SEATTLE — Nicole Traore always wanted to go back to school to get her bachelor's degree, but the 45-year-old mother of three busy boys has a full-time job and no extra time in her schedule to take classes on a college campus.
Then her husband heard about a first-of-its-kind online program at the University of Washington that offers students who already have completed some college a route to a bachelor's degree, entirely online and for a little more than half the tuition price.
Traore investigated. "It looked amazing," she said. And she enrolled.
Public and private colleges and community colleges have offered an extensive lineup of online degrees for years now. The UW degree program Traore is taking -- a bachelor's degree in early childhood and family studies -- is the first time the state's largest and most prestigious university has offered an all-online bachelor's completion degree.
The program will cost students $160 per credit, which is the equivalent of $7,000 for a year of full-time study -- several thousand less than the UW now charges for in-state students working on their undergraduate degrees.
More online offerings in other subjects are expected to follow.
The potential market is huge. Statewide, the UW estimates that about 900,000 adults started college or earned an associate degree at a community college but never earned a four-year degree.
The UW degree-completion program is one new entry in the rapidly changing field of online education, which is becoming a bigger slice of the business for Washington's two major state universities.
This month, Washington State University, which has vigorously promoted its catalog of online degree offerings under the name WSU Global Campus, earned top marks for several of its programs in U.S. News & World Report's third rating of the best online degree programs in the country. (The UW didn't participate in the survey.) In the past year, enrollment in WSU Global Campus has grown 20 percent.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 5.5 million students took at least one online course in 2012, and that number is expected to grow.
One report puts the number at more than 7 million students and predicts that more than half of all students will take at least one online course within five years.
Meanwhile, in the past year, free online courses -- once considered a force that could reshape higher education -- have lost some of their luster. Increasingly, academic leaders are questioning whether Massive Open Online Courses are sustainable, because they don't lead to a degree and cost the university money.
But traditional bachelor's degree programs taught in novel ways, using the latest technology and online instruction, are a growing field.
At WSU, the university's Global Campus enrollment has grown from 1,800 students last spring to 2,200 students this spring -- most of those students from the west side of the state.
As at the UW, the WSU programs must go through a rigorous review process and be approved by the faculty. Dave Cillay, Global Campus vice president, described it as "a very rigorous vetting of whether the course can be delivered online."