Logging on to college

A person clicks on a computer mouse

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Tess Vigeland: This week, regents for the nation's largest public university system delivered some bad news to high school seniors.

The California State University system says it's cutting 10,000 spots from its 23 campuses. Its sister system, the UC schools, warned it may have to limit freshman enrollment next fall if the state continues to cut funding for schools. Even the Ivy Leagues have announced hiring freezes and budget cuts.

But for one sector of the higher education universe enrollments are booming, in part because they're easier on students' bottom lines.

Mitchell Hartman reports from the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting.


Mitchell Hartman: I'm in Kim Read's classroom. OK, actually, I'm in Kim Read's kitchen, which is just one of the rooms around the house where she works on her degree. Online. Whenever she can.

Kim Read: It's little spurts. The most I have is three hours. There's one day a week I have three hours. Other times it's anything from half an hour to an hour.

Read is 36. She has three kids, one still in diapers. She gives piano lessons, she sings with a band, and this fall, she started a full-time masters program through Emporia State University in Kansas. She wants to be a librarian.

In this distance-learning program, she meets with fellow students in Portland one weekend a month. She does the rest of her work by computer.

Read: I had tried some traditional graduate programs and I wasn't impressed enough to make that commitment of driving downtown three, four, five times a week, figuring out child care at all different hours, and everything clicked with this program.

Students like Kim Read have pushed online enrollments up 20 percent a year on average since 2002. A report from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation finds that nearly one in four students do some classes online.

Elaine Allen heads up research at Babson College in Boston. She's co-author of that Sloan Foundation study. She says schools report enrollments rising even faster than expected this year.

Elaine Allen: Upwards of three-quarters of them say that students choose to take an online course because they're either being downsized or they're unemployed and this is a way to improve their job skills or because fuel costs are so high, they don't want to drive to campus.

Not many of Dan Viele's students drive to class. Viele directs online programs at Webster University in St. Louis. He says web-based programs appeal to mature students who have to find a way to balance study with paying the bills. But, he says, don't mistake convenience and easy access for just plain easy.

Dan Viele: The difference in online is that that class will begin perhaps Monday morning and it will continue to Sunday night and during that week there'll be multiple interactions between the students in the class and the instructor with discussion topics, with assignments, with quizzes and assessment activities.

Viele has an eclectic mix of students. The Japanese doctor who started an MBA degree in San Diego, but could only finish it back in Japan by doing it online...

Viele: In that same class I had the wife of a military serviceman who was stationed in Bogota, Columbia, but I also had a marketing vice president from Heineken in the Netherlands and the rest were scattered around the U.S., many of which were out of the military installations.

Online education isn't for everyone, of course. Dan Viele says you have to be disciplined to keep up with the work. Maybe that's why attrition rates are higher among online students. And, he says, for students who are struggling, math-heavy subjects like finance and accounting are often better taught in person.

Kim Read says she really likes people and misses the buzz of interacting with her fellow students face-to-face, but she sees the upside:

Read: I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a decent job when I'm done and I don't have to start paying my loans until six months after I graduate and my loans are subsidized so I feel pretty good about it.

And she's got time to let the current economic turmoil play itself out. She won't be knocking on library doors for a job until at least 2010.

In Portland, I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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