Online Education Makes Huge Strides across Nation

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

Online Education Makes Huge Strides across Nation


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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. …

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