Mass High Tech - Online Universities Grow Enrollment

Mass High Tech - Online Universities Grow Enrollment

By Bridget Botelho, Special to Mass High Tech

Up until a few years ago, having an online degree was less impressive than one from a brick and mortar university. But the tides have turned, and enrollment at online universities is growing due to job losses in a tough economy and the flexibility of online learning platforms.

“Online learning is popular now, as people try to build their credentials and qualify for a new job,” said Barbara A. McCaulay, associate vice president and chief academic officer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Our online learning degree is a valid UMass degree, and there is nothing on a student’s transcript or diploma that distinguishes between in-class and online learning.”

According to the 2008 report about Online Education in the United States by the Needham-based Sloan Consortium, more than 20 percent — 3.9 million — of all college students were taking at least one course online in the fall of 2007, and the numbers continue to grow. The number of students enrolled in online learning increased 12 percent over the previous year, and online enrollment growth far exceeded the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population, according to Sloan, an organization dedicated to integrating online education into mainstream higher education.

Locally, a number of universities have taken their degree programs to the web, including 15 community colleges and nine state colleges in Massachusetts, which operate through a program called Massachusetts Colleges Online. And in 2001, MIT made waves by offering the materials for nearly all its courses on the Internet at no charge through a program it calls OpenCourseWare.

Karen A. Hebert-Maccaro, an associate dean of the graduate school and professor at Wellesley–based Babson College, teaches online and in the classroom, and said both platforms have their merits.

“In an online case discussion, students can think more before commenting, and their answers can be very rich and well thought out. In a classroom discussion, it is more fast paced and some students can’t fully form their answers, so they don’t get to express themselves,” Hebert-Maccaro said. “Of course being face-to-face has its pluses — reading body language and sensing excitement in a debate, for instance. But both are really effective techniques.”

Babson’s approach to online learning is blended with on-campus learning, and includes an accelerated learning program that allows students to earn their MBA in two years. Around 450 students enroll in the program annually, Hebert-Maccaro said.

“This (accelerated MBA) program is targeted at more experienced individuals — most have 12 years of work experience under their belt … it is designed for people who are in their career and want to learn more, but also want flexibility in their learning,” Hebert-Maccaro said.

The UMass online learning program, UMassOnline, has seen consistent, year-over-year growth since its inception in 2001, with an enrollment growth rate of 26.2 percent in fiscal 2008 compared to 2007. There were 33,900 total enrollments in 2008, an increase of 7,045 from 2007 and 12,569 from year 2006. Program revenue grew by 31.9 percent in year 2008 with tuition revenue of $37 million compared to $28 million in 2007 and $21 million in 2006, according to the university.

This year is shaping up to be bigger than last year. “We generated 4,000 student inquiries in January (2009 alone — we were astounded — this is up over 16 percent from the inquiries from January 2008,” said Jennifer Brady, director of marketing for UMass Online.

The increasing enrollment at online universities is likely due to job losses in the poor economy, according to Sloan. Bad economic times have often been good for education, either because decreased availability of good jobs encourages people to seek education, or because those currently employed seek to improve their chances for advancement.

One example of a student returning to school is UMassOnline student Christine Shea, 48, of Southampton, who decided to go back to school in 2007 after 25 years in the work force, seeking to earn her bachelor’s degree and shine up her resume.

Shea, who is studying business leadership, said that for her online learning is better than the traditional classroom style because her job in customer service involves travel. By taking courses online, she can participate from anywhere and at anytime. “Online learning offers the flexibility that I need as a busy professional whose work schedule can be demanding. It allows me to keep up with the courses whether I am home or traveling,” Shea said.

Plus, it affords her the ability to work at her own pace, she said. “Traditional classroom learning needs to meet the needs of the majority of the class. If I find I am grasping the material quickly and want to move on, or find the material more challenging and need to repeat a component, I can do what I need to get the most out of the material.”

People like Shea make up much of the online learning market, but younger students are also starting to sign up, Brady said. “Our initial target audience is people ages 25 to mid 40s — working professionals who want to incorporate their studies into their busy lives. But, we are seeing a younger audience using it to accelerate their degree, and lifelong learners use it to continue their education,” she said.

The flexibility of online learning does not mean that online learning is easier.

“The standard misperception about online learning is that you are on your own, and that it will be so much easier, but that is not the case. It is very interactive, and is similar to a regular semester course with deadlines, assignments to turn in and discussion boards to participate in. Students even make presentations online. It is no day at the beach,” Macaulay said.

That is reflected in the tuition, where there is no difference in cost between online or in class courses.