Increasingly, college life is less about walking across the quad or stopping at the dining hall before sitting in a big lecture hall, and more about flipping open a laptop at home.
Take Royal Witcher, a St. Louis native and Army veteran who lives in Belmont, Mississippi. He completed most of his bachelor’s degree through the University of Phoenix, a fully online institution, but often felt like just a number.
When it was time for his MBA, the 45-year-old did his research — lots of it — and decided on Maryville University, which has a campus in suburban St. Louis. But he didn’t return to Missouri, instead taking advantage of an online degree.
“The biggest changes that I saw were, I think, the drive to solidify, or prove, the online degree as just as good as a traditional,” he said of the difference in the programs.
Witcher is among an increasing number of students getting schooled online, which is beneficial to Illinois and Missouri colleges that have seen enrollment drop 8.7 and 6.1 percent, respectively, in the last 5 years and, in turn, declining revenue. That has schools bringing the brick-and-mortar experience to students who live nowhere near campus.
So a lot of colleges look at that as a market opportunity, and they see online as a way of achieving that,” said Beth Doyle, Vice President for Learning Counts, a group that promotes adult education.
But there are downsides to virtual learning, an industry that had 5.8 million students taking at least some online classes in 2015, according to the Online Learning Consortium. Studies show online students can have poor course discipline and don’t always stick with it. Plus, a 2013 Gallup Poll showed online courses were viewed as less rigorous than classes taught on campus.
To bring instruction up to par with an in-classroom experience, schools are trying to make their online programs more intense and interactive.
At Maryville University, which is the fastest-growing school in the state, nearly half of new students are virtual, said Dan Viele, Maryville’s Dean of Online and Adult Education. Maryville wants to keep adding students, he said, which will require it to look beyond the region.
“It's a different model than the old days where you had to build the dorm to have them come and then have the classrooms available,” he said, adding that the school isn’t “bound by the physical capacity, and so online can scale with a different sort of impact on the university from a resource standpoint,” he said.
The school remodeled a single room that’s the size of an office, filling it with studio lights, a green screen and recording equipment. There’s also a high-tech LED lightboard that makes it look as if professors are writing in the air.
Online students can’t interrupt the lesson to ask questions, but they can rewind their professor. Raising your hand has been replaced with typing a question in a chatroom.
Other schools in the region are jumping online, too. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where most students are commuters, four of every 10 students take at least some courses online. Undergraduate course loads for students at Webster University are up 55 percent in the past two years.
Saint Louis University, one of the region’s oldest institutions, is changing its adult education experience, too. Starting in the fall, continuing education programs with be entirely online, with no more evening classes on campus.
The more than 800 undergraduates in the School of Professional Studies had the option of showing up for evening classes or taking the course online, but interim dean Jennifer Giancola said fewer people were making the trip to campus.
“They weren’t at capacity and we decided we were going to move everything online,” she said. “That’s really what our students wanted and needed.”
SLU is attracting more students from outside the area with its online programs, Gianacola said, “but still there’s a lot of local students who actually might be able to walk to campus to take an on-ground class, but they’d rather take a course online.”
Though a 2013 Gallup Poll found there was still skepticism around online degree programs, opinions are steadily improving. Only 13 percent of those surveyed said an employer would think an online degree is better, but the number of Americans who said an online degree offers the same quality as a traditional one jumped from 30 percent to 37 percent from 2011 to 2013.
Witcher hopes the prestige of a master’s degree from a traditional school will allow him to teach some day. And it’ll most likely be online.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.