University Now, an educational startup, has put a twist on buying an online education with the for-profit New Charter University, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports today. Ready for it? At New Charter University, your tuition costs are just $199 a month for a bachelors degree program. It's like an Early Bird buffet special, but for classes: Study all you can in four months, for one low price! As the Chronicle reports:
The for-profit's new venture—New Charter University, led by Sal Monaco, a former Western Governors provost—sidesteps the loan system by setting tuition so cheap that most students shouldn't need to borrow... "This is not buying a house," says Mr.[Gene] Wade, co-founder and chief executive of UniversityNow. "This is like, do I want to get cable?"
The new online college takes the lead from the nonprofit Western Governors University model valuing low-cost coursework and greater automation of instruction (The Utah-based nonprofit online school has grown at a rate of 30 percent per year over the past decade.) But New Charter is much different in some important ways.
How Far Can $199 Go Online?
First, it runs as a for-profit, which might be a red flag to any potential student who reads the news or saw the Government Accountability Office study on for-profit colleges, and opted against the likes of University of Phoenix or Kaplan for credibility reasons. And, while the school's polished site puts a premium on user-friendliness, and comes complete with a quirky "see how accessible we are" marketing scheme (you can enroll via Facebook for heaven's sake), is novelty and eye for impulsive buyers enough to match the glut of enrollments still at WGU? The Chronicle on NCU's innovative try-then-buy policy:
Another novelty: New Charter offers a try-it-before-you-buy-it platform that mimics the "freemium" model of many consumer Web services. Anyone can create an account and start working through its self-paced online courses free of charge. Their progress gets recorded. If they decide to pay up and enroll, they get access to an adviser (who helps navigate the university) and course specialists (who can discuss the material).
I don't think it's enough. Serious students - the kind who follow-through with a four-year degree - won't be lured in by the glitz. Here are the top problems I see with New Charter University, University Now's solution for the "crisis" in education (their words, not ours).
- New Charter University's (National) DETC accreditation won't satisfy some. The Distance Education and Training Council is a national accreditation, and while the body has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education since 1955, it is not what hiring managers mean when they ask "Was your school accredited?"[Read more: What is online college accreditation? ]The gold standard when it comes to academic courses of study is regional accreditation, and Western Governors University has it. New Charter does not. National accreditation is great, if your values are primarily 1) ease of acceptance into a program, and 2) affordability. It will not help you if you ever wish to transfer your credits into another college, or use a nationally accredited school's undergraduate degree towards admission into a regionally accredited masters program.
- New Charter relies on time-spent, not competency, of graduates. New Charter says it's got an outcomes-based model of competency, and limits credit by examination to only 25 percent of the degree's credit requirements. Part of why students keep flocking to WGU is because the school is hip to what multitudes of adult degree-earners really want: the ability to test out of unnecessary courses. Washington Monthly named WGU "The College For-Profits Should Fear" last year primarily for this "big innovation":"WGU’s answer to the status quo is to offer a degree that is based on competency rather than time. By gathering information from employers, industry experts, and academics, Western Governors formulates a detailed, institution- wide sense of what every graduate of a given degree program needs to know."It's hard on the face of it, to see how New Charter's going to capitalize on that very popular trait of WGU's if they're shackling students to desks like a brick-and-morter college. Though NCU might compare to WGU by offering cheap tuition thanks to automated, self-paced classes, online "advisers" for enrollment help, and "course specialists" for class questions, it's hard to see how they're helping to students who want credit for what they already know.
- Subscription-style enrollment calls "value" rhetoric into question. Remember the first time you signed up for a mail-order CD club? Or ordered a Time-Life product from TV, and suddenly discovered things you never wanted showing up on your bill? New Charter's setup doesn't look much different. Despite the advertising claim that you can take as many courses as you want per semester, degree-seeking students can only take 3 classes, then take one at a time with advisor's approval, after first completing those three. Non-degree students are limited to four courses per semester, period. It's not as flexible as other online colleges, and this is a huge drawback for adult students. Time off between the four-month, year-round terms is limited to a 30-day break, at which point you are automatically re-enrolled. Leaves of absence are granted for a period of up to 60 days, but must be due to extenuating circumstances. It's not clear how students would take a semester off, except to forfeit their entire degree (I've placed a call to the university.) Military members can request special leave, but that doesn't help if you're a civilian who simply needs a few months between courses.
- Academic credibility is a concern for shrewd buyers. New Charter University has some important-looking people on their website. Dr. Salvatore Monaco, the president, was a former provost at Western Governors University and dean for University of Maryland University College. The school's provost, Dr. Karen Baldeschwieler, was previously a VP of Learning at Kaplan. But with open-source textbooks as the standard, and the site 'Teacher Tube' supplying lessons, it's questionable whether the classes will offer a challenge, or provide a decent enough degree to help you land jobs. University Now's #5 core value claims to be "Degrees Valued By Employers" but it is yet to be seen that this kind of program can hold up the promise of offering rigorous and respect-worthy educational standards. The company's founder, education entrepreneur Gene Wade, believes his model is the answer. You can see a Ted Talk by him here on You Tube. I'm not so sure. What do you think?
About the Author: Jess Wisloski is an established freelancer and has worked as a staff reporter at some of New York City's leading fast-turnaround publications including the New York Times, the Brooklyn Papers, and the New York Daily News.