Lots of subgroups in higher education have a Rodney Dangerfield syndrome. Adjunct instructors tire of being looked down on by (and getting paid much less than) tenured and tenure-track professors. Officials at many community colleges feel they get short shrift (financially and attitudinally) from their four-year college peers. Leaders in for-profit higher education continually feel snubbed by counterparts at nonprofit institutions.
Purveyors of online education programs tend to feel dissed, too. Even as surveys show that enrollments in distance ed programs are growing  -- with one in five college students saying they took at least one course online in 2006 -- and all trends pointing to continued growth, advocates for online learning programs say they continue to face obstacles to acceptance, from a variety of sources: state regulators who look askance at their offerings, reporters who ignore them, and a public that isn't quite sure what to make of them.
A group of true believers gathered in a Congressional office building Wednesday under the auspices of the Presidents' Forum of Excelsior College,  which is made up of leaders of numerous institutions that operate mostly or exclusively online. In sessions on the great variation in how state regulators assess distance ed programs, how the news media cover online learning, and the group's new effort to prove online institutions' value  by making public reams of data about their performance -- including student outcomes at the program-specific level.
A common theme throughout the day was how little some of the issues and hurdles had changed in the more than two decades that colleges and universities have been trying to educate increasing numbers of students who are either place-bound or prefer to learn not in a classroom but at a distance. In the session on state recognition of online programs, David A. Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education and former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the Clinton administration, recalled a 1980s effort known as Project ALLTEL  (Assessing Long-Distance Learning through Telecommunications) in which the State Higher Education Executive Officers and other college leaders sought a common framework for judging the quality of distance programs.
"I'm just shocked this is still an issue, because we solved all this two decades ago," Longanecker said with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "We had two basic principles: that we should have reciprocity between the states and trust each other, and that in that reciprocity, we should cede to the highest standard -- whoever was doing the best job in this area, we should follow. We just left the details to be worked out -- I guess we're still working those out."
That's an understatement, providers of online education argued. Virtually every state still has a different set of standards and expectations for what it wants online education programs to prove before they're given the right to operate in that state. And while typically states have required online providers to earn state approval only if they have on-ground operations in that state -- which has required blended entities like the University of Phoenix to go state to state seeking approval through "gigantic bureaucratic, labyrinthine processes" that often involve "public pillorying," said Jorge Klor de Alva, senior vice president for academic excellence there -- the bar may now be rising.
One regionally accredited online education company recently sent a letter to state higher education officials in every state asking if it needed state recognition to offer distance education to residents, with no physical presence in the states. Nineteen states said they would require the company to gain state approval, while 31 said the online provider could operate in the state based on its accreditor's approval.
Officials at several state universities that operate large online programs in other states said they have not sought (and had no intention of seeking) such approval, and that they have not run into any impediments. But that differential treatment troubled Longanecker and others, who argued that policy makers should take another shot -- perhaps through regional compacts like WICHE, or through the regional accrediting agencies -- at trying to get states to agree to a common standard for assessing the quality of online programs. "We should aim for a baseline that all states should agree on, informed by the gold standards of regional and national accreditation," said Klor de Alva.
Skepticism abounded. "David can come out and say it would be good, but it's not going to be solved in our lifetime," said David Clinefelter, provost at Kaplan University. "It didn't work 20 years ago, and it isn't going to work in the next 20 years."
If online educators thought their odds of getting states to agree on what a distance ed program should be were doomed, they seemed heartened by a new Zogby International survey of corporate human resources directors and small company chief executives, which was commissioned by the Presidents' Forum.
The numbers were hardly a ringing endorsement of online education; more business owners disagreed than agreed with the statement that "a degree earned through an online or distance-learning program is as credible as a degree earned through a traditional campus-based program," for instance.
But a solid majority (58 percent) of HR directors -- who described themselves as significantly more familiar with online learning programs -- strongly or somewhat agreed with that statement, and the most upbeat result for those gathered in Washington Wednesday was that 62 percent of those described themselves as "very familiar" or "familiar" with distance ed programs believe that online degrees are as credible as campus-based degrees.
Still, other results from the survey suggested that the barriers for some purveyors of online education may have less to do with how they offer their educations than with the type of institution they are -- a hurdle that may be harder to overcome. Human resources directors and CEOs alike agreed overwhelmingly with the notion that online degrees had more value if they came from institutions that also had campus-based programs than from institutions that were online only. Solid majorities also said that they valued online degrees from "well-known" colleges more than those from lesser known institutions.