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2008 August 13 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Sky-High Gas Prices Fuel Boom in Online Classes

BOSTON (AP) — Laurel Ranticelli considered driving 40 miles round-trip to take education classes at the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. Then she realized she could take the same courses from her computer at home and save on the cost of gas.

“It’s gotten out of hand, the gas prices,” said Ranticelli, 50, who lives in Springfield. “It’s $70 a week. That’s pretty close to my groceries.”

She joins a growing number of students trying to save gas money by enrolling in online classes. Online enrollment has been steadily growing for years, but college administrators say the spike in gas prices has fueled a surge in students seeking classes without the cost of commuting.

Although most colleges do not track students’ reasons for choosing online learning, many administrators cite a clear link with fuel prices.

John Bourne, director of the Sloan Consortium, an organization that studies online education, said he expects gas prices to bring about “a blended classroom — half online, half in class.”

At Villanova University, the engineering school has seen a 40 percent increase in online enrollment this summer — even though summer enrollments typically stay flat.

“We’ve attributed it to the huge gas prices,” said Sean O’Donnell, who runs the engineering school’s distance-education program.

In many online classes, students log on at their convenience for coursework, which is done mostly through independent study. Students and professors interact through online chats, message boards and e-mail.

Many of the new online students at Villanova live within driving distance of the Philadelphia-area campus. But high gas prices are compelling them to reconsider preconceptions about online learning.

“This has been the catalyst to push people to change their thinking about their education,” he said. “You can now learn anytime, anywhere, on your schedule. They’re not degrading the quality of education because of gas prices.”

An informal online poll at Victoria College in Texas showed 42 percent of students plan to take online classes because of fuel costs. As a result of the increased interest, the school is preparing to increase online class capacity for this fall and next spring.

Administrators do have some concerns, including preventing students from dropping out.

“Retention in online classes is lower,” school spokeswoman Kimberly Haschke said, pointing out that students who do not make the drive to campus may abandon their studies before the class term is over. “I kind of worry about that.”

Karen Stevens, an early childhood education professor at the University of Massachusetts, said increased demand for online classes is forcing instructors to overcome doubts about the system.

“They weren’t sure it was good education,” she said. “If they had their preference, they would teach live. But because of gas prices, that’s not practical.”

La’Vern Brinson-Scott, a rehabilitation specialist who works with the blind, used to spend up to $70 a week on gas for her SUV to drive seven or eight miles to Tallahassee Community College, where she took classes to change her career to creative writing.

Now online classes save money and let her spend more time with her grandchildren.

Phil Gottlieb also started out taking business classes at a community college. As the father of two college students, he looked for ways to save on his own education while paying the bills for gas used by his children. Then he discovered Jones International University, an entirely online university based in Centennial, Colo., where Gottlieb lives.

“We live in a time when there’s not a lot of time to do extra things,” he said. “It helps me pay the bills.”

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