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 2014, that number had jumped to 53,800, 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...