Farzad Naeim, an earthquake engineer from Los Angeles who decided to go to law school, didn't have time for campus meetings and classroom lectures. So when Kaplan's Concord Law School was launched last fall, Naeim enrolled to get his education through the Internet.
"I figure if I go to a standard school four nights a week, that eliminates the chance for me to see my kids grow up," said Naeim, 44. "I get my assignments off the computer, and I can study after the kids go to bed."
Hundreds of universities are launching courses or degree programs online. But a pair of reports being released Wednesday question whether a seat in front of a computer is as good as a seat in a college classroom.
The reports' complaints range from whether the programs' effectiveness is evaluated properly and whether they cost too much to whether they are unfair to certain students.
The College Board warns in its report that Internet courses could hinder the progress of poor and minority students who arrive at college with less exposure to computers than white or more-affluent students.
"There's this rush to get online and go virtual ... Colleges, policy-makers and (Internet) providers who are driving this market need to think about broad access," said Larry F. Gladieux, a senior College Board researcher.
A second report, by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, says colleges still lack enough knowledge about Internet-based education to justify its rapid growth. For example, studies haven't explained a higher dropout rate for Internet-based learners - 32 percent compared with 4 percent for classroom students in one study - or looked at whether students do better from Internet instruction alone or from a mix of Internet and classroom learning.
"Many of the studies suggest the grades of distance learners are higher or comparable," said Jamie Merisotis, president of the institute, which did the study for two teachers' unions. "We don't know whether the poorer performers are dropping out at a higher rate."
Right now, 26,000 courses online teach roughly 750,000 students. They include the online law school and courses at Stanford University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Duke.
The most visible advance, supporters say, is the first-time accreditation of a wholly online school: Students at Jones International University, operated out of Denver, now have such privileges as transferring credits and earning employer tuition reimbursements.
College officials worried over enrollment increases and budget cuts could easily be seduced by pitches that virtual learning cuts the costs of "bricks and mortar" learning, College Board's Gladieux said.
But they need to ensure equal access, he said, noting that a technological divide still exists. For example, computers are in 75 percent of households with incomes over $75,000, but just 20 percent of househols making less than $15,000 have computers or daily access.
Andrew Rosen of Kaplan notes that a law degree from Kaplan's Concord Law School costs up to $21,000, including the cost of a computer, rather than $80,000 for a more traditional law school.
"Online education has the potential to close a lot of the gaps that exist right now," Rosen said.
By Anjetta McQueen