Online Education Growth Prompts Quality Concerns

The industry of online education has seen explosive growth in recent years. One reason is that Congress has quietly lifted a rule that limited the number of online students eligible for federal financial aid. But some worry that schools capitalizing on the increased demand may become online "diploma mills."

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The number of people taking college courses online is going up by nearly 20 percent a year. That number may grow even faster, now that Congress has lifted a rule that limited the number of online students eligible for federal financial aid. As Eric Niiler reports the change has some worried about the quality of online coursework.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

Like a lot of single mothers, 42-year-old Gwen Washington works a full day before taking care of her children.

Ms. GWEN WASHINGTON: I pick up my daughter from school, I cook dinner, I help her with her homework, make sure they had baths and showers, and that they get ready for bed.

NIILER: But after the kids are quiet, at about 9 p.m., she opens up a laptop and pulls up article about international finance. After twenty years as a secretary, Washington is now studying for an MBA through an online degree program at the University of Maryland.

Ms. WASHINGTON: So this is my homework on International Paper talking about their strategic stand, how they're diversified globally. This class focuses on globalization.

NILLER: Washington downloads assignments from a website, meets fellow students in electronic chat rooms and gets teacher feedback on e-mail. Because she supports her family single-handedly, studying at home is the only way she could pursue a diploma.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I wouldn't have even enrolled in under grad if it wasn't for learning about business education.

NILLER: Colleges around the country want students like Washington and they say there are lots more out there. Take for example little Bellevue University outside Omaha, Nebraska. In 1997 it started putting classes online for a few dozen students--mostly military personnel overseas.

Today, nearly half of Bellevue's 5,400 students never set foot on campus. That's just under limits set by Congress 13 years ago to prevent fraud by mail order correspondence schools. Last month, Congress eliminated the rule with a little known provision tucked into a budget bill. Bellevue provost Mary Hawkins says that's great news.

Ms. MARY HAWKINS (Provost, Bellevue University): It should help us out a lot, otherwise they're gonna have to start really monitoring and holding students back from choosing education the way they want.

NILLER: But some experts say changing the so-called 50/50 rule is not about helping students, but about helping colleges get more money.

Mr. STEVEN CROW (Executive Director, The Higher Learning Commission): By doing away with the 50/50 rule, you just opened up the possibility for more students to get at a pool of money for financial aid which did not grow.

NILLER: That's Steven Crow. He's director of the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission--a group that accredits more than 1,000 colleges across the country. Crow says there's a battle going on between non-profit and for-profit colleges. At stake is an estimated $700 million in new financial aid money that the government says online students could borrow over the next decade. That money has attracted entrepreneurs like Michael Clifford(ph), a San Diego investor who took over small colleges to expand their online courses. He says lifting the rule will allow his business to flourish.

Mr. MICHAEL CLIFFORD (Investor): As far as for-profits go, they cannot survive unless they turn out a high quality product and unless they meet all the regulatory standards. I think there is a group of people that feel they're gonna be sort of left behind because they have not taken the time to understand the Internet.

NILLER: But Barmak Nassirian disagrees. Nassirian is a lobbyist for the College Admissions group in Washington. He says students can be suckered into signing up for expensive classes that don't offer much in return.

Mr. BARMAK NASSIRIAN (Lobbyist; Associate Executive Director, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers): The Internet has a dark side. It reduces the cost of fraud that enables all manner of mischief that a university and a web page sort of look the same on the Internet.

NILLER: Nassirian worries that Congress rushed to remove an important break on old-fashioned diploma mills and, more recently, an online school that left more than 2,000 students stuck without degrees. He says Congress opened the online marketplace to for-profit schools without toughening online standards. Experts say that just as parents visit ivy-covered campuses before sending their kids off to college, online students must also do their homework. That means checking out class work and degree programs and perhaps even meeting professors and administrators face-to-face. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niller.

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