Penn State's World Campus ranked top in nation
Nearly two decades since it began with 44 students, Penn State's online education program, known as the World Campus, boasted an enrollment many colleges would envy this fall — 10,805 students.
In May, World Campus students earned 164 associate degrees, 718 bachelor's degrees and 1,030 master's degrees.
Now, U.S. News & World Report has ranked it No. 1 in the nation in online undergraduate education. The survey looked at 1,200 degree-granting programs offered entirely or largely online.
Pioneered by the military and for-profit schools, online college courses have become a way of life. Department of Education reports estimate as many as 5.4 million college students took at least one course online in 2012.
Fully online programs have grown dramatically in recent years as colleges expanded their offerings.
At Robert Morris University in Moon, online enrollment ballooned from 73 students in the fall of 2010 to 709 for fall 2014.
Supporters cite improving technology, cost and convenience among the factors boosting the growth of such programs among adult learners and traditional campus students.
Criteria considered in the new ranking included a program's faculty credentials, its reputation among its academic peers and employers who hire graduates, the level of student support services and how faculty and students interact.
Two public universities, Daytona State College in Florida and the University of Illinois at Chicago, ranked second and third for undergraduate online programs.
Craig Weidemann, Penn State vice president for outreach and vice provost for online programs, said the land-grant school looked at three factors when it started the World Campus in 1998.
“We found there was great interest in Penn State degrees among adult learners in Pennsylvania and around the world. This was an opportunity to provide a degree at a distance, explore innovations in pedagogy and expand access, which is one of our core tenets as a land-grant institution,” Weidemann said.
Pittsburgh native Lori O'Neill, a mother of two who now lives in Northern Virginia, viewed it as the best way to advance her career prospects.
O'Neill finished her undergraduate program in three years. In December, she collected a degree in energy and sustainability policy with a 4.0 grade average.
“People can't go into it and think it's going to be easy. It's not,” O'Neill said.
But she's optimistic Penn State's reputation and its far-flung alumni network will be an advantage as she works to grow her business.
In many ways, she is typical of that far-flung student body enrolled in the World Campus. School officials said the average undergraduate is about 32, while graduate students' average age is 35.
While universities view online education as a growth area, some academics question its value.
It's hard to replicate the learning experience that goes on in a face-to-face venue, said Martin Kich, professor of English at Wright State University in Ohio and president of the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
But Kich, who has taught online classes for a decade and a half along with his face-to-face classes, understands the appeal of such classes among students struggling to control costs.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org