Online Classes Attract More Students

Convenience and low cost help make higher education a possibility for many.

TEMPE, Ariz., Dec. 12, 2008 -- When a local car dealership went bankrupt, Arizona State University senior Christina Bolyard lost her job as an assistant manager, along with the flexible hours that allowed her to go to class and work at the same time.

So she decided to get a job at Petsmart and switch to taking all of her classes at ASU online.

The online courses allow her to work to pay her bills and finish up with school. She also changed her major from elementary education to history.

"I couldn't take student teaching online [because] there is no way else to get the face-to-face interaction with the students," she said of taking a semester off of work to teach. "I came to the realization that I couldn't take a semester [off] work just for school."

The Freedom to 'Do What I Want'

When she leaves for work every morning, she makes sure that she always has her textbooks and binders full of class work she must do on her lunch hour.

"I print articles, do my reading and highlighting," she said while sitting at a nearby Einstein's Bagels shop where she goes on her lunch break. "The stuff I would typically do at home in quiet. It gives me a break from the chaos of my job and gives me a few minutes to decompress so I can focus on school."

The Arizona State University senior works 45 hours a week at the pet hospital, while also taking 12 credit hours at the university, which includes her honors history thesis, the last class she has to take in order to graduate this month.

"It's the only way I can work full time and grow my business career," she said. "And still go to school."

She enjoys the classes because she says, "doing the online classes gives me the freedom to do it when I want."

The number of people enrolled in online courses has more than doubled since 2002 according to a recent Sloan Consortium survey of online courses. The consortium, which encourages the integration of online classes into mainstream education, also reported that the number of enrollees increased by more than 12 percent last year, up to nearly 4 million.

The survey was a collaboration among the consortium, Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and the College Board.

The study researched different aspects of online learning at more than 2,500 campuses, finding that as jobs become scarcer, the demand for more educational opportunities grows.

Flexibility Is Key

I. Elaine Allen, the research director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College, said moving to online classes during a recession can be a win for both students and the school in savings.

"The students look on it as saving gas and transportation time and classes they can take any time or anywhere. But from the colleges' viewpoint, they also save on electricity and heat by not using brick and mortar," she said. "It's generally when we have a downturn that colleges get more enrollment but it looks like in this economy we're going to see double-digit increases. People who are worried about their jobs want to see themselves as current in this market."

Faculty members, Allen says, "rank flexibility for students and the ability to present alternative learning modes to the students. When the course is online a teacher can present the information several ways but usually only presents it once in a face-to-face classroom."

She is also an associate professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson.

And while the survey numbers were collected in 2007, Allen says the double-digit increases are continuing this year.

Working Full Time

Amy Cottrell, one of Bolyard's online classmates, also said she couldn't take quit her full-time job at Highway Technologies in Phoenix for school, because without it she couldn't pay the tuition.

"I just have a lot of financial responsibilities," Cottrell said. "I don't have a choice. If I don't work full time I can't even afford to go to school."

Cottrell said she wouldn't be able to afford to travel to regular classes and work because it would cost too much to drive back and forth.

Online classes allow many people to learn from all over the country and in some cases go back to school without physically attending college while continuing to live their lives, said Patricia Feldman, ASU's vice provost of online and distance learning.

"Many students have gotten their education derailed along the line, not because they didn't want to complete, but because life happens," she said.

For many students, it was the economy that happened, leaving them looking for another way to learn at their own pace.

"Given the current economic conditions," Feldman said, online classes "allow students to pick up learning opportunities more so than they had planned before, [which makes] it a great opportunity for students."