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(Special to The Root) —

"How do you feel about the emergence of nontraditional education like online and hybrid programs? How do African Americans fare in these programs?" —Dacia Genise Cobb

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I think the growth of online or "distance" learning is a very positive development and comes at an important time. A college education is more important than ever. The fastest-growing and best-paying jobs and careers increasingly require at least a two-year degree and often a full four-year degree. If you are a nontraditional learner — maybe you need to hold down a job while you're pursuing a degree — online education might be just the ticket. (In fact, I am a member of the board of directors of an online school, Capella University.)

There are more and more nontraditional learners, and an increasing percentage of them are African American. Students ages 25 and older make up 33.5 percent of all undergraduates, but 83 percent of undergraduates in this age group are enrolled at exclusively online institutions. Among these online students, African Americans are well-represented. Black students account for 14 percent of all undergraduates but 20 percent of undergrads enrolled at exclusively online institutions.

Why is online education taking off with African Americans? The road to and through college is increasingly out of alignment with 21st-century economic and social realities. Our system of education has traditionally been geared to the needs of young people who graduate from high school and go directly on to college. It doesn't respond so well to the needs of people who have to hold on to jobs while they go to college.

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Some have gone to work right out of high school but are discovering how limited opportunities are if you haven't gone to college. Others have been laid off or cut back in the recession, and believe — correctly — that their chances of getting a new job will be greater if they have a college degree or certificate. Online education was made to order for them.

It may be too soon to render an across-the-board judgment about how African Americans fare in online education situations. Although distance learning has been around for a while, the increase in African-American use of it is relatively recent, and research is sparse and shows mixed results. We're following it closely. Online education has a great deal of potential for anybody pursuing a college degree, especially for nontraditional African-American students. We will be following the research and looking into ways that distance learning can fulfill its potential.

As with every important decision, you need to be a careful consumer of online educational opportunities. Here are some tips:

* Give preference to online courses that are part of a program leading to a degree — two-year, four-year, master's or doctoral — with more job and career potential, rather than those that are narrowly targeted at a particular kind of job.

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* Check out the online offerings of nonprofit colleges and community colleges; they're likely to be less expensive than for-profit institutions.

* Don't borrow more than you can afford to pay back if you get the kind of job for which you're preparing. Remember that the money you borrow for any kind of education has to be paid back whether or not you finish and whether or not you find a job.

* Scrutinize placement promises very carefully. Ask for evidence of claims that an online-education company has really found jobs for its graduates. 

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Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

If you have any questions about the college experience, whether you are a student or a parent, please send them to Dr. Lomax at therootstaff@theroot.com.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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