At the age of 7, Walter McCollum envisioned himself attaching "doctor" to his name.
He held onto his intention of achieving the highest level of education he could as an adult, although he couldn't afford to do it without working full time - at least initially.
Now, McCollum, 38, has earned four degrees - most of them with courses online.
"The best part is the flexibility, it's autonomous, it allows one to work at his own pace," said McCollum of Fort Washington, who earned a doctorate in applied management and decision sciences at Walden University, an online school. "I work well independently. I don't need the face-to-face interaction."
The number of people earning degrees online has more than tripled during the past four years to more than 1 million. As Americans seek to increase their training and climb the corporate ladder, for-profit universities are expanding on the Internet in what has become the fastest-growing segment of higher education. Though they have just a fraction of the online market, the for-profit schools are building a niche for their services.
These schools - which refer to their students as consumers and market their degrees with a blitz of advertising on Web sites and billboards - are targeting working adults who don't have the time or money to attend traditional colleges. Some of the schools offer campus-based and online programs.
With offerings from master's degrees in business to doctorates in philosophy, accredited schools like the University of Phoenix, Strayer University and Walden University are educating students who might not otherwise earn a degree. School executives view themselves as pioneers in delivering higher education to more people and say they are past the point where they are having to convince students that the courses carry the same weight as at traditional universities.
"We are absolutely a university," said Paula Singer, president and chief executive of Baltimore-based Laureate Online Education, which owns Walden University. "We go through everything a traditional university goes through - the same accreditation. The only difference is that we have to pay taxes."
Still, for-profit schools have not achieved the same academic reputation as nonprofit institutions. But online degrees are gaining more acceptance, experts said, especially since many traditional universities now offer some sort of online degree program.
"Traditional higher education has to recognize that the nature of higher education is changing," said Philip S. DiSalvio, director of SetonWorldWide, the online campus of Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "For some students, getting the knowledge and getting the degree is more important than where they are getting it from."
Online educational programs began surfacing in the mid-1990s during the Internet boom. Now, programs are offered by more than a dozen for-profit schools and more than 100 traditional universities.
Eduventures, a Boston-based education information company, estimates that the number of students enrolled in online-only degree programs has grown from 312,000 in 2001 to more than a million this year.
Four years ago, online programs accounted for about 2 percent of the higher education market, said Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst with Eduventures. That percentage will reach about 7 percent by the end of this year and is expected to hit 10 percent by 2008.
"For the student or consumer, it really opens up their education options to a much broader array of colleges," Gallagher said. "It's gone from something that's fairly experimental to something's that's much more established."
The for-profits make up about a third of providers and are the fastest-growing segment of the market, Gallagher said. Many of them have been in the higher education business longer and are more consumer-oriented. Walden, Strayer and the University of Phoenix are all run as public companies.
Strayer started in 1892 as Strayer's Business College of Baltimore City, a school dedicated to continuing education for working adults. The Arlington, Va.-based company went online in 1996.
The school's enrollment doubled during the past four years to about 24,000 students, partly because of its online courses and the addition of new campuses. Revenue grew to $183.2 million in 2004, up from $147 million in 2003 and $78.2 million in 2000.
It's a business model that has also worked for Phoenix-based Apollo Group Inc., the company that owns the University of Phoenix, whose revenue last year was $1.8 billion from $1.3 billion in 2003.
Both Strayer and the University of Phoenix own branch campuses, while all of Walden's programs are online.
Laureate Education Inc. bought Walden in 2001 and revamped it into a graduate degree-focused online university. The school had offered distance programs - by mail, fax and other means - since 1970 and shifted to the Internet in 1998.