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By Emma Penrod
November 10, 2015
The hype surrounding online education has always outpaced the reality of what such schools could deliver—until the past two or three years, when the education model finally has come into its own. From the so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by esteemed professors to K-12 online charter schools, and from online programs at traditional four-year colleges to the competency-based online programs at Western Governors University, online programs have exploded in variety and popular acceptance.
Though less than a decade ago many were apt to think derisively of “mail-ordered” online degrees, that’s become less and less true in today’s business world. Employers are spreading the news about the many benefits of online education, including the possibilities of individually tailored curricula that often align more closely with business goals—and school officials say enrollment numbers are booming.
By the Numbers
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much online enrollment has grown. The U.S. Department of Education didn’t require online schools to report enrollment numbers until 2012, and nationwide data remain scarce.
Western Governors University, a Utah-based online university with a presence in all 50 states, has seen enrollment soar. In 2010, the school had 23,500 students; by 2015, that number had jumped to 62,000, according to Joan Mitchell, a spokesperson for WGU.
It’s not just online colleges that are growing, either. Utah Connections Academy, the state’s public online school for grades K-12, has grown from 300 to 950 enrolled students this year, says science teacher Erik Albertine. Utah Connections Academy graduates have gone on to be accepted into universities across the nation, including top universities such as Harvard and Yale.
Online university students are also finding increased success in the business world, Mitchell says. In a 2014 survey conducted by WGU, 82 percent of WGU graduates reported being employed full-time, well above a national average of 77 percent.
Employers may have been skeptical of online degrees at first, but word’s getting around, Mitchell says. In the same 2014 survey, 94 percent of employers who had hired someone with a WGU degree said the graduate’s job performance was equal or superior to that of other graduates they had hired. That’s had a sort of ripple effect, says Mitchell. As more employers take a risk on employees with online degrees and find them just as competent as other college graduates, they tell others about their discovery. As time goes on, word of mouth has begun to overcome some of early concerns about the effectiveness of online education.
A Broad Niche
Proponents of online education argue the virtual format does more than prepare adequate students and employees for future opportunities—they say there are advantages to online education that are not found in the traditional setting.
WGU and, to a lesser extent, Utah Connections Academy, both advance their students through their coursework based on proficiency models, rather than advancing students as coursework is completed. This means students can progress through school at their own rate—a big advantage for those who move faster or slower than the norm, Albertine says. At Connections Academy, he says, they have had students complete high school in two and a half years.
But there’s another advantage to this model as well, Mitchell says. Because WGU advances students only according to proficiency, those who hire their graduates can rest assured their new employee has actually mastered the material relevant to their degree.
Those competencies seem to translate well into the business world. According to their 2014 employer survey, 96 percent of employers said WGU graduates were well prepared for their jobs.
But the advantages of online education go beyond the emerging competency model, says Albertine. The online format allows students to more easily pursue unique interests like medicine or astronomy that may not be widely available in traditional schools, without denying them other courses that can only be offered face-to-face—electives like band class. That’s because the Connections Academy allows students to blend their online schooling with enrollment at a traditional school, letting students customize their education beyond what used to be possible.
Consequently, says Albertine, the Connections Academy boasts a diverse student body. “We don’t have an average student,” he says. “Some come to avoid social pressures. Some want to get ahead, others are behind. We have every kind of student, because virtual schools fills a niche that [appeals to a wide range of people].”
Online education also comes with some less direct benefits as well. The flexibility of the online format allows WGU to collaborate with business leaders and adapt as the labor market evolves, Mitchell says. And the format itself teaches both practical tech skills, as well as soft skills such as self-reliance and discipline, that are more difficult to acquire in a traditional setting.