As a competitive equestrian, Georgina Maskrey has cleared hundreds of chin-high hurdles and slippery ponds with the ease of a champion. But the greatest obstacle of them all came when she tried to find time to attend college.
Now the aspiring Olympic athlete from Thousand Oaks, Calif., has found a way to beat time without sacrificing her demanding training schedule. She takes college courses at night over the Internet.
To find her weekly assignments, she logs onto the Internet Web site for her school, Seattle Central Community College. To hear a lecture, she pops a video tape into her VCR. To get answers and feedback, she sends electronic-mail messages to her professors and classmates. And when she travels with her horse, Union Jack, to some distant competition, she does homework on her laptop computer.
"I went to a junior college for a while, and there was no homework," says the young business major, after a recent day-long practice. "Here, I'm doing 15- to 20-page papers all the time."
For the growing population of working students who must fit classes into their work schedules, cybercollege is the most convenient way to get ahead. And for a growing number of colleges, the Internet is good business. In the past five years, the number of colleges offering courses over the Internet has grown from a dozen to more than 300.
Most of these schools, like prestigious Duke University in Durham, N.C., will keep their ivy-covered campuses while using the Internet to make their programs more accessible without building new dorms and lecture halls. Others, like the University of Phoenix, and Western Governors University (still under development) and International University in Denver, are making distance learning their specialty. A few, like the proposed California Virtual University, will exist only in cyberspace.
But while high technology provides new tools for reaching more prospective students, the driving force may be the changing face of America's student population.
"It used to be that adult students were pariahs on campus," says Kenneth Green, a visiting scholar who studies the cybercollege phenomenon at the Claremont Graduate School in California. Now, 5 out of 11 college students are over the age of 24, boosting overall enrollment from 12 million to 20 million students.
There are no data tracking how many of these students attend college exclusively by computer, but Dr. Green says "the market is exploding." And colleges had better keep looking for even more ways to accommodate more students, he adds, as the children of baby boomers reach college age.
The growth in Internet learning shows that "campuses are responding to the market," Green says. "They may respond slowly, but they respond nonetheless."
Some critics of electronic higher education argue that computers can't re-create the question-and-answer dynamic of a traditional classroom. Others say the Internet lacks the face-to-face interaction that can help build leadership and communication skills. Still to be seen is how such cyber-degrees will be regarded in the workplace.
Even so, a number of private companies have leapt into the growing business of cyber-education. Perhaps the most ambitious is Jones Education Company, which has created its own Internet-based International University in Denver.
"The concept has to be to deliver education to the people rather than people to the education," says Glenn Jones, founder of Jones Education. "There are 100 million adults learning in the US alone, but college systems can only serve 15 million of them. You can see the potential of cyber-education."
A recent study conducted for Jones shows how the high cost of education may end up steering more students toward the Internet.
Nearly 79 percent of the high school class of 1998 intend to go to college, only about 61 percent actually enroll, and only 28 percent actually graduate from college. The No. 1 stumbling block: cost. But a surprisingly high number of high-schoolers, 45 percent, said they were likely to consider cyberschools as an alternative.
Last month, Mr. Jones conferred the first graduate degree in the short history of International University. Patti Billett-Zigarevich, a computer specialist at Jones's company, earned her MBA at home after work.
"I live out in the country, so commuting to a college library [after work] is not an option," says Ms. Billett-Zigarevich, whose home is an hour away from Denver. "I prefer to fit school into my schedule rather than spend an hour or two commuting each day."
She says she got much more out of her Internet-college experience than she ever did in a traditional college setting.
"I think I have more interaction with my professors over the Internet than being in a regular classroom," she says. "At many colleges, you can have 400 students in a class. At IU [International University], we had 20 students in a class."
Ms. Maskrey, the equestrian, notes that while the Internet Age may make college accessible to more people than ever before, cybercollege is not for everyone.
"You have to be disciplined," she says. "At the end of a long day, you have to sit yourself down and do the work. There's no one to breathe down your neck and force you to do it."