College: online or not?

I was driving my sixteen-year-old son into Williamsburg tonight (actually, being driven by him, a different and altogether more terrifying experience) when I heard this story on Marketplace:

KAI RYSSDAL: Last year, we reported, along with ProPublica, on some of the high-pressure recruiting tactics that are being used at for-profit colleges, like at the biggest one, the University of Phoenix.

BRANDON BURKE: One thing we would be told to do is call up a student who was on the fence and say, “All right, I’ve only got one seat left. I need to know right now if you need me to save this for you.” Well, that wasn’t true.

It turns out the federal government been looking into recruiting and student debt loads at some of those for-profit schools as well.

Oddly enough, I had just spent a frustrating hour on the University of Phoenix website, trying to figure out how to garner a little more information on its offerings without actually registering for a “Would you like more information?” sales pitch. (More on that shortly.) I’d also paid virtual visits to Kaplan University, Ashford University, Westwood University, FloridaTechOnline, and a handful of others.

There were two reasons for this–I was looking for a meteorology course for my thirteen-year-old and was striking out on the high school level, so I thought I’d try introductory college courses instead. (Not much luck, incidentally, so if you have suggestions, please post them.) Also, I’d just the previous week given my Preparing for College workshop in Richmond–and had fielded a bunch of inquiries later about online college. Wasn’t this a great option for home educators? Isn’t it a natural extension of the home education experience?

I’m not anti-technology in the slightest. I am the proud owner of four websites, three Macs, two blogs, and a Kindle. But I’m not a fan of the online college option. There are six pieces of advice I’d give to anyone considering online higher education, and if you take them I think you’re likely to decide against this option for your high school senior.

1. Look for accreditation.

Any online school that takes tuition in exchange for college credit should be accredited through Middle States, the Southern Association, the Western Association, or another of the six regional accreditation associations.

Not all bricks-and-mortar schools that recruit home schoolers are accredited either, but I’d make this an absolute non-negotiable if I were picking a school for my kid.

Why does accreditation matter? aren’t we educational rebels, after all?

Not when I’m writing a check for $10,000+, I’m not. I’m sure great education can happen in unaccredited classrooms, but if I’m shelling out that amount of tuition, I want my kid to have a fighting chance of transferring those credits or attending grad school–and that’s not going to happen with an unaccredited transcript.

2. Distinguish for-profit schools from online branches of established universities.

For-profit schools such as Kaplan, Phoenix, DeVry and others were founded for the sole purpose of earning money. That doesn’t mean the education is automatically worse–but it does mean that its representatives are far more likely to be overselling the quality that’s present. A for-profit school doesn’t turn down unqualified students; it collects their tuition. Classes full of unqualified students tend towards the mean. I speak as an instructor: when you have a higher percentage of unprepared student, the intellectual level of the entire class drops.

These schools have also been garning a reputation as ruthless marketers. Another Marketplace piece highlighted the problem, quoting a few prospective students:

KATHERINE CLARK: They were very persistent.

TERESA BARRON: She called me every day.

DANIEL RAY: I legitimately got three or four calls a day for about two weeks until I finally talked to him.

Katherine Clark, Teresa Barron, and Daniel Ray are just three of the many students around the country who tell a similar story. They’ve been hounded by enrollment counselors from for-profit colleges. Anyone familiar with the sales profession will recognize some of their hard-sell tactics.

That’s the experience I had; last year, I filled out “more information” cards for several for-profit online schools, just trying to find out what the process was like since I’d gotten inquiries from parents of home-educated teens. They emailed, wrote, and called at night, on Sunday morning, during dinner. I seriously thought I was going to have to change my phone number. Or enter the Witness Protection Program.

3. Remember that online schools are cash cows for the established universities as well.

While established universities aren’t nearly as bad about hunting down possible enrollees, they still don’t apply the same standards to online students as to regular on-campus students. My cautions about the level of difficulty are the same.

4. Realize that most online schools are professional colleges, not liberal arts institutions.

Marketplace calls these schools “career colleges,” and it’s a good name; they offer very specific, limited narrow training in particular skills. There’s a place for that sort of education, of course, but I think it is better suited to older students who need a degree to progress further in the career they’ve already chosen–or older students who’ve already had life and work experience and know what they want to do. Younger students should be given the opportunity to take a wider spectrum of classes and spend more time in exploration and discover.

5. Consider the value of an intellectual community.

I’ve always thought college-at-home was a poor option for one major reason: you don’t develop an intellectual community. Much of the value of a college education comes as you interact with the ideas and experiences of others–both your peers and your professors. A college education is intended to introduce you to a whole new world. When you stay at home, you may glance through the window at a whole new world, but you don’t ever join it.

Which is related to my last point…

6. Don’t overprotect.

At-home and online college education is an extension of the home education experience…but home education should also come to a natural end. Isn’t our goal to raise adults who will leave that experience and strike out on their own?

Experiences or thoughts to share? Please do.

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21 Responses to College: online or not?

  1. Brandy says:

    You have some great points here! Thanks for addressing this subject. I loved point #6. So true!

  2. Yes! It should end. Period. I’m raising adults, not perpetual children.

    Our (bright, motivated) son is doing the online college thing to get his BA in English and jump through those hoops quickly- it’s alongside other courses he’s taking as his senior year (finishing high school French, photography). He wants to do a gap year when the BA is done- he’ll probably be 19 or so. He’s been offered an amazing internship opportunity in the film industry in Southern CA that means he’ll drop everything for the period of the internship and then get back to the BA. It’s unconventional, it’s quirky, but it fits him and he wants to get on with his masters. Since he can’t decide what that should be (he’s 17, for heavens sake, and we’re not pressuring him to decide), he’s looking very forward to both the internship and the gap year.

    I always appreciate you, Susan. We read the first WTM when it was fresh off the press and I so value your perspective and wisdom. Love following your son’s gap year, love seeing all the possibilities. And my point in all this rambling is that I do think online college can be a viable option. I don’t believe it’s the best/only/godly option as some have been trying to sell it, though. Good grief.

  3. CaptiousNut says:

    “College: online or not?”

    How about *neither*! I wasn’t schooled in logic but I’m sure a classical study of it touches upon what I refer to as a false dichotomy.

    BTW, establishment attacks on for-profit education are a decade-old, at least. The NY Times and its ilk, traditional colleges and universities, and their apparatchiks in Big Government have been hassling the likes of the University of Phoenix for quite some time. Beyond the frequent negative news articles, this cartel has even mobilized the SEC to molest the online and for-profits schools about their accounting. Needless to say, it’s not easy running a business with the strong arm of the law always looking over your shoulder!

    Of course Susan’s critique is sourced and well-balanced – “these schools have their place”. But still, I think some historical and philosophical context is warranted here.

    So what if UPhoenix puts a hard sell on after a potential customer expresses some interest? Is that any worse than the insidious, long-term propagandistic onslaught – “grades, SATs, and a college degree are MANDATED for access to the good life” – that children are born into and subject to for 20+ years of their life? I think not. In fact it pales in severity and in consequences.

    Without defending these upstart online schools…

    I’ll take anything that’s motivated by profit and willing buyers and sellers over that which subsists entirely upon cultivated ignorance and taxpayer largesse.

    If these schools are taking advantage of anything, it’d just be the opportunity offer something to a population of young people ill-prepared for adult life (and self-directed education!) by this horrible, failed *system*.

    • Leah says:

      Captious Nut, I have to disagree with you. Just because online universities succeed in running in the same manner that businesses do (without the assistance of tax dollars, etc. ) doesn’t mean the product they offer is worthwhile. There are plenty of lousy products out there that sell well. When the education and future of my child is at stake I want to know that they have standards for their students! These for-profit schools it seems often don’t. All they care about is that their customers/students have the money to pay the tuition.

      Particularly in this economic environment, I think having a quality college education can make a huge difference. It’s not that you can’t succeed without a college education. But I believe that people who do not have a college education are at a serious disadvantage.

  4. Renee says:

    For meteorology, try looking for an introductory course in physical geography. When I took the course from South Dakota State University (on campus, not online), they used the book, “Physical Geography: Science and Systems of the Human Environment” by Alan and Arthur Strahler. Part 2 of the book is specifically Weather and Climate Systems. I have an older addition of the book, but you might want to check out this one:

    I hope that helps.

  5. Katie says:

    FYI: There is a high school meteorology class offered by BYU Independent Studies. I don’t know how rigorous the class is, since my children haven’t done any on-line classes at this point. If you are interested, here’s the link:

  6. Megan says:

    This is a site for an online school done by the National Weather Service. And it’s free!

  7. Megan says:

    I didn’t know how the site would post the website. Here it is again.

  8. I did a physical geography course from University of Oklahoma a few years ago and it did include quite a bit on the interactions between physical geography and weather. It was one of their undergraduate science offerings.

  9. Stacy says:

    Thomas Edison State University (NJ) has been around forever and is nonprofit. They do offer undergraduate degrees in liberal arts. They’re also quite reasonably priced.

    I finished my B.A. via TES and am currently working on a Masters via Rutgers (on campus).

  10. Tina says:

    The Teaching Company has a new course on meteorology that I’m considering for my 13 year old. It’s on sale right now for $69 on DVD.

    Here’s the link:

    Hope this helps.

  11. Mad Jenny Flint says:

    Good points to consider, Susan. I agree completely- but I did get a little knot in my stomach thinking about the fact that there are some people out there who use many of those same arguments about homeschooling high school. Any thoughts? What’s the difference, in your mind?

  12. Meredith says:

    My husband suggested “Great Courses”. He has used some of the history programs that they offer. They have a few for meteorology. There is no college credit, but he said that their content is wonderful.
    By the way, thank you so much for “The Well-Trained Mind”. My daughter is five and we are beginning to homeschool in August! I am so happy that I found your book when I did. My husband has two degrees in history and about to begin his Ph.D., so he was thrilled about the idea of classical education!

  13. Michelle in AL says:

    While they don’t have meteorology, I thought I’d mention one valid option we’ve found for other college classes. I do agree that students need to move up and out, but some students are ready to handle some college classes while in high school and this is the route we’ve chosen.

    My daughter will be taking classes from University of Alabama through their early college program:

    You do have to take a 4 week intro class which familiarizes students with the online system and seems to be very easy, requiring about 1 hr work per week. This class will be availabe this summer online (previously you had to go to US for an intro session). The other classes should be on par with what UA offers to their college students. All credits should transfer to wherever UA credits would transfer. The director told us she polled 100 public and private universities to see if credits would transfer and all but 98 schools said they would transfer without difficulty.

    As this is our first experience with them, I can’t speak to the quality yet. There is a scholarship, which I think everybody gets, which lowers the cost of classes to about $380/3 credit course.

    • sandra says:

      “The director told us she polled 100 public and private universities to see if credits would transfer and all but 98 schools said they would transfer without difficulty.”

      Um- 2 out of 100 schools would accept transfer or 98 out of 100 would accept transfer?

  14. Theresa says:

    When our community college administrators met with faculty to discuss the facility needs for the next 10 years I asked administration if any “expert” had offered an idea of the college environment 10 years from now. The answer is no one really knows what will be the impact of technology on the college experience 10 years from now. Other administrators and I strongly suspect our children will finish high school and then turn on their laptop or iPad and begin college. Their intellectual community will be online rather than in person since this is the most common mode of social interaction for the new generations. This change will be encouraged by state colleges and universities faced with budget constraints and the inability to raise funds for new facilities.

    An internal study at our institution showed our students performed best with hybrid classes. Hybrid courses offer part of the content online and part in a traditional classroom. For example, instead of a student attending class Monday and Wednesday for 1.5 hours, the student only attends class on Monday. During this campus time the student may take an exam, participate in a discussion or case study and, if required by the course, complete lab. During the rest of the week the student is responsible for online lectures, assignments and discussions.

    As I mentioned in an earlier blog, as college prices rise in a faltering economy, parents and students will continue to look for more cost effective alternatives to complete their college education. Hybrid or online courses offered by an accredited state college or university may allow people to save their college dollars for tuition and fees rather than spending them on room and board, as well as freeing up time to work and earn money for next semester’s tuition.

    I would also like to say that I am very excited about homeschooling my oldest with the Well Trained Mind this year. This week I sat in the ballet studio lobby designing my curriculum plan and several other mothers asked for more information about your book. Some had considered the idea of homeschooling themselves and others said their children had begged them to do so. Maybe I will have others join me in this adventure this year!

  15. GVA says:

    I’ve been a community college professor and homeschool parent for over a decade now, and I agree with you completely. It is very disturbing to me that “voices” in the homeschooling community are advocating online degrees without any knowledge of the relative quality and actual marketability of those degrees.

    In my experience teaching online and taking online courses, it’s hard to do well, and most colleges really don’t have the $ and time to do it well. Frankly two of the very worst classes I’ve ever taken were online ones where the material was NOT adjusted to that media, the professors were largely unavailable (one gave me an “A” without ever grading the last month of assignments), and I felt very isolated and confused most of the time. One study I read said that it takes at least three times as much effort to put together a solid online course versus a classroom. How many colleges can make sure that happens in every online course? Some online courses are indeed very good, but when they’re bad, they’re way worse than a classroom section.

    And employers have told me that they are fine with hiring someone with a for-profit, online degree IF they have the job experience to back it up. Hiring someone from those schools with no experience is an entirely different matter, and I’ve heard that graduate schools are wary of this type of student as well.

    I won’t rule it out completely because it is indeed an area that is improving, but I can’t forsee heading my kids to an entirely-online program at this point. I’ve invested so much in them homeschooling, and then I’m going to invest in an iffy college degree?

  16. LanaTron says:

    Mad Jenny Flint: I don’t know about the difference in Susan’s mind, but it is different for me because of the age and maturity level of the students in high school vs. college. I know not all college-age students are mature, but I imagine that my son will be more mature at 18 than he is now at 14.

    But the biggest consideration for me is the type of institution, and how much freedom of choice we have. My family cannot afford private school, so if my children went to high school, we would have very few options: the public school that the government says they would go to, or the other public school nearby that has open enrollment. When I have looked at the requirements of those schools, my children (and I) would have very limited options as to their course of study, especially very few opportunities for “electives,” or personal interests. Also, we would have no choices such as choosing a school with smaller class sizes, or choosing an atmosphere that suits the student’s personality. With college, the student chooses the college based on his or her needs. And, unlike public high schools, the students are for the most part there because they want to be.

  17. James U says:

    I’m the co-founder of an accredited online high school. We built Williamsburg Academy partially on the philosophy of “The Well Trained Mind.” Thanks for all you are doing! Great article.

    Check us out.

  18. First, I disagree with the whole idea of a college education’s purpose being to make one marketable or employable.

    The goal of education should be the attainment of wisdom. The goal of Christian education should be the attainment of wisdom necessary for holiness and to equip one to further God’s kingdom. An individual’s pursuit of wisdom will depend on their time available to study, their aptitude for scholarship and (often) their financial capability.

    1. Agreed that online schools are too expensive. Liberal arts education should not be a means of enriching oneself. So if an inexpensive online school without accreditation came along, with excellent teachers and course offerings, you’d consider it?

    4. Most, but not all. I know of at least three online liberal arts education programs, one of which (Fr. Fessio/Ignatius) has a transferable credit sharing program with member universities.

    5. I think this is a valid point. Face-to-face dialog should happen regularly. But it doesn’t need to be daily or require one to live on campus. I think the advantages of affordability and accessibility of an online liberal arts college far outweigh the disadvantage of not being in a close-knit physical intellectual community.

    6. The phrase “striking out on one’s own” really bothers me. It’s an assumption that most Americans share; at 18 the young man or woman is expected to be on their own, out of the house and no longer responsible to their parents and likewise the parents now end their obligation to the child. Is this the ideal of family life we see in the bible? Sons were often sent out for a specific time and purpose–for work, for war, for education(but not any daughters that I can think of); but you could make a better argument that unmarried adult children should return home after college than that college should be the launchpad to independent living. And adult children of both sexes did not leave the family home until marriage, if then. Maybe your comments didn’t mean to imply all that, but I think #6, as stated, is a weak reason for going away to college.

  19. Yvonne in AL says:

    My son and I looked into the high school meteorology course offered through the University of Oklahoma. We ended up ordering the text and doing the course ourselves, but I would have enrolled him in the class if we had been able to afford the tuition.

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