Unlike their campus-based counterparts, online degree programs offer the convenience of watching lectures, participating in group discussions and completing coursework from home and, largely, according to your own schedule. The flexibility of distance learning is making higher education accessible to millions of students who may not have had the money or time to pursue their degrees on a college campus.
Online classrooms and the learning management systems that keep them organized are also much more cost-effective than maintaining a brick-and-mortar classroom. This means tuition for online programs doesn’t rise as dramatically when enrollment numbers climb (so your tuition rate won’t jump 20% between your first semester and your last).
Of course, online college isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain type of student to succeed in these programs. If you’re still unsure about how distance learning could fit into your own education, take a moment to consider the key differences between these two formats.
Comparing Online and Campus-Based Programs
While there are obvious formatting differences between online and campus-based degree programs, there are also many subtle differences (and similarities) to keep in mind. Below we compare and contrast online and campus-based education in the areas that matter most.
- Distance: For many students, this can either make or break their plans to attend a university. Commuting or relocating a great distance can be stressful and costly for students or their parents. One of the key differences between online and campus-based programs is that online learners can earn their degree from any location. For full-time workers, homeowners, parents, or deployed servicemen and women, this opens up a wide range of educational possibilities.
- Access: While online programs offer students the opportunity to earn their education anywhere with an Internet connection, they can’t offer on-campus resources like campus clubs, libraries (and a library’s complete body of research), study groups, fitness facilities, or in-person counseling. Many students may not need on-campus resources to achieve their academic goals, but for others, not being able to meet with faculty and students in-person and enjoy the “traditional” college experience is a big drawback.
- Quality: Over a decade ago, you couldn’t argue with the fact that a gap existed in quality between online and campus-based education. At the time, there were several barriers keeping online programs from catching up with their brick-and-mortar counterparts (these were primarily technological challenges). Today, almost everyone has access to high-speed Internet, which facilitates better course materials and student involvement. Students constantly participate in forums and chatrooms, collaborate on web-based projects and research, and watch lectures in high definition. University and college faculty, once apprehensive to this format, are growing more assured about the quality of an online education. As a result, studies now show online education is just as effective as traditional options. These improvements have created a huge demand that colleges and universities nationwide are struggling to meet.
- Flexibility: Attending college on a campus is a familiar experience to most. Like high school, you will most likely have classes scheduled at regular intervals throughout the week; for the first year or two, you may be required to attend lectures at scheduled times. While this can be good for anyone seeking a structured environment, it is not the best option for people who must juggle professional or family obligations. Online courses allow you to move at your own own pace and schedule; lectures are pre-recorded and can be viewed at anytime. Be careful, however, this flexibility can lead to procrastinating and some serious consequences for your grades. A prepared online student should be very self-motivated.
- Interaction: For years, the public has been focusing on decreasing class sizes to increase the quality of education. Online degree programs are unique in this regard because students are not necessarily required to attend classroom meetings. This does not mean class sizes won’t be a factor in your online education, however. It’s arguably even more important. Professors have a much easier time interacting with and getting to know small groups of online students than larger ones. Studies have shown the potential of online education to be highly interactive, so long as class sizes are kept small.
Benefits of an Online College
Now that you have an idea of the differences between online and campus-based degree programs, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of an online education.
- Cost-effective: Aside from saving money on travelling and day-to-day living, the tuition for online programs can be considerably less expensive than campus-based programs, and many public universities give online students access to in-state tuition rates, no matter where they live. For many students in today’s economy, having the option to pay less for a quality education could make a significant difference. Thanks to a wide range of financial aid opportunities, students have many options when it comes to funding their higher education, as well.
- Self-directed: For online degree programs, developing a strong sense of self-discipline is essential for getting the most out of your online education experience. Most students value the flexibility of being able to choose their own schedules and attend classes when it is convenient for them. Other students, however, need more time to develop the study skills needed to be successful. Luckily, most online degree programs offer advisory resources to help you develop the best habits when it comes to optimizing your distance learning routines.
- Tech-savvy: If you are a student who has struggled with technology in the past, pursuing an online education is a great way to build your tech skills. For these degree programs, nearly every important component will be provided online. In addition to exchanges with instructors and classmates via email and social media, you will be able to access course materials from a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or even your smartphone. As such, choosing an online education is an excellent way to increase your value in a job market where 60% to 80% of jobs require computer skills. Our guide to successfully beginning a web-based degree program contains a length list of technical devices and equipment you should invest in before your online courses begin.
- Transferability: Even if you eventually decide you’d like to earn your degree at a brick-and-mortar school, your online credits may be transferrable to other colleges and universities. Like attending community college for a year or two before transferring to a four-year university, online programs can be a cost-effective way to get started or finish up a long degree program. Some universities even offer hybridized programs, which allow students to complete a degree through a mixture of online and on-campus courses. This is a great way to experience the benefits of both educational pathways without having to commit fully to one or the other.
As you can see, there are several distinct benefits to choosing an online college for your higher education. Now comes the task of finding which online college best suits your needs and goals as a student. Our next article in this series, “How to Find the Online College That’s Right For You”, will provide you with more valuable information on what to look for as you continue your research into online colleges and degree programs.