Personal Finance

As traditional college campuses shut down, online schools get their chance to shine

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Key Points
  • Over the last decade, online colleges have made great strides in their remote learning offerings while traditional schools now struggle to get up to speed.
  • Suddenly, these schools are attracting the attention of a wider audience, including recent high-school graduates who would otherwise go to a traditional four-year institution.
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On social media, some students have teased that their elite college experience is now akin to the University of Phoenix.

However, those online institutions may have the last laugh.

"If they are going to go online anyway, they may want to do it with a school that's been at this for 30 years," said John Woods, provost and chief academic officer at the University of Phoenix.

"We are excited about that possibility, even in difficult times," he said.

Over the last decade, online colleges have made great strides in their remote learning offerings, while other schools are now struggling to get up to speed.

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Typically, online schools serve a different type of student, often older and balancing work and family responsibilities and unable to commit to a full-time schedule.

Now, these schools are attracting the attention of a wider audience, including recent high-school graduates who, pre-pandemic, would have gone to a traditional four-year institution.

Increasingly, students are looking for alternatives to taking the online classes now being offered by brick-and-mortar colleges. They have said the remote offerings just don't have the same value as in-person studies and the tuition tab is also too high.

Tuition and fees, plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $49,870 for the 2019-2020 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $21,950, according to the College Board. 

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That's partly why graduating high-school senior Vanessa Simoes, 18, recently enrolled in the Berkeley College Honors Program online.

While Berkeley also has physical campuses in New York and New Jersey, it's considered to have one of better online bachelor's programs. 

As the first person in her family to attend college, Simoes said didn't set out to find an online school. "I had high expectations of going to college," she said. "I wanted to join some clubs, meet new people and have that real college experience."

Still, she said she is happy she chose an institution with extensive online capabilities, given the current climate.

I have seen a greater number of students out of high school who are asking if I really need to spend $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 when I could spend two years online and transfer.
Dani Babb
education consultant

Online schools have additional advantages, as well, such as shorter sessions, which allow students to begin sooner and finish faster. Not to mention the price.

"Most online schools are less expensive than a brick-and-mortar school, and they also tend to have programs that move students through a little more quickly," said Dani Babb, an education consultant who specializes in helping colleges and universities move coursework online. 

"I have seen a greater number of students out of high school who are asking if I really need to spend $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 when I could spend two years online and transfer," Babb said.

In fact, Simoes, who plans to study criminal law, has already started her undergraduate coursework, even ahead of her high school graduation in June.

Vanessa Simoes, 18, was accepted to the Berkeley College Honors Program.
Source: Vanessa Simoes

Compared to this time last year, the number of graduating high-school students who have applied to Berkeley College jumped 12%, according to David Bertone, the vice president of enrollment.

Traditional colleges haven't said for certain what the upcoming year will look like, in part because they fear the switch to online learning will drive students away.

One in 6 students who have already made deposits no longer plan to attend a four-year college full-time, according to new data by the consulting firm Art & Science Group, which polled more than 1,000 high school seniors from April 21 to 24.

"That's a staggering number," said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.

As more students weigh their options amid the global coronavirus crisis, many schools have extended the deadline for high-school seniors to choose which college they will attend until June 1.

Rather than commit to remote learning at a pricey four-year institution come the fall, many college-bound seniors are also considering a gap year or taking a semester or two at a community college instead.

Before enrolling in an online degree program, students should check whether that school is accredited and if the credits they earn there will transfer to another college. (The U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator tool is an easy way to verify the accreditation of any school as well as the transfer-out rate among other statistics.)

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