There were 1.8 million students enrolled in for-profit schools in 2008, more than triple the 500,000 students enrolled in 1998, according to industry statistics.

The number of college students taking traditional face-to-face classes will plummet from 14.4 million in 2010 to 4.1 million in 2015, according to a report from research market firm Ambient Insight. And with the population of only-online students expected to triple during that time, so-called traditional learning will be level with online learning.

The research firm said the five-year spike in online college courses would owe, in part, “to the proliferation and success of for-profit online schools” such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which draw millions of students with flexible internet-based class schedules.

Even after the growth of online learning, some educators said even the emergence of an inexpensive online model wouldn’t be the solution to a higher education bubble fueled largely by high student debt.

“I don’t think you can beat the basic classroom and the interactions between professors and students,” said Betsy Sigman, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Face-to-face interaction between students and their professors is “important to the learning process and something that you just don’t get from an online situation.”

Traditional education will continue to draw students despite the proliferation of online options or the lingering concern that the job market isn’t friendly to recent graduates looking for their first job, Sigman said.

“You hear people say that their college years were the best of their lives, and you’re just not going to hear that from someone who spent four years in front of a computer,” she said.


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