If at First You Don't Succeed

February 9, 2005

During the tech boom of the '90s, New York University and Western Governors University were among the ambitious innovators in distance education. NYU created a for-profit, online spinoff. After a few years, it tanked. Western Governors, with its emphasis on "competency based" education, predicted it would quickly enroll thousands of students -- and ended up with dozens.

This week, both institutions are turning corners in their distance programs.

Western Governors, which holds graduations from time to time since its students are not on traditional semesters, will be graduating 116 students on Saturday. That's up from 46 a year ago. Enrollment is now more than 3,100, more than double the total of a year ago, and up from 225 four years ago. More than 200 new students are enrolling each month.

In Western Governors' programs, students are tested on "competencies" rather than focusing on course credits. But to learn those competencies, they take online courses from participating colleges in the region and elsewhere. The key to Western Governors' growth spurt appears to be a very traditional field: teacher education.

Of the 116 graduates, 87 earned bachelor's or master's degrees in education fields. Created in 2003, the university's education school saw enrollment grow to more than 2,000 in the last year, up from 700.

NYU is also returning to the basics. The university announced Tuesday that it was starting its first wholly online undergraduate degrees for adults. The degrees will be offered through NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

The new program is called NYU Online -- the same name as the university's ill-fated for-profit business -- but the new NYU Online is part of the nonprofit university. The idea, NYU officials say, is to build on the university's historic strength in adult education (from long before the days of online education), and to expand nationally. NYU's undergraduate and professional programs increasingly attract students from far beyond New York City, and the online program is seen as a way for the university's continuing education programs to do the same.

Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst at Eduventures, which does research on the education industry for investors and others, said he thought Western Governors had been held back by its lack of a major marketing push. Major for-profit providers of distance education spend millions to attract students, so competitors need to be noticed, he said.

Teacher education is a smart growth area for the university, he said. Western states face severe teacher shortages and there is "a lot of credibility" in seeking teacher training from a coalition of states. "That's a great spot for them to be in," he said.

Gallagher, who noted the NYU has subscribed to some of his company's research, said that the university's announcement "shows how mainstream online education has become." Most of the major players in the field are public or for-profit institutions. "There's been relatively little activity from private institutions, especially selective private institutions," he said. NYU's new program "adds more credibility to the market."

He said that NYU shouldn't be hurt by its flop with the original NYU Online. Prospective students today will never have heard of the earlier entity, and the university "has learned from the experience."

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