Online High Schools Attracting Elite Names
By ALAN SCHWARZ
PALO ALTO, Calif. — In June, about 30 seniors will graduate from a little-known online high school currently called the Education Program for Gifted Youth. But their diplomas will bear a different name: Stanford Online High School.
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Yes, that Stanford — the elite research university known for producing graduates who win Nobels and found Googles, not for teaching basic algebra to teenagers. Five years after the opening of the experimental program, some education experts consider Stanford’s decision to attach its name to the effort a milestone for online education.
“This is significant,” said Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan policy institute. “One of our country’s most prestigious universities feels comfortable putting its considerable prestige and brand behind it.”
As the line between virtual and classroom-based learning continues to blur, some see Stanford’s move as a sign that so, too, will the line between secondary and higher education. Several other universities — though none with the pedigree of Stanford — already operate online high schools, a development that has raised some questions about expertise and motives.
“From my perspective, colleges, concentrate on what you’re good at,” said Ronald A. Crutcher, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., who added that he had recently declined an offer from a for-profit education company to join other small liberal arts institutions in forming an online high school in their image. “Be consultants, but don’t contribute to a trend that I think has some real problems.”
About 275,000 students nationwide are enrolled full time in online schools, according to Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit advocacy group. Most of these are free public charter schools, but colleges — private and public — have begun to get into the business as well.
The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and the University of Missouri have awarded diplomas to about 250 and 85 students, respectively, annually for the last several years. The George Washington University Online High School opened in January.
Capitalizing on its reputation in foreign language instruction, Middlebury College in Vermont last year worked with K12, a for-profit company, to develop online high school language courses serving 50,000 students nationwide. An individual student’s course costs $749 per year, and Middlebury will share the profits. Ronald Liebowitz, Middlebury’s president, said that while “it looks like mission creep beyond belief,” the opportunity to raise revenue carried the decision.
“The risk is great, and I’d be silly if I said otherwise,” Mr. Liebowitz said of lending Middlebury’s name to a program whose teachers are not affiliated with the college. But, he noted, “we could have millions of dollars coming into the operating budget, which eases the burden of other revenue streams — mainly tuition and other fees. It’s a for-profit venture.”
Ms. Patrick said the typical online high school student lives in a remote area, was previously home-schooled or is deeply involved in an extracurricular activity that is incompatible with traditional schooling.
In this growing market, Stanford Online High School aims to be the destination for the most talented students. About 20 percent of the current 120 students receive financial aid to offset the $14,800 tuition, which is about half the average private-school tuition nationwide but far more than the University of Nebraska program’s $2,500. About 300 more students take one or more $3,200-per-year classes to supplement a bricks-and-mortar program.
Stanford officials said that the online high school had not yet yielded a profit, but that if it did, the money would be used for high school financial aid, not for the wider institution.
There is no entrance exam, but a college-like application requires essays, letters of recommendation and standardized test scores. About 70 percent of the applicants were accepted this year, a far cry from Stanford University’s 7.3 percent acceptance rate in 2010-11.
Of the high school’s 75 graduates, 69 so far have enrolled directly in four-year colleges, according to Raymond Ravaglia, the high school’s executive director. Eight attend Stanford, and 25 others are at Ivy League institutions or other elite campuses.
“I don’t see this for a second competing with quality high schools, but for some people this could be an education they can’t get,” said John Etchemendy, Stanford’s provost. “I’m quite impressed with it, and they are clearly attracting capable students. It’s something that does make me comfortable making Stanford’s ownership of it more prominent.”
Mr. Ravaglia, a 1987 Stanford graduate, helped pioneer the university’s online education programs in the 1990s. A few years after the 2001 opening of the university’s summer program for high school students, he recommended a fusion of the two that could cater to Stanford-caliber high school students wanting an online option.
The high school teachers are not university professors, though Mr. Ravaglia said a majority had doctorates. He declined to say how much they are paid.
In a typical class session, about 14 students simultaneously watch a live-streamed lecture, with video clips, diagrams and other animations to enliven the lesson. Instead of raising hands, students click into a queue when they have questions or comments; teachers call on them by choosing their audio stream, to be heard by all. An instant-messaging window allows for constant discussion among the students who, in conventional settings, might be chastised for talking in class.
“You’re interacting with people all the time — with people all over the world,” said Nick Benson, a senior whose career as an actor required the flexibility of online schooling. “The nature of the classes is that you do interact with people quote-unquote in person — you’re seeing their face and responding to them like in any normal class.”
Nick, who scored 2,340 out of 2,400 on the SAT and is applying to Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ivy League schools, said some college admissions officers needed some convincing. “It’s a conversation starter,” he said. “I haven’t had an interview that doesn’t run long, because they’re curious what the school is about.”
Students taking a full five-course load must be present for 10 seminars per week, each of them 60 to 90 minutes, with an additional 15 to 20 lectures of about 15 minutes that are recorded by the teachers and viewable at the students’ convenience. Fridays are reserved for activities like a student newspaper and an engineering team. Papers are submitted electronically, and students are required to find a Stanford-approved proctor to oversee exams.
“It’s uncommon for an online high school to not rely on more of an honor system, and it is a pain for kids to find suitable proctors,” Mr. Ravaglia said. “But we want legitimacy in the results, and don’t want students coming to the school for the wrong reason.”
Mr. Ravaglia said the school would gradually expand to about 100 students per grade and would keep class sizes around 15. (“We don’t have plans to have 1,000 kids and then press control-C to start replicating it,” he said.)
But Mr. Etchemendy, the provost, said he “would be neither upset nor shocked” if enrollment at Stanford Online High eventually approached that of Stanford’s undergraduate population, about 6,500.
Some outsiders have suggested that students and their parents might assume that enrolling in a prestigious university’s online high school would give them a leg up at college admission time. Mr. Ravaglia said the only advantage his students got in applying to Stanford was admissions officers’ familiarity with and respect for the program.
Harold O. Levy, a former New York City schools chancellor and founder of Kaplan’s online master’s of education program, said Stanford’s involvement in this sector could be a watershed.
“If Stanford proves that online high schooling can work for the high end, then that’s a great proof of concept,” said Mr. Levy, who is now a partner in a venture fund that invests in education companies, many of them for-profit or online. “But if it’s used by the low-end for-profits for marketing a poor product — and you know that will happen — in a way that undermines quality, that’s what scares me. That would be very dangerous.”
Copyright 2011 The New York Times company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Education, of Sunday, November 20, 2011.