College Guide


August 06, 2012 11:33 AM When Online Education Really Works

By Daniel Luzer

Western Governor’s University, the inexpensive (and non-profit) online college that was the subject of John Gravois’s piece a year ago about the future of higher education, has become increasingly interesting to policymakers. It promises to help working people improve their lives cheaply though degrees offered online. Course credit has a lot to do with demonstration of subject mastery.

In many ways it’s very innovative. As is true of all vocational institutions, however, the effectiveness of the program has to do with what happens to the careers of graduates. And that’s still something of a mystery. Do WGU graduates get hired for and promoted to good jobs? How do employers view a WGU degree? Is it as impressive as a degree from a traditional college? Is it more impressive to employers than a degree from a for-profit college? While it’s too early to know, an NPR-StateImpact project looked at one WGU student. Her story reveals something interesting about how WGU and employment really works.

Elle Moxley reports that:

Mary Carney was running out of time. She was 55. Her two youngest children were teenagers. If she was going to finish her nursing degree, she needed to do it before she had to start paying for her kids’ college.
“I knew that eventually I was going leave bedside nursing and I wanted a transition to education, and you really need a graduate degree to do that,” says Carney, a Lebanon [Indiana] resident who earned her associate’s degree at Purdue University Calumet in 1980.

And so Carney, who was then working as a home care nurse, went to WGU. She did coursework at night, while her patients slept. She completed her bachelor’s degree in six months. It was apparently a very successful experience. As Moxley explains:

Carney didn’t have any trouble getting a job with her online degree. After graduating from WGU, she applied for a job in the pediatric intensive care unit at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, where more than 80 percent of nurses have bachelors degrees. In-patient unit director Stephanie Tooley says for nurses, where a student goes to school isn’t important as long as the program is accredited and prepares him or her for the job.

Online college is not for traditional college students. They are not places for inexperienced people to come and make new discoveries about what they want to be and how they want to live their lives. When online college actually works it does one very specific thing: help people get better jobs.

It’s not first timers who succeed at places like WGU. It’s people who already have jobs and want another one in the same field. An online degree will do that for someone like Carney, someone with a lot of experience in a specific field. As Tooley explained, it doesn’t really matter where someone goes to college. For certain types of jobs, just accredited is good enough.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Judy on November 28, 2012 12:29 AM:

    Being that I work for an online educational company, I am a bit biased towards online learning. However, I have been watching our videos in order to blog about them and have learned more math in the past few months than I have in years!
    I agree that a good deal of the effectiveness depends on the motivation of the student. However, if you develop the classes well, they should be enough of an incentive. As an example, our math instructor is so funny and entertaining that I find his lectures interesting and look forward to watching them. This is how education is supposed to be: the teacher is so good you anticipate learning from them. The beauty of online education is the teachers that are that good can teach a much wider audience and share the love of learning. This also frees students to choose a teacher.

  • ceilidth on November 29, 2012 10:39 AM:

    The problem in Judy's response is her assumption that learning occurs because someone is watching another person explain something really well. That is one part of learning, but only one. If that student cannot go back to the person lecturing and demonstrating and work with that person on things they don't get, being entertaining and smart and funny is worthless to the student. The problem is that chances are very good that the person that the student will have to turn to will be only marginally qualified because the pay is absolute dirt. A student like the one you described is a great fit for online education because much of what the student is doing is proving that they already have the knowledge. For the beginner, it's a fraud. WGU seems to have a good model from what I have read; my experience further down the line in this world is that much of it is a money making scheme where schools (profit and nonprofit) choose to teach some students very poorly and very cheaply while charging exhorbitant tuition to support either investors or traditional aged students.