A few years ago, Scott Williams realized his time with the U.S. Navy was coming to an end. He knew he would enter the civilian workforce without a bachelor’s degree, so he set out to rectify that by going online.
Today, the 43-year-old is a civilian on the Navy’s local public affairs team — and he’s a newly minted graduate. He received his bachelor’s degree in communications in June, just a few days before his oldest son graduated from high school.
With some guidance and financial help from the Navy, Williams chose an online program run by the City University of Seattle.
Completing the program took discipline, the retired senior chief petty officer said. Williams said he set aside time after dinner four to five nights a week. Wednesday was usually the deadline to contribute to online class discussions, while Sunday was typically the time to hand in assignments.
Building on some basic coursework that was already on his transcript, Williams finished his degree in two and a half years.
Williams is one of many professionals using online education to prepare for whatever comes next in their lives.
Business Is Booming
Online education is growing “by leaps and bounds,” reported Henry DeVries, assistant dean for external affairs at UC San Diego Extension. While the UCSD program offered 432 completely online courses two years ago, it offers 909 fully online courses today, DeVries said.
“The social media world of blogs and You-Tube is positively influencing how adults think about online education,” said DeVries.
Educational institutions all over San Diego County are feeling the online boom, and it’s not just the state-run schools. Also feeling the trend are publicly traded Bridgepoint Education, as well as the private, nonprofit National University.
They are also embracing new technology.
Bridgepoint’s Ashford University, for example, has debuted an application called Constellation, which brings textbook content to Apple Inc.’s iPad platform.
One month before that, in June, Bridgepoint introduced applications that would let students participate in classroom discussions via their Apple iPhones or Android-based smartphones.
Bridgepoint followed University of Phoenix Inc., which rolled out its own application for the iPhone and iPod Touch this spring. The app allows students to be part of the classroom discussions.
Bridgepoint wants to enhance access to education through technology, company CEO Andrew Clark said in remarks released Aug. 2, in conjunction with its latest earnings announcement.
The company, based in Carmel Mountain Ranch, reported enrollment of 84,500 students as of June 30, up from 67,700 students in June 2010. Bridgepoint delivers 99 percent of its coursework online. The rest of its students attend its colleges — Ashford University and University of the Rockies — at their brick-and-mortar campuses in Iowa and Colorado, respectively.
Also coming into vogue is the concept of the “hybrid” class. That is a class that takes place partially online. Students go to the classroom at least some of the time. San Diego State University offers several of its classes using the hybrid model, a school publicist said.
DeVries teaches a public relations course through UCSD Extension twice a year, in online and hybrid formats. The dynamic of each format is different. “Students like the networking” in the classroom course, he said.
A Typical Student
So who is the typical online student? At UCSD Extension, DeVries said, it is someone between 20 and 40 years old trying to make the jump to a new career, advance in a current career — or keep the good job he or she has. Some 85 percent have college degrees.
At National University, roughly two-thirds of the students, actually 63 percent, are women. The typical student works, is 33 years old, and is most likely taking courses toward a graduate degree. The number of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees has ticked up in the past year, said National University spokesman David Neville.
Military enrollment has grown from 11 percent in 2010 to 14.4 percent this year, Neville said.
National University is based on Torrey Pines Mesa and operates 27 colleges in California as well as one in Nevada. Counting classroom-based and online courses, it has a full-time equivalent enrollment of 22,000. National University offers 52 degrees and 22 certificates online, and delivered 4,600 classes online in the 2010-2011 academic year, up from 4,300 in the previous year.
The total number of online programs — 74 — is more than double the number it had in 2006.
National has almost 18,000 students who take at least part of their courses online. The number of students who take 100 percent of their courses online is 11,600 this year, up from 10,600 last year.
National University’s enrollment may be small compared with its cross-town rival, Bridgepoint, which forecasts total student enrollment will be between 79,500 and 83,500 during the current fiscal year.
Bridgepoint, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol BPI, reported net income of $52.1 million in the second quarter on revenue of $239.9 million. Both figures were up from the same time last year, when Bridgepoint reported net income of $35.3 million on revenue of $173.8 million.
Interest and Money
It is difficult to say when the online education trend will peak. There is interest out there, as well as money to pay for courses.
Williams, the retired Navy man, estimates that he spent $15,000 for tuition and $1,500 for books in pursuing his online degree.
He received Navy tuition assistance and private scholarship money, but that did not cover the full cost.
“I tapped my GI Bill to make up for it,” he said, “but I have enough to do a master’s.”
And while he might pick a local program this time — San Diego State looks good, he said — he would prefer the flexibility of getting his next degree online.
Flexibility, however, has to be tempered by the disciplined approach picked up in the Navy.
“I believe discipline is the key,” Williams said. “You must be able to set deadlines for yourself and see them through. Otherwise, online learning may not be your cup of tea.”