CONVENTIONAL academics don't like the explosion in online education, and that's understandable. But now that Congress has cleared the way for more colleges to offer courses via the Internet, higher-education traditionalists must face the prospect that the popularity of going to college without really going to college could explode, like it or not.
What served as a lid on commercial education was removed when Congress dropped a restriction requiring colleges and universities to offer at least half their courses on a campus, not online, in order to qualify for federal student aid.
The 50 percent rule, as it was known, was adopted after some for-profit schools basically churned out diplomas to anybody who wanted one - no work required.
A big change in higher education is coming, and the online industry has powerful lobbyists and friends in high places in Congress. President Bush backs the idea to help nontraditional students, although you have to wonder about his policies that undermine students who go to school via federal student aid.
Other key supporters include Ohio's own House Majority Leader John Boehner, and Rep. Howard McKeon, the California Republican who is taking Mr. Boehner's position as House education committee chairman.
Traditional colleges have also expanded their online course offerings, and public interest has grown rapidly, even though the industry has had a checkered past. Before dropping the restriction, Congress had granted waivers to some colleges with online programs and, in six years, enrollment jumped dramatically at several of them.
There's still great debate over how effective online education is, and little proof either way. But none of that has stopped people with lifestyle restrictions who find that Internet-based colleges allow them to pursue a vast array of interests. Plus, these so-called colleges give certificates and degrees, even though to traditionalists they are worth no more than the paper they are printed on.
But for many, there's little difference between taking classes in an impersonal campus lecture hall with several hundred other students and taking online courses.
Maybe there are only a few dozen fully Internet-based colleges now, but that may soon change. Inspector General John Higgins, Jr., of the U.S. Department of Education, said last spring that the majority of cases he investigates are at for-profit schools. If anti-fraud protections are not set up to protect gullible consumers, his job could get a lot harder very soon.