Penn State, WVU, Robert Morris among schools realizing potential of online education
By Debra Erdley
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
When Penn State's World Campus debuted 15 years ago, few people could have predicted how popular the online degree option would become.
Enrollment in the online program is soaring as it declines at 11 of the university's traditional branch campuses: 11,984 students this year in World Campus, a 96 percent increase over the past five years and dramatically more than the 41 who enrolled in 1998.
“I don't think it's ever going to wipe out all the brick-and-mortar operations, but we've been growing at 20 percent a year for the last five years,” said Wayne Smutz, associate vice president for outreach and executive director of the World Campus. “We are the second-largest Penn State campus. No one would have thought that could ever happen.”
Online education, pioneered largely by for-profit colleges and the military, is making inroads across the nation as traditional colleges and universities recognize its potential.
Enrollment in Arizona State University's fully online programs has grown to more than 8,000 students in a little over three years, said spokesman Russ Knocke.
Enrollment in web-based coursework spiked at Robert Morris University in Moon from 66 students two years ago when it began tracking numbers to 489 this year.
“I think the sense is you can no longer offer a one-size-fits-all degree program, especially for adults,” said Robert Morris spokesman Jonathan Potts.
Schools that fail to recognize this risk missing a money-making proposition.
At Penn State, Smutz said the World Campus took in just under $80 million last year. He would not divulge the exact profit, saying only that the program made money during years when state subsidies to the university decreased.
Penn State's program draws instructors from the university's academic colleges. Part of the reason for its phenomenal growth is the opportunities it offers nontraditional students such as Steven Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, 44, the general manager of Upper St. Clair Country Club, juggles a full-time course load in business administration when not working.
“It's flexible, and it works with my schedule,” he said. “I made the dean's list for fall last year taking 15 credits.”
In fact, his success as an undergraduate persuaded him to aim for a master's in business administration through World Campus.
It's unclear how many students do as well as Gonzalez in the online school.
Last year, World Campus students earned 640 undergraduate degrees and 468 graduate degrees. University officials said 90 percent of students who enroll in the online program complete their classwork.
Yet the university, which has some of the highest six- and four-year graduation rates in the state, doesn't track graduation rates for online students. Because online students enroll at different points in their education, the university can't track them in the same manner, Smutz said.
Regardless of how students fare, there's little question that online education is a winning proposition for the university.
With government subsidies declining and fewer Pennsylvania high school students to attend traditional campuses, Penn State is tapping a growing market of adults who want degrees or certificates in one of 90 online programs it offers.
Other public colleges and universities also see potential in online course offerings.
“This is one of the ways they are making up for a lack of state funding,” said Martin Snyder, interim executive director of the American Association of University Professors, who teaches online courses for the University of Maryland's University College.
Still, the emphasis on online education has sparked concern among professors across the country, Snyder said.
There's no question the technology works, he said, but many professors worry that schools will recruit part-time faculty to increase online offerings.
“Some schools are doing it better than others,” Snyder said. “It's remarkably convenient for students, but done right, it's much more labor-intensive for professors than face-to-face classroom instruction.”
Like Penn State, West Virginia University, with online enrollment of 1,185 graduate students and 1,213 undergrads, boosted its web-based degree programs by offering in-state tuition as an incentive to online learners from other states. Officials there say about one-third of online students live outside of West Virginia.
At Penn State, 63 percent of World Campus students live outside Pennsylvania but pay $6,237 a semester — less than half of the $13,932 per semester that full-time, out-of-state undergraduate students pay to attend classes at University Park.
Though some say online learning can be an answer to the high cost of college, Penn State's World Campus has not attracted traditional undergrads ages 18-22. Instead, about 97 percent of its students are adults.
That does not surprise Gonzalez.
“You have to have some maturity. There's a lot of self-discipline to this,” he said, noting students must take advantage of professors' online office hours and communicate with other students through Skype, email or text messages.
At the same time, even students attending residential colleges appear to be at home with online learning. Forty-two percent of Penn State's residential undergraduates took at least one online class last year, Smutz said.
The average among Pennsylvania's 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education is slightly lower: 36 percent of 115,000 students took at least one online course last year. Many did so during summer break, while at home and working, said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall.
“For traditional students, it can be an option when two classes they need meet at the same time,” Marshall said.
Gonzalez believes the impact of technology on higher education will only grow.
“My two children are just entering high school now, and they may be taking a lot of their classes this way by the time they're ready for college,” he said.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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