When post-secondary educator Strayer Education (NASDAQ:STRA) reports earnings tomorrow, don't expect any big surprises. Everyone seems to be reading from the same page of the textbook on this one.

When the company last reported earnings in July, it predicted that Q3 2005 would see profits of from $0.41 to $0.43 -- a pretty tight range. Analysts took notes dutifully and recited them almost perfectly. Of the 12 analysts currently tracking Strayer, nearly everyone said they're expecting earnings to fall within that $0.41 to $0.43 range, with the consensus estimate being -- surprise! -- $0.42.

The bigger story tomorrow will probably lie in the company's forward guidance numbers. Analysts now think Strayer will manage to make about $1.05 in profits in Q4, bringing its total for the year to $3.25. With two and a half times this quarter's expected profits at stake, the fourth quarter will assume proportionally larger significance, so expect the market's reaction to be tied much more to whether Strayer deviates from Wall Street than to whether the company makes its own numbers this quarter.

As for what will affect that forward guidance, focus on growth in the company's fastest-growing student segment (you'll find the students broken down by segment in a table titled "student enrollment") -- online-based students from out of area. That one grew 47% last year. And although it's currently the smallest student population "at" Strayer, it's also the likely engine for growth at this company. By marketing its services to students with no need for geographical proximity to its brick-and-mortar campuses, Strayer is opening up an essentially bottomless market. There's no limit to how many students it can attract and extract revenue from once the need for physical presence evaporates.

On a personal note, years ago when I was working outside the U.S. in Europe, a colleague of mine asked my opinion on whether she should seek an L.L.M. (Master of Law) degree via an online institution based in California. I was dubious then and advised against spending money on a degree that was unlikely to be taken seriously by employers. Judging from Strayer's growth numbers in online education, however, it seems my friend was ahead of her time -- the market for online courses has finally gained acceptance, and Strayer's numbers prove it.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article.