Universities just starting to tap huge online degree market

Nicole Traore always wanted to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree, but the 45-year-old mother of three busy boys has a full-time job and no extra time in her schedule to take classes on a college campus.

degreeThen her husband heard about a first-of-its-kind online program at the University of Washington that offers students who already have completed some college a route to a bachelor’s degree, entirely online and for a little more than half the tuition price.

Traore investigated. “It looked amazing,” she said. And she enrolled.

Public and private colleges and community colleges have offered an extensive lineup of online degrees for years now. The UW degree program Traore is taking — a bachelor’s degree in early childhood and family studies — is the first time the state’s largest and most prestigious university has offered an all-online bachelor’s completion degree.

The program will cost students $160 per credit, which is the equivalent of $7,000 for a year of full-time study — several thousand less than the UW now charges for in-state students working on their undergraduate degrees.

More online offerings in other subjects are expected to follow.

The potential market is huge. Statewide, the UW estimates that about 900,000 adults started college or earned an associate degree at a community college but never earned a four-year degree.

The UW degree-completion program is one new entry in the rapidly changing field of online education, which is becoming a bigger slice of the business for Washington’s two major state universities.

This month, Washington State University, which has vigorously promoted its catalog of online degree offerings under the name WSU Global Campus, earned top marks for several of its programs in U.S. News & World Report’s third rating of the best online degree programs in the country. (The UW didn’t participate in the survey.)

In the past year, enrollment in WSU Global Campus has grown 20 percent.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 5.5 million students took at least one online course in 2012, and that number is expected to grow.

One report puts the number at more than 7 million students and predicts that more than half of all students will take at least one online course within five years.

Meanwhile, in the past year, free online courses — once considered a force that could reshape higher education — have lost some of their luster. Increasingly, academic leaders are questioning whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) are sustainable, because they don’t lead to a degree and cost the university money.

Opens doors

But traditional bachelor’s degree programs taught in novel ways, using the latest technology and online instruction, are a growing field.

Traore, a family-service worker at a state-funded preschool program in Mukilteo, was one of 54 students who enrolled in the UW degree-completion program this fall.

She has an associate degree and many years of work experience in early childhood education, mostly through ECEAP — Early Childhood Education Assistance Program — which is similar to Head Start, serving low-income children and their families.

“For me, it’s about changing the way I see things,” Traore said about earning a bachelor’s degree at the age of 45. “I’m trying to be able to support families (in the ECEAP program) in a better way. And, it’s personal because I always wanted to get my bachelor’s degree.

“But, of course, it opens doors,” she added. “I’m not planning on going anywhere, because I love my job and I love what I do. But if my job wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be worried. I’d be confident.”

Part of her coursework includes taking videos of herself as she teaches students in the ECEAP preschool program, trying out various concepts she’s learned through online lectures, then posting her videos for feedback from instructors and from two of her peers.

Traore thinks she and her fellow students have more communication and conversation than she had while getting her associate degree in-person at a community college. “You’re not really as guarded — you’re online, you’re just this name,” she said. “You get to talk about your deep thoughts, and really share.”

To be considered for admission, students must have completed at least 70 college credits and meet some other requirements, including a 2.5 college grade-point average.

The early childhood education program sets the stage for a bachelor’s degree in social sciences the UW hopes to offer in fall 2014. The social-sciences degree is expected to appeal to a much wider audience — perhaps 800 or more students after a few years.

It’s getting a close look from the UW Faculty Council on Academic Standards, which has put the program up for review for faculty members at all three of the UW’s campuses.

UW faculty wants to make sure the programs meet UW standards, said Patricia Kramer, an associate professor of anthropology and head of the faculty council.

“We want to make this something that people in a nontraditional setting can get their arms around,” she said. “We value this experience so much that we want to make sure we don’t water it down.”

Global Campus

Meanwhile, at WSU, the university’s Global Campus enrollment has grown from 1,800 students last spring to 2,200 students this spring — most of those students from the west side of the state.

WSU has offered bachelor’s degree completion programs for 20 years now, and four years ago it began offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs entirely online, said Dave Cillay, Global Campus vice president.

As at the UW, the WSU programs must go through a rigorous review process and be approved by the faculty; Cillay described it as “a very rigorous vetting of whether the course can be delivered online.”

WSU recently launched a bachelor’s in psychology, and master’s degrees in criminal justice and in strategic communications. All of WSU’s degree programs cost the same as the programs offered on campus.

©2014 The Seattle Times. Visit The Seattle Times at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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