kansas city star logoAugust 9, 2006 - Grantham University, a virtual college, has found a home in KC.

A tour of Kansas City's newest university begins and ends in a carpeted hallway above a Gap store.

Away from the cubicles lies a room with two desks, a ladder and four racks of blinking computers. "This," says your guide unlocking the door, "is the virtual school."

It's the data center, the beating heart, of Grantham University. Many expect little rooms like this to house higher education's delivery system in the 21st century.

In coming weeks millions of Americans will flock to four-year institutions for the "traditional" experience. Sitting in classrooms, studying in dorms, cheering on teams.

None of it happens at Grantham, a nationally accredited for-profit college that teaches all courses online, direct from Zona Rosa. The university moved here after Hurricane Katrina killed its Louisiana facilities.

"Online universities" are spreading as the traditional student becomes an exception, not a rule. The National Center for Education Statistics finds that fewer than 20 percent of students enrolled in U.S. colleges are full-time undergraduates, ages 18 to 22, living on campus and having face-time with professors.

The rest of America's college crowd includes part-timers, mid-career graduate students, working parents and military people seeking degrees however they can.

About 2 million now do so at home, online. In most cases they never meet instructors or fellow classmates.

Last month federal data collectors noted a milestone: The Web-based, for-profit University of Phoenix leapt over the most heavily populated campuses to boast the largest student body of all U.S. colleges.

Enrollment in Phoenix's online program had tripled since 2001 to encompass 115,794 "distance learners."

Grantham and its 200 local employees - serving 11,000 students worldwide - are bit players in the new paradigm. But that, too, could change. As of July 1, online students at accredited cybercolleges are eligible for federal student loans denied them the last 14 years.

Congress lifted a rule that required colleges seeking aid to deliver at least half of their courses in campus classrooms. The "50 percent rule" was designed to thwart a once-shady industry of commercial trade schools feasting on federal money.

"It's a very different world than what we knew before the Internet," said Leroy Wade, director of proprietary school certification for the Missouri Department of Higher Education. "We still need to be cautious. When the government puts money out there, thousands of fraudulent schools will always be looking" to get it.

No longer lumped with mail-order "diploma mills," however, the distance education industry enjoys respect and political clout. Harvard offers online diplomas, after all, as do most public universities.

The Washington Post Co. owns Kaplan University, part of online educational holdings that brought $1 billion in revenues to the newspaper company in 2004.

At Grantham, chief financial officer J. Patrick Campbell is a former president of the NASDAQ stock market. One vice president holds a Harvard degree in political science; another graduated Columbia Law School.

Top dog is Grantham Education Corp. Chairman Thomas M. Macon, 49. A former Coca-Cola salesman, his only diploma came from Lafayette High School in Ballwin, Mo. In the late 1990s he realized three-quarters of U.S. workers lacked college degrees and "the traditional university construct was not set up for working people.

"This was our mission: to democratize education for working adults."

Their mission grossed $17 million in tuition last year, according to Missouri records - still less than $2,000 per student.

Campus life

Grantham University has no entrance per se.

From the sidewalk at N.W. 87th Street, use the door east of Victoria's Secret and take the elevator or stairs to the second floor.

"We don't pretend to be Harvard," said Bill Wells, donning a telephone headset in an admissions office where 120 workers recruit students by phone. "But in the government's eyes, we meet the same standards" because Grantham, like Harvard, is accredited to issue degrees.

Grantham has no semester per se.

Students work individually, year-round, at their own pace. This allows them to complete courses in three or 30 weeks, depending on their commitment.

The flexibility helps those fighting insurgencies in Iraq. Most of Grantham's student body serves in the military. With government aid, they seek bachelor's degrees in computer science and criminal justice, among other studies.

From his home 1,100 miles from Kansas City, Arthur Holst teaches American government.

Like 42 other adjunct faculty members listed in the 2005-06 catalog, Holst can post assignments and grade essays from anywhere in the world.

One faculty member lives in Israel. Another, New Zealand.

Holst is government-affairs manager for the Philadelphia Water Department. He calls himself a "pracademic" who combines a Ph.D. in political science with practical experience - being chief of staff for a city councilman, for example.

"How can you teach it if you've never practiced in the real world? A lot of political science professors haven't," he says.

But is this college?

Absolutely, says the U.S. Department of Education. It recognizes the accrediting commission of the Distance Education and Training Council. The council has existed since 1926 to ensure that correspondence courses meet standards of accredited campus curricula.

Privately held Grantham has operated 55 years. "They had a great reputation here," said Kevin Hardy, spokesman for the Louisiana Board of Regents.

College enrollment is swelling everywhere, but it's swelling fastest among for-private, online universities; Grantham's enrollment has shot up 3,000 percent in a decade. From a budgeting standpoint, such colleges offer what CFO Campbell calls a "scalable" business model - void of state funding battles, demands of tenured faculty and costs of bricks and mortar.

"Our students vote with their dollars," says Macon. "If we don't deliver on promises, they don't come back."

On the bandwagon

The success of commercial online colleges has helped spur public universities to join in.

Many institutions, including the University of Kansas, charge the same tuition rates for online studies as they do for classroom courses, even if the teachers usually aren't full professors and building costs don't apply.

"We're seeing different ways to offer education to audiences that weren't being served," said Jean Redeker, KU's assistant dean of Continuing Education. "But resident students will always be our core audience. We have tons of buildings, tons of faculty - we can't throw them away."

Nationwide, tenured professors remain skeptical of the online classroom. They arm-wrestle administrators drawn to revenue potential. "There are qualities of academic life and personal life that can only be attained by physically being on a campus," said Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors.

Many employers remain skeptical of degrees earned online, said Melissa Watkins, a consultant for OMNI Employment Management Services in Overland Park: "Fortune 500 companies in particular are very pedigree conscious... Yet once they've hired you and want to help move you up the ladder, it's cheaper for them to say, 'Go to Grantham.' It's business, right?"

All agree, cybercollege isn't for everyone. But at least it makes a degree possible for Park University student Robin Bridges, 44, a single mother and civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers.

"A regular classroom education wasn't feasible as a working adult with two kids," she says.

Majoring in management and human resources, she's in her eighth online class. Spending an hour or two nightly on her computer, she prefers typing her thoughts on a discussion board rather than blurting out comments in class.

"The classmates you meet online - it's like a whole new family." And she still chats with her first professor in California. "I've said, 'If you're ever in KC, stop by so I can see you.'"

The relocation

They drove to Kansas City in a pilgrimage - dozens of employees of Grantham University, with children and pets - after Hurricane Katrina wrecked their offices in Slidell, La.

In New Orleans, Katrina closed Tulane University for five months. But Grantham's courses continued uninterrupted, virtually - all data replicated in a backup system in Virginia. Still, employees needed a place to work.

On the Friday after the disaster, Joe McGrath, the school's executive vice president, walked into a Union Bank in the Northland to see if financing could be stepped up from existing plans for a satellite office there. The college needed to relocate.

Bank manager Connie Swayze told McGrath to return Monday, when Swayze had a small crowd waiting - among them local clergy, charity workers and education officials.

"But for the kindness of the Kansas City people, we would've never pulled it off," says McGrath. Local residents donated enough food and toiletries to fill two rooms of a Days Inn. The school leased 60 apartments and started a fund to help workers make down payments on houses.