More students seek degree online: Working, career-hopping adults drawn by flexible degree format

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ITT Educational Services Inc. may nearly double by the end of this year the number of degree programs it offers entirely through online instruction as the school seeks to enroll students who can’t make class because of work or family obligations.

Six online bachelor degree programs and two online associate degree programs are in various stages of regulatory and accreditation review, according to the Carmel-based technical education provider, which has 38,800 students enrolled at schools in 28 states.

President and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Modany declined to identify the offerings until reviews are completed.

Currently, ITT offers 11 online degrees ranging from an associate’s in criminal justice to an MBA. Online programs are still in the “bottom end of single digits” of ITT’s overall enrollment, Modany added.

But ITT is trying to substantially grow its online offerings. The company recently dedicated 30,000 square feet at its Carmel headquarters to help support the segment.

“We are optimistic for the growth prospect of our online schools … . We’re ramping up from an investment perspective,” Modany said.

Most of ITT’s online programs involve a hybrid version of online learning, in which students take two courses on campus and one course online. Online offerings at ITT-mostly hybrid programs-have grown dramatically: from 900 students in mid-2003 to 12,500 in early 2004, according to an analyst report by SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.

Wall Street has looked favorably at online offerings as a way to help private educational institutions boost enrollment without proportionate increases in brick-and-mortar costs.

But Modany said a trend toward working adults’ changing careers has driven interest in the purely online programs as well. “Flexibility is something that is very attractive to our audience … . A lot of our students are career changers.”

Among them is Tosha Burnside, an Indianapolis mother of two who is working on an associate’s degree in criminal justice from ITT. Her husband even brought her laptop to the hospital as she prepared to give birth to their second child so she could complete her homework.

Burnside, a 30-something who worked previously in banking and hopes to land a job in financial fraud investigations, previously attended class at a campus setting. Now, commuting and finding a babysitter would be a hassle. She devotes 10 to 15 hours a week to her studies and said she can work ahead if she has extra time.

“If I’m up in the middle of the night, I can post my homework right then,” she said. “I love it.”

Public universities that target fast-growing career fields have also embraced online degrees. Educators say they really don’t know how many online degree programs are offered statewide. But among the first to offer one was Ball State University, which in the late-1990s offered a master’s in nursing that is completely online except for clinical hours that require work at a medical facility.

At least 415 of Ball State’s full-timeequivalent students are taking courses entirely online, said Frank Sabatine, interim associate provost and dean of the School of Extended Education.

Last month, Indiana State University launched an online program allowing licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree entirely online, except for clinical hours. ISU said it’s had hundreds of inquiries for the program, but has had to limit enrollment to just 20 students per semester because of a nursing faculty shortage.

So far, ISU has 11 bachelor’s, six master’s and one doctorate degree (technology management) that can be earned nearly entirely online.

There is no distinction on students’ transcripts or diplomas that the degrees were earned online, said Melissa Hughes, ISU’s director of distance support services. “This learning method is really a fact of life.”

Courses taught entirely online tend to vary widely in format, depending on preference of instructors. Some courses are delivered via PowerPoint and are overlaid with audio. Some use streaming video of lectures. Some permit interaction via a live chat with professors or through a discussion board in which other class members can interact.

“I’ve had classmates who are in Utah and California. It’s really cool,” Burnside said.

While such formats can be an introvert’s dream, critics of online learning say some students can suffer a sense of isolation. Students also have complained about a lag time between input and feedback. Lack of classroom interaction may also stifle critical thinking skills and require students to muster more self-discipline.

Sabatine noted that there is already an online component in most classroom-based instruction. In what would confound anyone earning a degree in the 1980s or earlier, most faculty now have Web pages where students can get input and view test scores online. Increasingly technology-savvy, students “almost expect a lot of Internet communication,” Sabatine said.

“Even on campus, students are expecting a lot more interaction,” he added.

A number of schools offer small packages of courses entirely online that help students complete prerequisites for an MBA. One such package at Ball State includes prerequisites in accounting, finance and human relations.

A recent move by Congress may stoke the fires of online-only education. Recently stripped from the federal budget bill was a requirement that colleges deliver at least half their courses on campus, rather than online, to qualify for federal student aid.

The restriction was put into place during the early 1990s out of concern that trade schools would crank out diplomas to mine student loans.

The end of the restriction could unleash a wave of competition from all-online universities, Sabatine said.

The move doesn’t directly affect ITT because it offers less than 10 percent of its courses online, Modany said. But, “it would have been a limiting factor to our growth. It basically takes another barrier out of the way.”

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