Getting An Education On The Internet For Americans looking to get a college degree, online education is one way to side-step tuition fees and demanding lecture schedules. Education experts explain why thousands of Americans are logging on to web seminars and online courses.

Getting An Education On The Internet

Getting An Education On The Internet

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For Americans looking to get a college degree, online education is one way to side-step tuition fees and demanding lecture schedules. Education experts explain why thousands of Americans are logging on to web seminars and online courses.


Kevin Carey, policy director for the Education Center
Marc Parry, reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Neal Conan is away. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

If you tuned into your conversation on recent politics, we had to move that show to another day but we'll keep you posted once we have a firm date.

Today, we're talking about the next generation of online education. In a tight job market, a college degree has become even more valuable. But not everyone has the time or the money to spend four years in a dorm for a brand name BA. So, thousands of Americans are logging onto Web seminars and taking Internet classes instead. Online education has become a way to side-step exorbitant tuition fees and (unintelligible) lecture schedules. Meanwhile brick and mortar universities, already bleeding money from endowments and donations, stand to lose millions. Today, online education and how it's changing the experience of higher education?

Later in the hour, your life in the recession we will look at new data from U.S. census on the way we live today, but first, online education. If you're pursuing or working in online education, what is your experience? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our Email address is And you can join the conversation on our Web site, go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Kevin Carey. He is policy director for Education Center, an education sector think tank here in Washington. He wrote the article, "College for $99 a Month" for Washington Monthly magazine. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. KEVIN CAREY (Policy Director, Education Center): Hi.

ROBERTS: So, is this a one-way trend? Do you think online education will ultimately replace brick and mortar education?

Mr. CAREY: I don't think it will replace brick and mortar education. I think some of our most famous universities, Harvard, for example - it was around 200 years ago, it will probably be around…

ROBERTS: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAREY: …two hundred fifty years from now. I do think we're going to see a large increase, however, in the number and percent of students who go to college online. Already 20 percent of all college students take at least one online class, about 1 in 10 take exclusively online classes and those numbers are growing.

ROBERTS: You write in the Washington Monthly that Ivy League institutions like Harvard are going to always attract an audience because they offer something that people are willing to pay for. That the institutions more at risk from following the model of newspapers everywhere and being overtaken by new media, are sort of less prestigious private universities or run-off-the-mill public institutions.

Mr. CAREY: I think that's right. Exclusive institutions offer a brand name, they offer social networking. Exclusivity never goes out of style. I think it is the - the regional institution, sort of the equivalent of the struggling regional newspaper that don't have those big endowments, that don't - don't have the luxury of rejecting nine students for every one that they accept. They are the ones that are really in danger because online higher education is much less expensive than brick and mortar education. Some of the companies that are involved in this have been able to really drive costs down by only offering classes in - inexpensive introductory courses. And that's an important distinction to make.

I don't think anyone thinks that a, you know, very high quality graduate seminar taught by a learned scholar, that that really - that experience can be replaced on the Internet. But - but millions and millions of students take college algebra every year, they take calculus, they take Econ 101, they take accounting classes. Those are commodity classes, basically. They are taught the same everywhere. They don't cost all that much to offer. And right now, colleges themselves are making lots of money on those classes. If you think about what a college costs right now, they're taking freshmen and herding them 300 or 400 a time into a big lecture hall, charging them the same price that they charge for senior seminars and basically using the profits from the one to subsidize the other.

ROBERTS: Which, of course, is the direct conflict, right? I mean, the very courses that are cheap and easy to offer online are the - are the ones that are a cash cow for brick and mortar schools.

Mr. CAREY: That's exactly right. So, just - just as newspapers have been able to subsidize a - say expensive foreign bureaus, by making a lot of money by selling local classified ads. So too, have universities been able to subsidize expensive graduate program, faculty scholarship, by offering a - profitable introductory classes. If - if online companies go after that one profitable part of the business, it's going to be tough for universities to thrive.

ROBERTS: Do online companies make money?

Mr. CAREY: Well, they're certainly growing. I mean - I mean there has been a huge change in the nature of - of - for-profit higher education over the last 10 or 15 years. It used to be mostly local, mom and pop places, job training, that kind of thing. Now, increasingly for-profit education is being - is being dominated by large publicly-traded companies like the University of Phoenix. Kaplan University, which of course, owns the Washington Post. You know, these are companies that now enroll hundreds of thousands of students a year, increasingly online. You know, they are publicly traded, are profitable, making money absolutely.

ROBERTS: And who are students by and large?

Mr. CAREY: It's a mix of students. Certainly for-profit companies have gone after the - the biggest growth part of the higher education market, which his non-traditional students. We already have, you know, most - the idea of, you know, 18 year olds graduating from high school, get in mom and dad's van, drive to college, set-up in a dorm. You still have a lot of people who are doing that. But if you look at where higher education is growing, it's people who are working, people who have families, people who are coming back to college after either having dropped out or they have lost their job as we have seen a lot of that going on recently. That's really where the for-profit companies are going.

And, you know, these are people, who both need a different kind of higher education experience and who don't want to live in a dorm for four years. They need something different and the for-profit companies are providing that.

ROBERTS: These are the people who are not bemoaning the loss of hanging around a dorm, shooting pool, or whatever they…

Mr. CAREY: Not interested in frat parties. They just want to get a degree.

ROBERTS: And when you talk about the - the people who are taking these courses and what they seek to get out of them, are there certain subjects that seemed to be more popular, certain degrees that they pursue more often than others?

Mr. CAREY: They - they tend to enroll in programs that are very job focused. And, of course, that's true for all college students. I mean, most college students are not studying philosophy. The most popular major for both traditional and nontraditional students is business. But, particularly, your online courses - your nontraditional students, they're majoring in things like accounting, nursing. They are - if they are a teacher, they might be getting their masters degree, business-related courses, courses that lead to jobs.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Willa(ph) in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Willa, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

WILLA (Caller): Hi, I'm one of those students who dropped out many years ago and re-introducing myself to education. And I actually have started taking a philosophy course through (unintelligible) University. What I'm taking is introduction to philosophy through Oxford University. I live in rural South Dakota. I wouldn't have access to anything like that except through an online - online opportunity. So, I just wanted to say that it's an amazing thing to be able to - I will now take some courses through Yale, through MIT. This is not something I would be able to do out here. So, you know, it's an interesting world that we live in now that we can connect to such amazing minds without leaving our house.

ROBERTS: And Willa, are you watching videos of lectures?

WILLA: I - actually I'm listening to audio - the audio. My computer is a very old computer. I don't think it would actually handle the video portion. But you do have access to video if you wanted it. It is amazing. I jokingly said, well, I wouldn't dare take it as a class from MIT. I'm going to take an MIT introduction to - to psychology class. It's - it's an amazing world we live in right now.

ROBERTS: Willa, thanks for your call. So Kevin Carey, that's an example of standard institutions, institutions that have been around in some cases for hundreds of years, getting into this business, as well.

Mr. CAREY: Yes, although there is, I think, an important distinction to make. The courses that Willow was talking about that are offered by MIT and Yale are called open courses. They're free. But they're not offered for credit, and so you can log on and listen to the same lecture that students at Yale get, but Yale won't give you credit for it, and Yale won't get a degree for it - give it a degree for it. And so that part of online higher education I do think is absolutely an amazing way for institutions that have a tremendous amount of resources, but for a long time have only served a very small number of people to really broaden their reach exponentially.

However, they're not really getting into the business of offering degrees and credit. That seems to be a business that's much more dominated by these big, for-profit companies.

ROBERTS: Well, you wrote in Washington Monthly - the name of the piece was "College for $99 a Month." Who's offering it for $99 a month?

Mr. CAREY: Well, it's a company called Straighter Line. They've been offering this for about a year. They only offer introductory classes - again economics, accounting - courses along those lines, and to me the interesting thing about Straighter Line is it's not really an institution at all.

It doesn't have departments. It's not a university. It doesn't offer degree programs. It only offers those courses, and then it has arrangements with other, accredited, degree-granting colleges where you can transfer those credits in.

ROBERTS: We have a Tweet from Optimus Lime, says: I don't have the commitment to stick to online classes, but I do hybrid classes fine. What are hybrid classes?

Mr. CAREY: Well, we see a number of traditional colleges and universities taking this approach, where say for example, they used to have three sections a week where you would meet and do the traditional thing, where you would show up at a certain time, listen to somebody talk, you know, meet in person. Now they might cut that down to two or one live classes a week, and then the rest of the students experience the rest of their interaction, either with course materials, with other students, with their professor - happens virtually, on an online basis.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Don in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Don, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DON (Caller): Thank you. Thanks for taking my call.


DON: One of the things I've noticed, and I've been looking into this for a few years, is that the traditional universities, if you want to further your education - so I'm looking to try to pick up a master of science - you pretty much have to go back to their main campus for half the classes. And I just - I can't do that. I've got kids, and I've got a wife. It's just not a choice.

ROBERTS: So there's a brick and mortar not even competing.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah, and I think - again I think a lot of brick-and-mortar institutions, they're not quite sure what to do. They know that the world is changing and that more and more higher education is going to happen online. But they're not charging people less for online classes. In fact, some of them charge students more. They'll charge standard tuition rates and then tack a technology fee on top of it, even though online classes are much cheaper to offer.

And the second thing is, again, there are a lot of people out there who, for a variety of reasons, they have families, they have jobs, can't drive in their car and go to a place, even one or two times a week, and you know, they don't want to wait until the beginning of next semester to start. They want to start now. They want to work on their schedule and not on the college's schedule.

ROBERTS: We're talking about the next generation of online colleges. When we come back, the quality of online teaching and what professors think. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. You can get a college degree online, studying for as little as $99 a month, but there are clearly concerns.

In one major survey, some 70 percent of faculty members said that online courses don't compare with face-to-face instructions, but when professors have taught or developed online courses, the results are very different. We'll talk about that more in a moment.

If you are pursuing or working in online higher education, what's your experience? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kevin Carey is our guest. He's policy director at the Education Center, an education-sector think-tank in Washington. We've posted a link to his article, "College for $99 a Month," at, also if you click on TOTN. Also with us is Marc Parry. He's a staff reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He wrote about a study released in August by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities that surveyed the attitudes of professors towards online education. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. MARC PARRY (Reporter, Chronicle of Higher Education): Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Give us a quick recap of the survey.

Mr. PARRY: Well, basically this was a very large study of more than 10,000 professors around the country at public colleges, looking at their attitudes towards online education. And you pointed to one of the main findings, which was that 70 percent of the people surveyed said that the online education was not as good as face-to-face education.

I don't think that's too surprising. I think if you took any professor, pretty much, and in an ideal world, they would rather have a student be in their classroom face-to-face, and they think that that is an ideal way to teach them. I think what was probably more interesting in this study was that they found that almost half of professors who have taught online, they also had concerns about the quality, and then they also found that more than half of professors who had concerns about education, online education, were still recommending these courses.

So it just raises a lot of interesting questions about okay, so if you think it's so bad, you know, why do you think it's so bad; and if you think it's so bad, why are you recommending it to all these people, and we can talk about some of those issues.

ROBERTS: Well, we have email from Mike in Phoenix, who says I'm a University of Phoenix instructor in the MBA program. I teach the business law segment, at it about six years, both in the classroom and online, mostly online now.

I find the online students work harder than the classroom students. While I enjoy writing, I miss the face-to-face contact with students. On the other hand, the ability to conduct my classes whenever I wish can't be beat. Online teaching is better for me and, I believe, better for the students, too.

That was sort of borne out by the survey, that people who have actually taught online seem to like it more.

Mr. PARRY: Uh-huh.

ROBERTS: We also have an email, oh actually this is a tweet from Maog(ph) who says: I teach online. The cost is time. I spend more time online than I would in the classroom. The benefit: Time to consider responses. Did that show up in the survey, that actually it's not a time-saver to teach online?

Mr. PARRY: That was one of the main gripes that professors have with online teaching is that it can take a lot more time, and I think that has a lot to do with the way it's done. It has a lot to do with discussions in online classes, where you find yourself responding to every student.

There's a phenomenon in online classes where it's not like in a face-to-face class where some people might not speak at all because they're quiet or shy, you know, there's an expectation that everyone is supposed to participate, and so the professor has to do a lot of responding to students. And there's also sometimes an expectation on the students' part that the professor is available 24 times a day - 24 hours a day - because they might be there doing their assignment in their boxer shorts at 10 at night in their bedroom, right? And they want immediate access to that professor. So it can be a real grind for professors, and you hear about burnout teaching online classes.

ROBERTS: Well, that was an interesting part of the Straighter Line model. Actually, they do offer tutoring available 24/7. They outsource it.

Mr. CAREY: They do. StraighterLine actually has essentially a call-center model of tutoring, and a lot of their tutors are people with master's degrees or doctorates in other countries, again because they're teaching things like math, which crosses language and cultural barriers pretty easily. And so if you're sitting in your boxer shorts at 10 at night, working on a class and you log on to the call center, you might get someone who's sitting in a room in India or the Philippines who has a math Ph.D. and interacts with you on the Internet.

And, you know, that kind of labor model is substantially cheaper than paying Americans with college degrees to interact with students online, and that's one of the reasons they're able to get to that $99 price.

ROBERTS: Well also again, if you are teaching a math course, then you can be the tutor call center for several different schools at once and not worry that the curriculum is substantially different.

Mr. PARRY: Right, and this - can I just jump in? I mean, this has also to do with some of professors' fears about online education. One person I quoted in reporting about this report said that really, when it gets down to it, the main fear that professors have is that technology is going to replace them, and you know, if you look at the model of something like StraighterLine, which Kevin wrote about. I mean, if I'm correct in understand it, there's no professors in those classes in the way that we traditionally understand them.

You have advisors and tutors, but it's not like a - you don't need a full-time, tenured professor in the traditional mode, right?

Mr. CAREY: That's very true. You have basically one person who helps design the class, and then you have tutors and advisors, but you can scale that from 100 people to 1,000 people to 10,000 people and not have to hire another professor to do it.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Nina(ph) in Tucson, Arizona. Welcome to the program.

NINA (Caller): Hi there. So my comment is that I went back to school and graduated from the University of Arizona in 2006. I had some online courses and got done with college, and it was basically like, you know, the new high school diploma. What else do you have? And it seems like the online courses are letting so many people into college, and it's so flooded with people that have a college degree now that you almost have to get a masters or a Ph.D. for it to matter like the B.A. used to.

ROBERTS: And have you found that there was a difference between you having a degree from a big, state school, versus competing with people who might have gotten their degree online?

NINA: No, not really. And everything that I've heard from people who have taken more of the online courses, like I have friends that have graduated with a masters in teaching, have found that the teaching degree received from Arizona is good only in Arizona and not recognized in any of the other 50 states, 49 states.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call. Let's hear from Lauren(ph) in Boulder, Colorado. Lauren, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LAUREN (Caller): Hi, thank you so much for taking my call.


LAUREN: You know, I just wanted to say I'm actually in a course called the Aviva Institute that is based out of Oregon, and I have had an exceptional experience with online college.

I'm in the associates bachelor program for midwifery there, and the whole institute itself is based off online learning, and my experience having done some online learning that was associated with a major university and now this is that with the focus being online, I am able to have an experience that's not trying to translate the brick-and-mortar classroom onto my computer.

I have a whole lot of interaction with my professors, far more so, actually, than I had when I had the walls and roof over me. And even being that midwifery is a very hands-on learning kind of experience, we have our science courses and our math courses with very available professors, small class sizes, and it makes for a doable education for people who perhaps might not be able to go back to college.

I have a very busy midwifery practice of children, and now I am able to go ahead and finish my program in a rigorous program that, it's offering me an excellent education.

ROBERTS: Lauren, thanks for your call. Kevin Carey, is this evolving, that as opposed to a traditional university trying to figure out how to offer courses online that offering it online from the very beginning is a different model, and you don't try to replicate the classroom experience?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I think, you know, traditional universities have always tried to be all things to all people. They kind of build these self-enclosed city-states. They offer every course in every subject. You could walk in the door and get everything from socialization to a football team to, you know, meet your future spouse, to take an entire range of courses, graduate programs, law school and all the rest of it.

That's a good environment for some of those things but probably not for all of those things, and so what I think the future we're headed toward is one where students are much more in control of basically choosing different providers, different formats, different ways of learning different things.

I mean, the last caller was a good example. I certainly hope that midwifery has some personal, hands-on component, that's it's not an entirely online experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Quite literally hands on, yes.

Mr. CAREY: Right, but if you're taking science and math classes to supplement that kind of instruction, that doesn't need to be face-to-face, and I think that it is that sort of blended approach is where I think we're going.

ROBERTS: Well, there's an email from Therese(ph) in Stevens Point, Wisconsin that echoes that. I'm a college professor in biology. I agree that online and hybrid courses expand the access of college education to people and can be cost-effective, but I think it's better for some subjects and degrees than others.

Some areas don't fit that model. How can you teach courses in biology, chemistry or geology without a hands-on laboratory?

Mr. CAREY: Although - you know, I will note that a number of traditional institutions are teaching classes like biology - introductory classes, like biology, and themselves teaching them in an online environment. So you'd be surprised at how many different courses are amenable to this sort of approach.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Richard in Gadsden, Alabama. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi, how are you.


RICHARD: Yes. I was just talking to your screener. I teach - I teach at a community college, also at local four-year universities. And the way I handle my online courses, well, I do offer traditional lecture classes, hybrid classes that you were talking about earlier, as well as online. And, of course, we have a thing called Tegrity. We record - I record all my lectures and post all the lectures and that type of thing. And so, I think when you're talking about quality, it's just like any course in any type of delivery. It depends on the professor, how much the professor is going to put into it, how much the students are going to put into it. But I found - I came into it kind of kicking and screaming…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD: …because I was opposed to - I thought, oh, this isn't traditional. And, you know, I teach history so I'm necessarily old school. But it's - I see it now as a great tool because there are a lot of people who have access now to education that they wouldn't normally have access to.

ROBERTS: And how do your students compare online and in person?

RICHARD: It varies. Honestly, I think some of my best students have been online students because they tend to be the more nontraditional students, the ones that are coming back after 20 years and they have a - they're very focused on: This is what I'm here to achieve. Whereas, a lot of - especially, I tend to teach a lot of my lecture - basic lecture courses are during the day, that type of thing, and so, you get a lot of right out of high school kids who, just like a lot of us, were right out of high school weren't real focused and we're just going to do probably the minimum amount that they could do.

So, it varies. And of course, at a community college setting, obviously, we're different than some of the larger brick and mortar universities as you've been talking about. Whereas, you know, I think our target group is more the nontraditional students. And of course our focus, even with the - what you were talking about - the basic courses, the first two years courses, you know, we don't have the huge auditoriums. And so it's always been a little more hands-on, and that type of thing.

ROBERTS: Richard, thanks for your call.

RICHARD: You're welcome. Uh-huh.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You mentioned, Kevin Carey, in your Washington Monthly article, that StraighterLine had some issues with accreditation - it's one of those words you should never say on the radio - their accrediting issues, in part because they're sort of starting from square one, but in part because the accrediting system is controlled by brick and mortar institutions and all of that. Can you give us a brief recap of those issues?

Mr. CAREY: Yeah. The accrediting system in the United States really sprung up in the 1920s and 1930s, and it revolves around organizations that are funded and governed by institutions themselves. They're non-governmental, they're just nonprofit institutions. But they serve an immensely important role, basically as agents of the government because when the federal government provides financial aid, like Pell Grants or student loans, you can only use your Pell Grant or your student loan - you can only give it to an accredited institution.

So they are basically the gatekeepers to the financial aid system. And a lot of institutions will only accept - basically, all institutions will only accept transfer credits from other accredited institutions. So the real dilemma for a company like StraighterLine - or anyone who wants to pursue a really innovative, web-based business model for higher education - is that you can only be accredited if you're an institution. But being an institution is expensive and requires you to essentially spend money on a lot of things that you don't really need to spend money on if all you want to do is offer introductory courses online.

ROBERTS: Well, this gets to an email from Bryan(ph) in Tallahassee who says, will a student attending an exclusively online college end up with a degree of less worth than from a public brick and mortar school?

Mr. CAREY: It depends. I mean, I think, you know, very well-known brick and mortar schools will continue to offer degrees that are worth more than less well-known brick and mortars and virtually any for-profit or any online institution. But the thing is, we don't really know which institutions do a great job of teaching students in this country.

There's very little in the way of information about learning outcomes. There's very little in the way of data about which colleges really do a good job of preparing students to succeed in the workforce and their careers. It's kind of a big undifferentiated mass once you get below that, sort of, top 10 percent of exclusive institutions.

And so, from what we can tell - there was a study released by the National Center for Education Statistics a few months ago. It seems that online higher education is about as good as typical college classes offered at a typical university, which again would be a fairly, you know, unknown regional university or a community college.

Mr. PARRY: Can I just add also? As an employer, you might not necessarily even know whether a student got their degree from an online or a brick and mortar university. If you've got a degree from, say, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, it's not going to say, online college at that school. It's just going to be their degree. So there's not always even a distinction in the degrees anymore.

Mr. CAREY: Or if you, you know - and this has been true for a long time - if you took your first two years at a community college or brought credits in from, because you took AP classes in high school, all of those things just get rolled up into that final name.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one last quick call. This is Trevor(ph) in Baton Rouge. Trevor, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TREVOR (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. My concern really with online education is that professors and colleges serve more sort of a larger role than just teaching. There's an enormous amount of research that goes on. So if - in the long run, if you have online schools taking students away from brick and mortar schools, that has the effect of decreasing a lot of research that's done in this country and around the world.

ROBERTS: Trevor, thanks for your call. Well, Kevin, you make this point in the article, that if you separate out the different parts of the university, the research might have to stand on its own in terms of making some money.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah. I think people should be concerned. If we un-bundle the university this way, then revenue sources that had paid for research, for scholarship, for some of the really important things that universities do that don't have an immediate value in the market, they're going to find - have to find funding from somewhere else and that may be difficult.

ROBERTS: That's Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Center. You can see his article at our Web site, College for $99 a Month. We're also joined by Marc Parry, staff reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can see his article online, too.

Thank you, both, so much for joining us.

Mr. CAREY: Thanks a lot.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.