By Carol Frey

Online programs and community colleges offer options and innovation in higher education

Unemployment has changed many a kitchen-table conversation about college. One of the best ways to ensure a job is to have a bachelor's degree. But a college education is now more difficult for many families to afford. That means many students are on the prowl for a bargain bachelor's degree--and some are finding the opportunity in nontraditional programs such as three-year degree programs, online education, and work colleges.

Fast track.

Over time, Americans have relaxed their expectations that students will complete a bachelor's degree in four years. Because of the amount of remedial preparation many incoming college students need and the obstacles families face in financing four consecutive years of college, many now take six years to graduate. "We in higher education have been so focused on that fraction of students not fully prepared to do college work that it seems natural for students to stay on longer than four years," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. Parents, too, have encouraged students to relish their college years and take maximum advantage of campus opportunities. But "the recession has brought us face to face with a new reality," Broad says, adding that she expects dozens of colleges to begin offering some three-year bachelor's degrees. She anticipates that trend to be strongest among private schools, where tuition is highest--more than $25,000 a year, on average.

For three-year degrees to measure up, students must be willing to study year-round and faculty members must be prepared to give fast-track students clear and regular counsel. The time is right to offer this option, Broad says. "There are students who are ready now."

In 2004, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., identified a list of 30 bachelor's degrees that could be finished on an accelerated schedule. It began offering three-year programs in 2005. Majors include studies in business and the humanities as well as premed and predental. The University of Houston-Victoria and Hartwick College in New York jumped on the bandwagon last fall, adding to the buzz.

Meanwhile, Purdue University is trying out a two-year bachelor's degree. The first 25 applicants last year were jobless autoworkers eligible for two years of financial help under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, says Christy Bozic, director of Purdue's College of Technology in Kokomo, Ind., a city hit hard by layoffs at its four Chrysler factories. In response, the college designed a two-year bachelor's degree in organizational leadership and supervision by cutting courses from 16 weeks to eight. "These students will have the same amount of face time as other undergraduates, the same number of classes, and the same learning outcomes, based on standards set by curriculum committees," Bozic said as the program was getting underway. Although some of the students have been called back to work, the program will continue into the second year.

Work your way.

An old idea is attracting new interest on seven campuses across the country where students work in return for waivers of tuition, room, board, and fees. That can mean zero debt at a time when graduates with loans leave campus owing an average of about $23,200. At College of the Ozarks , students work 15 hours a week during semesters, and many earn room and board working 40-hour weeks during summers. They are responsible for police and fire service, housekeeping, a dairy, and other functions on the campus near Branson, Mo. Students also must attend chapel services and convocations, and have spartan living conditions. Still, applications were up 8 percent this year, according to college officials. That translates to 4,435 applicants for 300 seats in the freshman class. The college requires that 90 percent of students demonstrate financial need.

Work college alumni say they appreciate their freedom from debt as much as the job experience they obtained. "I have two siblings who have well over $30,000 in student loans, and they're under a lot of stress in this recession," says Janelle Carter, a College of the Ozarks grad who teaches fourth grade at Branson Elementary School.

Even in the private-school universe, Southern New Hampshire University 's $37,000 annual price tag is on the high side. That makes its offer of two years of study--minus a campus address and other niceties--attractive to students looking for a deal. Coming out of high school in 2008, Billy Flynn was drawn to the criminal justice field and foreign languages. SNHU had it all, but he and his family couldn't raise enough money. "I flat-out didn't know what to do," he says. Not long after, the pilot of SNHU's no-frills Advantage Program was announced. Forty students would attend classes at the university's Nashua and Salem, N.H., continuing education centers at a cost of $10,000. After two years, they could get an associate's degree, then continue at the main campus or another school. Flynn jumped at the chance. His schedule allowed him to attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoon.

Flynn, who left the program after a year to pursue studies in engineering, says he was content with access to the main campus library and had little time for the other extras anyway. Kaileen Crane, who attended the Advantage Program in Salem, was also satisfied. "The classes are small. The teaching is personal, more one-on-one than most students will ever get sitting in lecture halls," she says. "That's the only frill I would really want."

For many, community colleges are the most practical path to a diploma. Hundreds of community colleges now have campus housing. And many have been establishing or improving partnerships with four-year universities to ease transfers for students. Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn., revamped its engineering program in 2005, adding dorms to create a learning community that gave students 24-hour access to computer labs and engineering classrooms, says Ron Ulseth, one of the program's founders. At $13,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board, the program has already drawn interest from one of the state's four-year colleges.

"The feedback we were getting from practicing engineers was: Why can't engineering be [taught] in the last two years like Itasca has done it in the first two years?" Ulseth says.

When the transfers to four-year universities for upper-division classes work seamlessly, community colleges make bachelor's degrees affordable for millions. According to a survey by the American Association of Community Colleges, enrollment increased almost 17 percent from 2007 to 2009, with some schools reporting much higher growth. "All the evidence is that these students do just as well," says Broad of the American Council on Education.

The Web has become a national shopping mall for higher ed, says Vicky Phillips, founder of, for 20 years a leading consumer advocate for students pursuing coursework online. "The pro side is that if you go online, you have more choices," she says. "The biggest con is that . . . some [online programs] can have dropout rates of 70 percent, where 30 percent would be a high rate for a traditional campus." A Department of Education analysis last year found online teaching as effective as face-to-face instruction. The ability to learn without the structure imposed by class attendance and to overcome the tendency to procrastinate are the crucial factors, Phillips says.

Capt. Ashley O'Neill says her job with the Army's 45th Sustainment Brigade in Iraq provided the structure she needed to study technical writing online through East Carolina University. "I'd go to work at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and during off hours there was nothing much else to do," she says. "Most of the professors didn't know I was eight time zones away." O'Neill, holder of a bachelor's in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill , says her online classes were plenty challenging. Most of her classmates were working people in their 30s and serious about their education. "It felt strange getting to know these people by E-mail, but by the time I graduated, I felt closer to people I had online classes with, much more so than undergrad," she says. O'Neill met her classmates in 2008 at graduation in Greenville, N.C., where she collected a master's in English. "Without a doubt, online was the more cost-effective way to do it," she says. "But it's not an easy out. It requires the same work, dedication, and time commitment as any other program."

Phillips says 95 percent of online degrees are offered by nonprofits, a fact often lost amid the aggressive marketing of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools. "But the University of Wisconsin may be looking for 30 students in its undergraduate business program. The University of Phoenix is looking for 30,000," Phillips says.

What today's undergrads need to be learning, Broad says, are skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, and working in teams. And don't expect such learning to end with a diploma. "No body of knowledge gained in four years will last a lifetime anymore," she says.

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The Many Different Paths to a College Degree