Table: A Guide to Online Universities

As e-learning has exploded, hundreds of universities and for-profit start-ups have begun peddling courses over the Web. Here is a brief look at the range of providers

1. University of Maryland University College

The largest state university provider of online courses, it moved online in the mid-90s, building on its long heritage of offering extension courses. Last year, enrollments in its online classes hit 63,000, up 50% in one year. Students can now earn 70 different degrees and certificates online. In addition to courses, UMUC provides a comprehensive array of online student services, from applications to academic advising and financial aid consulting.

COST: Same as for UMUC's traditional classroom courses. That means Maryland residents are charged just $197 per semester hour for undergrad courses, and $301 per semester for graduate courses. But out-of-state residents must pay over 50% more.

2. University of Phoenix Online

The nation's largest for-profit virtual university, offering the same kind of business, education and technical courses for working adults that have made its bricks-and-mortar counterpart, the University of Phoenix, such a success. In business, students may earn everything from undergraduate degrees in accounting, managment and marketing to an MBA and even a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership. Phoenix Online provides lots of attention to its students. Classes are kept small, and instructors insist on participation.

COST: $400 to $500 per credit; an MBA degree costs about $23,000

3. eArmyU (The U.S. Army's Virtual University)

Since January, eArmyU has allowed enlisted soldiers to take courses and earn degrees from 24 different institutions, ranging from Central Texas College to Utah State. So far, 10,400 soldiers have signed up on the three Army bases where it's offered. The plan is to offer it Army-wide by 2003.

COST: Free to soldiers, who receive a laptop, printer, internet connection and 100% of tuition. Civilians are not eligible for eArmyU.

4. Western Governors University

Virtual university founded by 19 western states in 1997.A pioneer in "competency-based degrees," which require students to demonstrate mastery of a subject, rather than complete a certain number of credit hours. In practice, this means students are assessed when they enter a program. An individual course of study is then developed for each student to fill the gaps in their knowledge. The result is that the length of time needed to complete a degree varies widely, and is dependent on what the student knows. While it may sound radical, WGU is backed by some two-dozen corporate sponsors, including IBM, AOL and Microsoft.

COST: WGU charges about $4500 for the assessment and mentoring needed for a two-year degree. Students must pay separately for courses, which are offered by some 40 different institutions.

5. Concord Law School

Launched by Kaplan Inc., a unit of the Washington Post Co, Concord has grown to become the nation's largest virtual law school, with 800 students at present. Kaplan argues that the law is ideally suited to online learning, because it facilitates communication (via e-mail) among students and professors. While the program is not yet accredited by the American Bar Association, students may sit for the California Bar Exam.

COST: $6,000 per year, or $24,000 for four-year law degree

6. Duke's Fuqua School of Business

"Blended" MBA programs for working executives, in which 65% of the work is done over the Net, and 35% in classes that meet for 9 or 11 weeks during 20-month programs. There are two blended programs. The "Global Executive" program is designed for executives who manage a large international business unit or a global staff. The average global student has 14 years of professional experience. In contrast, the "Cross Continent" program is aimed at more junior managers -- with an average of six years of experience -- who have already demonstrated success at the department level.

COST: Up to $90,000 for "Global Executive" program, versus $60,000 for normal daytime MBA. The extra costs cover the residential program, which in the case of Global Executive is held in various spots around the world, including Europe, Asia and the Duke campus.

7. Cardean University

The virtual university founded by, one of the highest profile e-learning start-ups. UNext partnered with some of the world's best known universities -- including Stanford, the University of Chicago and Columbia -- to develop its cutting edge business curriculum. It is now offering courses to employees of General Motors and a number of other companies, and will shortly begin marketing its business courses to consumers.

COST: About $25,000 for MBA

8. Jones International University

The virtual university founded in 1993 by cable pioneer Glenn R. Jones, who earlier offered distance courses via cable TV through his Mind Extension University. Jones offers more than 40 executive and professional education programs. Students may earn a bachelor's degree in business, an MBA, as well as various masters degrees in education.

COST: 3-credit course runs $925; MBA costs about $12,000

9. Capella University

A for-profit virtual university that offers some 500 online courses every quarter. Students may choose from 15 different degree programs, and some 80 different specializations. Most of the 4,000 students study business, education or information technology.

COST: Courses (which offer 3 to 5 credits) tend to cost from $1150 to $1600. A masters degree runs about $20,000, and a Ph.D. about $34,000.

10. Walden University

Originally founded in 1970 to offer graduate degrees, Walden moved online in the mid-1990s. Walden is 41% owned by Sylvan Learning Systems, which has other online education programs as well. Walden specializes in graduate programs in business, education, psychology, public health and human services.

COST: An MBA runs about $20,000, while a PhD can cost $47,000.

11. The Electronic Campus of the Southern Regional Education Board

A sweeping smorgasboard of online courses organized by the Southern Regional Education Board, an organization formed to promote education reform in 16 southern states. The electronic campus offers over 5,000 online courses from 325 different schools, ranging from Auburn University to West Virginia University.

COST: Tuition varies widely, since it is set by the college that actually offers a given course. As one example, a course on American History since 1865 offered by Oklahoma State costs $365.

12. Harvard Extension School

Your best chance to take an online course from Harvard, these courses are offered by Harvard's extension school. While the Harvard Extension School currently offers over 500 courses in the traditional classroom setting, only about three dozen are currently available online. However, the plan is to expand the number of online offerings. Most of the courses available this year are computer science courses, on topics like website development and algorithms.

COST: Same as for attending a course at the extension school. The cost ranges from $275 for a course on American Constitutional History taken without credit, to $1,750 for the course on website development.

13. UT Telecampus

An excellent example of the expanding e-learning programs offered by state university systems, the UT Telecampus was launched in 1998 by the University of Texas system. Students may earn an MBA, Masters in Computer Science, and various other online degrees from a school within the UT system. Students who wish to earn a degree must first apply and be admitted to one of the universities in the UT system. That campus will then serve as the student's "home" campus, and ultimately award the degree.

COST: Texas residents pay about $300 for a 3-credit undergraduate course, and $500 for a 3-credit graduate course. Non-residents are charged roughly twice as much.

14. Stanford Center for Professional Development

One of the most challenging and prestigious online programs. The Stanford Center offers both online degrees and non-degree courses from Stanford's School of Engineering and affiliated departments. The center now provides over 250 online credit classes in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, etc. These are not watered down courses. They are taught by the Stanford faculty, and students must be admitted, just like on-campus students. The online courses are designed strictly for employed engineers and scientists. The attraction is that they may keep working, while furthering their education.

COST: About $3,000 for a credit course, or 40% more than it would cost to take a similar course on campus. Typically, the companies employing the students pick up the tab.

15. Fathom

One of the most noted sites launched to promote both lifelong learning, as well as professional development. Fathom was founded by Columbia University, and includes a number of other member institutions, from the American Film Institute to Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum. Students may enroll in everything from short seminars on the history of New York City to semester-length for-credit courses from various institutions.

COST: Ranges from under $50 for short seminars to around $450 for semester-length courses.

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