For many students, the modern classroom no longer consists of rows of desks and a professor lecturing from the front of the room. The development and growth of online learning have redefined the college experience, with some students completing their undergraduate or graduate programs without ever setting foot on campus. Lingering misconceptions about the quality and respectability of online learning cause some students to question whether an online degree is worthwhile, so it is important to sort out facts from fiction when making a decision.
One indicator of the strength of online degree programs is the dramatic increase in the number of students enrolled in online courses that has occurred over the past decade. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students in higher education who were enrolled in at least one online course increased from 25.5% in 2012 to 36.3% in 2019. This number is only expected to grow as more degree programs emerge, and students become more aware of the advantages that they offer.
Are Online Degrees Worth It?
Although online degrees have grown in popularity at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, there are still many prospective students who wonder, “Is an online degree worth it?” This is a natural and legitimate question, particularly considering the investment of money and time that a degree program requires.
The short answer to this question is that an online degree can be an incredibly valuable experience when it meets the needs and circumstances of the student. Good online degree programs allow students to receive a high-quality education from respected faculty members, collaborate with classmates, and attain the same level of knowledge as their on-campus counterparts.
Depending on the awarding institution, online degrees can also lend weight to a job application and promote career networking to the same level as a traditional program. These factors, in combination with the unique benefits offered by an online degree program, can make distance learning an extremely attractive option.
Benefits of an Online Degree
There are many advantages to completing a degree program online. When you evaluate whether an online degree is the right choice, it could be helpful to consider whether the distinguishing features of such a program are important to you and your lifestyle.
One of the most enticing aspects of an online degree is its inherent flexibility. There are a number of ways that an online degree program allows you to structure your education around the other aspects of your life.
First, an online degree makes it possible for you to build a schedule that works for your life circumstances, which makes it a good fit for many parents and caregivers who need to work around the schedules of other members of the family. Many programs offer asynchronous courses that do not require you to attend the class or complete work on a specific day or time. Instead, you decide when you want to dedicate time to the course based on what works best for you. Regardless of whether you do your work in the early afternoon or the middle of the night, you will not be penalized as long as you meet all of the assignment submission deadlines.
Online courses are also highly flexible when it comes to location. Students can study at universities across the country or even the world without having to leave their homes. Likewise, coursework can be completed at any place with a stable internet connection, whether that be a student’s home, local coffee shop, or city library. This makes it possible for students to take the course in the place that feels most comfortable and productive for them.
In addition, online degree programs are accommodating to different learning styles. Online learning management systems make it possible for instructors to provide learning materials in a variety of formats, including videos, text, audio files, infographics, and slides. Students can review these materials at their own pace and go back to them as many times as they need.
Online degree programs can also be a viable option for students who want or need to maintain their employment during the course of their studies. People are sometimes deterred from seeking a degree because they cannot afford to quit their jobs. Fortunately, the format and structure of online degree programs make it possible for you to work toward your academic goals without sacrificing your current employment. Students can plan to participate in their courses outside of their work hours, and they do not lose time during an already busy day traveling to and from campus.
The landscape of the modern workplace has become increasingly digital. While embarking on an online degree program might be intimidating if you are not technology-savvy, taking online courses is an excellent opportunity to develop the virtual skills that are in high demand by many employers.
During the course of completing an online degree, you can gain experience with many technologies that are used in today’s workplace, including:
- Google Workspace
- Microsoft OneDrive
You may also become adept at conducting online research and communicating using online platforms. These are essential skills for a globalized job market in which teams are often spread across countries and continents.
What Degrees Can You Get Online?
The number of online degree programs is constantly growing. While some courses that require hands-on experience, such as vocational courses, may not be workable for an online environment, many other programs are.
Some of the most popular degrees you can get online include:
- Computer science
- Criminal Justice
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are online degree programs for a wide variety of disciplines, and they are not limited to the undergraduate level. For example, a single university may offer separate options for online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
Online Degree vs Traditional Degree
Although online degree programs are available from many schools and offer a number of benefits, it is important to consider how an online degree compares to a traditional one. This knowledge can help students determine which type of degree is best suited to their needs.
An online degree program is not necessarily easier than a face-to-face program. The general coursework and grading standards between traditional and online programs are generally quite similar. However, online degrees present challenges and opportunities for growth that may not exist in traditional classrooms.
Successfully completing an online degree program usually requires excellent time management skills and a high degree of self-motivation. A traditional classroom typically involves frequent face-to-face interactions with an instructor and other students, along with frequent reminders of deadlines and assignment requirements. In an online course, students must pay close attention to the schedule, plan ahead to work around other obligations, and take the initiative to contact an instructor or peer with a question.
While these characteristics of online programs can make them difficult, they also present an excellent opportunity for students to develop skills that are central to productivity and growth in the workforce.
In the past, some online degree programs were offered by questionable organizations that did not meet the standards of a higher education institution. However, today’s online degree programs are offered not only by schools that are exclusively online but also by those that have an on-campus and online presence.
For that reason, the quality of today’s online degree programs is based more on the learning institution than whether it is offered online or traditionally. If you locate an online degree program at a well-respected university, you will benefit from the same knowledgeable faculty and resources as students in a traditional program.
Most online degree programs offer access to the same kinds of resources as a traditional program. For example, online students can take advantage of:
- Support services
- Career guidance
- Academic advising
In short, technological progress has made it possible for students to receive the same quality of education through an online program as a traditional one.
The per-credit cost of a degree varies based on whether it is offered in an in-person or online format, but the cost of tuition within an institution is often very similar. For example, according to U.S. News and World Report, the cost of an online bachelor’s degree for in-state students was $316 per credit in 2019, while the cost of an on-campus program was $311 per credit.
Although in this example the tuition for an online program is slightly higher, there are other factors that can significantly affect the affordability of online and traditional programs. On-campus courses can have additional costs including:
- Lost wages due to schedule conflicts
- Dining plans
- Recreational fees
Even if the per-credit cost of an online course is higher than an on-campus course, it is important to consider how these other factors might affect the overall price. This will allow you to make a more informed decision and determine whether a program exceeds your budget.
While it may seem redundant to return to the question of flexibility, the reality is that this is one of the most important distinctions between online and traditional degree programs. Whereas online courses allow students to decide when and where to complete their work, traditional courses meet at specified times and in pre-determined locations. This can make it more difficult for students with outside obligations to attend regularly and stay on top of coursework.
Are Online Degrees Respected?
In the past, there was a perception that online degrees were easier to obtain and thus less respected than traditional degrees. However, this view has undergone a significant change as the popularity of online programs has grown. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that the majority of employers have no preference between online and traditional degree programs when making hiring decisions.
In general, employers are not particularly interested in whether a degree was completed online or in person, particularly if it is from a brick-and-mortar institution. Instead, they are focused on whether the school awarding the degree is reputable, legitimate, and, in many cases, accredited.
Tips for Finding the Right Online Degree
Researching online degree programs can quickly become overwhelming because of the sheer number of options available. There are some fundamental elements to consider when determining which program is right for you.
Just as with traditional degrees, tuition varies widely between colleges and universities. It can also be significantly affected by whether a student is attending a program that is in-state or out-of-state.
When searching for the best online degree, one of the first steps should be to evaluate the cost, including any unexpected fees. In addition, it is helpful to explore any financial aid options that may be available to help offset the cost of tuition.
Most well-respected educational institutions make data available that identifies the percentage of students who successfully graduate. While this is not always a definitive indicator of the quality of a program, a school with an especially low graduation rate might be one to eliminate from your list.
Although it is not always at the top of a student’s list of requirements for a program, accreditation should be a top priority when choosing where to obtain your degree. Colleges can be regionally or nationally accredited, and a lack of accreditation should raise a flag about the quality of the program.
While the process to receive accreditation in both cases is similar, there is a general perception that regional accreditation is preferable. This primarily stems from the ability to transfer courses between schools. If you complete a course at one university and then decide to finish your degree at another, you may need to transfer the credits so that you do not have to repeat any classes that you have already completed. Courses taken at regionally accredited schools are generally transferable.
Finding an accredited school, whether national or regional, is important to ensure that you are receiving the highest possible quality of education. Accrediting bodies conduct rigorous assessments of a school’s programs to determine whether they meet the necessary standards.
As you weigh all of the possible options for an online degree program, consider accreditation, your budget, the school’s reputation, and your own personal needs. This will help to ensure that you enroll in a program that will best serve your long-term interests and help position you for advancement and success in your future career.