Virtual Degrees Virtually
by Julia Scheeres, Aug. 28, 2002, WIRED Online
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Roberto Lee's typical
weekday starts at 3 a.m., when he fires up his computer in
Wytheville, Virginia, and logs on to a law school in Los
Angeles, 2,400 miles away.
Lee, 62, studies for a few hours, showers, and is elbow-deep
in body juice by 7:30 at a hospital where he is a general
surgeon. In the afternoons, he clerks at the town courthouse,
learning the intricacies of jury selection and trial
Lee, who says he subsists on three or four hours of sleep a
night, is one of a burgeoning number of adults earning degrees
over the Internet in their spare time.
"I live in a small town where there is no law school, and I
run a very busy medical practice," said Lee, who plans to use
his law degree to help patients wrangle with insurance
companies. "This is the only opportunity I have to study law,
which has been my dream for a long time."
But while an online degree may sound convenient, cheap and
totally new-millennium, can a virtual education land someone a
Yes, experts say. But don't expect your OnlineU.com diploma to
compete with a Harvard degree anytime soon, they add.
As broadband access spreads, so does the fervor of schools
hoping to tap into the virtual student body. The number of
accredited colleges that offer 100-percent online degrees
without hidden residency requirements has jumped from 12 last
year to more than 30 in 2002, said Robert Tucker, the
president of InterEd, an Idaho research firm that tracks
online education programs.
But while an Internet education may be alluring for wage
slaves, stay-at-home parents, rural folk and agoraphobes,
online schools still battle the nagging perception that
learning by modem is somehow inferior to learning in a
"Right now, if you are applying for a desirable position such
as an entry-level MBA, you'll still be second-tier if you've
got a virtual education," Tucker said. "That's because the
people making hiring decisions all went to traditional schools
and have misgivings about online degrees, although there is no
objective evidence to support that."
The American Bar Association, for example, refuses to accredit
the first Internet law school, Concord Law School, which will
graduate its first class of Juris Doctorates in November.
Although Concord's corporate headquarters are in Los Angeles,
its classrooms are only online, and its professors and
students are located throughout the country. The school's
four-year Juris Doctor degree costs $28,000. Lectures are
delivered in RealAudio, contracts and torts are debated in
chat rooms, and opening statements are videotaped and mailed
to professors for grading.
But the lack of accreditation from the prestigious association
means that the fledgling attorneys will only qualify to
practice in the handful of states that don't require lawyers
to earn degrees from an ABA-approved law school.
Concord doesn't offer a compelling reason for the ABA to
accredit it, because students can't practice face-to-face
interactions such as courtroom argumentation, said Barry
Currier, the ABA's deputy consultant on legal education.
"The bottom line is that lawyers need to have proper
training," Currier said. "Someday, that training may be
online, but it's not there yet."
Not so, said Concord's founding dean, Jack Goetz.
"The ABA is impeding the ability of people to get an
education," Goetz said. "Attorneys do more than argue court
cases. Some also work private industry or government jobs. Our
graduates are perfectly capable of doing those jobs."
To preclude objections by fuddy-duddy employers, many
established universities don't distinguish between degrees
earned online and offline.
"We made a key decision that we're not going to distinguish on
transcripts between one mode of delivery or the other, because
the quality has to be the same," said Nicholas Allen, provost
of University of Maryland University College, which offers
both traditional and online degree programs and enrolled more
than 87,000 students in the last academic year.
And a virtual B.A. is better than no B.A., especially in a
wimpy economy, said David Goldman, an executive at Alan J.
Blair, a San Francisco recruiting agency.
"A degree looks nice on a resume, period," Goldman said. "It's
one more leg up in the job market."