ANCHORAGE, Alaska - At 54, John Hutchins is finally going to law school. He has wanted to do that forever.
But would he turn his life upside down and take out large loans this close to retirement? Not likely.
As it turns out, he doesn't have to.
Hutchins is able to study law at minimal cost and without abandoning his wife, pets and current job as a nurse anesthetist at Alaska Regional Hospital. He can do this even though there's no law school in Anchorage. He is enrolled in the Concord University School of Law, the country's first completely online law school. His professors are scattered around the country and teach at Harvard and George Washington University, among others.
He gets mentally ready for each class the way runners do for a race. His books are open, his outlines are at hand. He's wired when class begins and tired when it's over.
"I always get a headache after because it's so intense."
Earning a law degree in cyber-space wasn't possible three years ago. Concord is just one of many schools, universities and companies racing to open or expand online degree programs over the past half-decade.
Concord is owned by Kaplan, a subsidiary of The Washington Post.
Can a person get a degree of equal value at a virtual university?
Yes, says Sue Reilly, accreditation director for the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., which evaluates long-distance university offerings.
But students have to choose carefully, Reilly said. "Everybody's kind of jumped on the bandwagon and started offering online programs. Some are very good, and some are not so good."
Some universities spend as much as $1 million to develop one online course, said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education Council.
And sometimes online degrees don't carry the same weight with potential employers or professional associations, even if they're from accredited programs. Concord law graduates, for instance, can take the bar exam in only a handful of states.
Despite the limitations, Concord has grown in three years to 600 students and its faculty has increased from six to 50.
Launched in 1998, the Concord law school has critics and limitations but already enjoys a good reputation.
Hutchins stumbled across it while helping his son John find a traditional law school. His son attends the University of Minnesota School of Law.
Concord students participate in one hour of live class each week. They also get videotaped lectures, reading assignments, timed tests online and, toughest of all, hour-long essay writing assignments on surprise topics. The essays are supposed to be written like legal briefs.
Students can go to chat rooms to join study groups, and professors offer lots of written criticisms.
But it's the live lessons that engage Hutchins.
Tuesdays at 5 p.m., he is among seven to 10 students - including a boutique supply manufacturer in New Mexico, a dentist in Pennsylvania and a real estate broker in Nevada - signed on with a professor.
Hutchins uses a basic laptop with a cable modem that makes the Internet run faster. The students can hear the professor's voice but can't see him. They communicate with him live by e-mail, discussing cases and asking questions. The students' conversations appear as text on Hutchins' screen.
In a recent property law class, Prof. Steven Bracci presented three cases - two on covenant violations in property disputes and a third on a water-sharing agreement that went awry.
Hutchins will need four years to finish. His son, on the other hand, can earn his law degree in three years as a full-time, on-campus student. And Hutchins' son will be eligible to take the bar exam anywhere. Hutchins can take it only in a few other states, because the American Bar Association doesn't recognize law degrees earned through long-distance programs. But he's paying considerably less than his son - up to $5,000 a year vs. $30,000.
Hutchins would probably have to practice law elsewhere before he can be licensed as a lawyer in Alaska, which is his goal.
But if Concord didn't exist, there's no way he could realize his dream. "I certainly wouldn't quit my job and move out of state to do it."
Here are places to look on the Internet for more information about online college and university programs:
Distance Education Clearinghouse - www.uwex.edu/disted/home.html: National journal articles and news, plus information about Wisconsin programs.
Distance Education and Training Council - www.detc.org: Accreditation information and a list of distance education programs accredited by it. Note traditional universities, including any online programs they offer, are accredited through regional associations.
Kaplan - www.kaplancollege.edu: Information on the Concord University School of Law and other Kaplan online degree and certificate programs.
Western Governors University - www.wgu.edu
Phoenix University - online.phoenix.edu: An example of a private university with online degrees in business, management, technology, information systems, education and nursing.
Illinois Virtual Campus - www.ivc.illinois.edu: An example of a state college system with coordinated online degree programs.