Can college really be as cheap as phone and cable bills? That’s what University Now, a new online education platform, is promising.
Launched in March of this year, University Now is a for-profit online model that allows students to take classes at their own pace. Undergraduate students pay $796 per four-month term, or $199 a month, for as many courses as they like, e-books included.
Targeted to working adults, and drawing heavily from the model of Western Governors University, a nonprofit self-paced online college founded in 1999 that now serves more than 30,000 students, UNow has already enrolled 4,000 students at its first school called New Charter, according to founder Gene Wade. The venture doesn’t rely on any federal aid, and it recently received $17 million in venture capital funds.
New Charter offers two tracks – business and public policy, with degrees ranging from associate to master’s in each. The faculty has the typical credentials, everything from MBAs to PhDs, but since they pre-record lectures and focus on either coaching through email or live, online office hours, or evaluating, they can work with a higher volume of students than at a brick-and-mortar school and keep costs down. Wade says that with the venture capital funds, they’ll be able to add more schools to the program, including a community college model, and increase the available majors. This week, UNow announced a partnership with Patten University, a regionally accredited four-year institution. The new online program will offer bachelor’s degrees at just over $10,000.
But some think the idea sounds too good to be true. “There is room for a business model that drives down the cost, but this is such an extreme cut that it makes me question the quality of the education that results from it,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, an online financial aid resource. Kantrowitz cites affordable lecture programs like MIT and Stanford’s free online courses (both of which are not for credit), as well as The Great Courses LLC, a DVD company that sells lectures with professors, as modes for self learning, but maintained that when it comes to getting a degree, you need more.
“If watching TV was all you needed [to do] to get a college education, you’d have a lot more people doing it,” he said. “You could watch 1,000 hours of PBS shows and get a degree.” It’s also too early to tell how graduates of this program will fare in the job market – and how employers will regard a degree from UNow.
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The school is competency based, meaning students can receive associate, bachelor and masters degrees not by credit hours, but by passing courses through competency exams. They need to pass 20 courses to earn an associate degree, 40 courses for a bachelor’s and 12 for a master’s (but only after earning a bachelor’s degree).
Though UNow has been accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, a non-profit agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, it currently lacks regional accreditation, which could prevent credits from transferring at some schools. Most traditional brick-and-mortar colleges are regionally accredited and some don’t accept credits from nationally-accredited schools.
A DEBT-FREE OPTION?
University Now comes onto the market just as student debt levels have reached a critical point: more than $1 trillion. The average student’s debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000. At the same time, 53 percent of bachelor’s degree holders were unemployed or underemployed last year, making it harder than ever to pay back the mounting debt.
Wade, a longtime education entrepreneur, says he began working on the platform two years ago and wanted to create an education model that would give students more affordable options. “It became clear that this would be a great time to build an affordable high-quality rigorous university that people wouldn’t go into debt to attend,” Wade says.
Prospective students start by creating a free account at New Charter University, and take an assessment test to discover what they already know about the subject, allowing them to focus only on course material that covers their problem areas. Students can also access course curriculum before paying. Once they feel ready, they can pay the fee to start taking tests and work with advisors and coaches at their own pace to complete each course. The final exam is moderated by a course specialist, but only when students have demonstrated proficiency through quizzes and a pre-exam. “We don’t let you sit through the exam unless you're going to pass it,” Wade says.
Student data is also stored and used to discover which lectures, quizzes and tasks are the most beneficial to students. Gene Wade compares the system to the queue recommendations on Netflix. As students use the system and complete assessments, the data reveals what methods worked and what didn’t – and suggests materials based on a student’s unique profile.
Though many applaud the innovation behind UNow, Kantrowitz says that the hands-on instruction and guidance from professors that comes with a traditional brick-and-mortar college is a crucial part of the learning process. “[University Now] is charging low enough [fees] for its degrees that it can’t be providing sufficient face-time with faculty members and tutorial sessions and the like, because it doesn’t have the revenues to do that,” Kantrowitz says. “You get what you pay for, and if you’re paying a tenth of what you’re paying at another college, you’re probably getting a tenth of the quality of education.”