by Con Chapman
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio. Mel Carter spends his days driving a forklift at Sherman’s Lumber Yard but he dreams of moving on someday. “I’ve always wanted to be an astrophysicist,” he says wistfully as he looks off into the distance. “Either that or a phenomenologist.”
In the old days, Mel would have had to quit his job or attended school part-time in order to advance professionally, but with the advent of so-called “distance learning” and for-profit online universities, he’s making progress towards a new career where there’s no risk of driving off a loading dock.
But many graduates of online degree programs are finding that advertising claims made by virtual colleges they attended don’t always pan out. “I signed up for a master’s degree in comparative literature,” says Lu Ann Scheinhold of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When I showed up at Notre Dame and asked where I could apply for a job as a professor, they were like–’Hello? Who are you?’ And I said, “I happen to know that when you compare Moby Dick to Pride and Prejudice the one about the whale weighs twice as much.”
In fields that require scientific rigor, the shortcomings of on-line instruction can have potentially serious impacts. “I arrived at this archaeology dig and ran up to the professor to tell him I was ready to go to work,” says Jed Axt of Bridgeport, Connecticut. “He yells ‘Watch where you’re walking’ and gets all bent out of shape because I stepped on some stupid cooking pot or something.”
Still, distance learning is a necessity for students such as Tyler Oberg of Overland Park, Kansas, who works at a tuxedo rental shop during the day while studying to be an undertaker at night. “Whenever I try to inject embalming fluid into some high school senior who’s in here to rent his prom outfit,” he notes, “they get jumpy and I squirt it all over the floor.”