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GUY RAZ, host:

Here's a question, what's the largest university in North America? Ohio State? University of Texas? Even with more than 50,000 students at each, they're not even close to this one.

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Unidentified Man: One university understands how you live today and where you want to go tomorrow. University of Phoenix, thinking ahead.

RAZ: Most of the 400,000 students enrolled at the University of Phoenix take classes online. Very few have ever seen the main campus in Phoenix. The school is one of a growing number of for-profit universities. Universities that operate like publicly-traded corporations complete with listings on the stock exchanges. The quality of these schools has come under scrutiny by the Department of Education.

Anya Kamenetz, a reporter for Fast Company magazine, has written about the for-profit model. She says about 10 percent of students in America are now enrolled at these online universities.

Ms. ANYA KAMENETZ (Reporter, Fast Company; Author, "DIY U"): It's growing really under the radar. You know, these universities, the Kaplan Universities that arise, they don't fit what we think of as being higher education. And that's for a good reason.

A lot of them just don't have the same offerings that the traditional colleges do. You know, they obviously don't have independent research going on. They don't have the same extracurriculars. They don't have community service. But they're granting an increasing number of not only bachelor's degrees but actually advanced degrees. University of Phoenix certifies tens of thousands of teachers. They give MBAs.

And, you know, all of this is happening without a clear understanding in the part of the public, I think, of exactly what online education or for-profit education constitutes. It's a very different model. Their interests are different. The way that they operate is different, yet, it's not something that the public thinks of that comes to mind when we think of higher education.

RAZ: Well, is it substantially cheaper for a student to attend a school online than to go to a campus?

Ms. KAMENETZ: Well, no, it's not. You'd be surprised. A two-year degree at a for-profit college costs often significantly more than a public community college. And the cost for a four-year degree at a for-profit college is a little bit more to about the same as one at a public university.

The product is extremely different. And they don't really have to be cheaper. They have this flexibility to offer to working adults, to first-time students. The online attendance - the fact that you can attend on your own time is something that many public universities don't have the same offering.

RAZ: And, of course, you don't have sports teams, you don't have student newspapers, and all the extracurricular activities and actually institutional costs that other universities would have to consider, right?

Ms. KAMENETZ: Absolutely. I mean, some of these for-profits, it's a very interesting model. The Grand Canyon University is one that I'm really interested in. It was actually a takeover of an existing Christian university in Arizona. And they have maintained the campus as sort of a learning laboratory.

So the professors are there in campus teaching students. And on the campus, they have - they still have chapels because it's an old Christian university. They have a flag team and they have sports teams and they have even community service. And then for every student that's on the campus, there are 10 students online that are learning from the same curricula that are developed from the professors on the campus.

Those students, I understand, actually like to log on to the Grand Canyon University Web site and find out how the basketball team is doing and they log on to the live stream of Sunday chapel so they can participate virtually. So, many of the students will never set foot on that campus, they may be all around the world, but they are feeling that sense of virtual connection, which is I think an interesting model.

RAZ: That's Anya Kamenetz. She's a staff writer for Fast Company magazine and author of the forthcoming book called "DIY U."

Anya Kamenetz, thank you so much.

Ms. KAMENETZ: Thank you.

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