs, many colleges are promoting features the for-profit online universities can’t match, chiefly a wide variety of hybrid programs in which students alternate between online and classroom courses.
The for-profit schools are constrained by their small campuses — often just a few floors in an office building. Local boards of education often prevent these out-of-state, for-profit institutions from offering classroom instruction in many fields. Massachusetts colleges also promote the fact that degrees and certificates from their online programs are indistinguishable from those awarded on campus, taking advantage of their academic brands, which have been burnished for decades.

The payoff for these schools is stable or even expanded enrollments, adding valuable revenue streams at a time when many are dealing with budget shortfalls.

At the front of the pack is the nearly 10-year-old UMassOnline.

“UMass is one of the real leaders in online education,’’ said John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium.

UMassOnline has received support from the school’s top administrators; its founding chief executive, Jack Wilson, went on to be president of the 66,000-student UMass system. Under Wilson, the program grew steadily. It now offers 100 accredited degree and certificate programs and had 45,815 students and revenue of $56.2 million in the most recent fiscal year.

Wilson, who will be retiring in June 2011, said two mandates fueled the development of the program: “To serve students who couldn’t get to one of our campuses, and to generate revenues for UMass at a time when other revenues were vulnerable. So we got a double hit out of it.’’

Meanwhile, University of Phoenix continues to grow. It has three facilities strategically placed in technology and business centers in Greater Boston — in Burlington, Braintree, and Westborough — where it teaches classroom-based courses that complement its online offerings.

Date: 8/18/10