Higher studies via internet

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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.

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