PALO ALTO, Calif. - On-line education took big steps in the past two weeks, as Stanford became the first major research university to offer an advanced degree completely on line, and Virginia's Regent University announced it has won approval from the American Bar Association to offer the world's first all-virtual law degree.
Stanford's on-line program includes 30 courses leading to a master's degree in electrical engineering. The school's aim is to let working professionals earn advanced degrees without leaving their homes or job sites. That will also be the intent of the Regent program leading to a master of law degree, designed to create experts in international tax law.
"We are going to give people in industry the same courses as if they were here on campus," said John Hennessey, dean of Stanford's engineering school, consistently rated among the top three in the nation. "They will see exactly the same thing as the people sitting in the classroom live."
"There's a crying need for this kind of thing in contemporary society," said Kathleen Reid Martinez, director of Regent's Center for Leadership Studies, which also offers advanced organizational studies degrees with little or no on-campus time.
Mr. Hennessey said Stanford has planned for years to offer advanced degree programs by computer. But a lack of money kept it from providing the full range of courses needed for a master's program. The problem was solved by a $450,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which will cover most startup costs for the first two years of the program. Stanford expects the on-line master's to be self-supporting after that.
"Students learning this way will experience the same rigor, the same up-to-date treatment of material as they would right on campus," Mr. Hennessey said.
They will also pay higher tuition than normal students: On-line courses will cost $959 per unit, while the tab for regular on-campus classes is $633 per unit. Master's degree students normally must complete about 45 units.
The on-line credits are more expensive because on-campus classes are partly subsidized by the university's copious endowment. Since employers will pay the tuition for about 95 percent of on-line students, Stanford feels it can charge them the full costs of the classes. Among companies paying employee tuition this fall will be General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and Boeing.
At Regent, students in the new half-time, two-year law program will pay $15,000 if they are U.S. citizens and $20,000 if they carry foreign passports. The seven current enrollees - all living and working abroad - pay their own tuition. ABA regulations require them to spend between one and two weeks in person with faculty during their studies.
Regent is making itself more available to would-be students who cannot relocate to its main Virginia Beach campus by building a branch in Northern Virginia. University officials are looking at various parcels, including a lot near the King Street metro in Alexandria.
Other schools offer more than 30 other degree programs by computer, ranging from nursing diplomas at some California State University campuses to bachelor's degrees arranged by several regional college consortiums. …