According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2019 – 2020 school year was $10,116 for state residents attending public universities, $22,577 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, and $36,801 for students attending private colleges. These expenses don’t include housing, meals, books, school supplies, clothing and personal needs, or transportation expenses. Cumulatively, these additional expenses can equal or exceed the cost of tuition.
The rising cost of a college education is just one factor contributing to the explosive growth of online college courses and degree programs. They are the latest iterations of a distance-learning model that predates the Internet age. Advances in videoconferencing and collaboration software have improved the quality and convenience of remote instruction. Meanwhile, top-tier public and private universities have aggressively expanded their distance-learning options, muscling in on for-profit education companies dogged by low graduation rates and allegations of exploitative financial aid practices. For many students returning to school after years in the workforce or struggling to balance work, family life, and education, online college coursework offers the best shot at completing a postsecondary or graduate degree.
Online coursework is more common than many realize. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics in the fall of 2018, more than 35% of all postsecondary students (undergraduate and graduate) enrolled at degree-granting institutions offering distance education courses. About 19% of all postsecondary students took a mix of online and in-person courses. Nearly 17% took online courses exclusively.
If you’re planning to enroll in a degree program, there’s a solid chance you can complete some or all the required coursework remotely. That’s all the more likely as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and major universities cancel or restrict in-person classes.
But online coursework works better for some students than others, and enrolling in an online degree program isn’t appropriate for everyone. Before committing to earning college credits online, you must understand the benefits and drawbacks of technology-enabled distance learning and know how to evaluate potential programs and courses.
Pros of Online Courses
Online college courses and degree programs have multiple appealing advantages. Notably, they’re much more flexible and convenient for working students and students at nonresidential institutions. They can also be (though aren’t always) less expensive than in-person education, and they can increase technological competency in students with less tech experience.
1. Coursework Is Flexible & Convenient
Not all college students are recent high school graduates. Many have responsibilities like full- or part-time jobs and families, so having the flexibility to log onto a computer at any time, day or night — during lunch or when children are napping — is a significant advantage.
Online colleges can also benefit students whose disabilities make navigating large college campuses more difficult. Having the option to log in for class rather than fight the crowds between classes can improve an otherwise stressful situation.
Finally, not all college students have access to reliable transportation. For students without cars or those who don’t live near public transit, online learning opens up options that otherwise might be unavailable.
2. Online Learning Can Improve Technological Fluency
In reality, neither in-person nor online learning is possible without basic hardware and software like laptop computers, email, and tools for creating and editing documents. But online learners generally need to use a broader range of technology solutions, such as videoconferencing software, workplace collaboration tools, file-sharing applications, and possibly other cloud-based apps.
This broad technological immersion is especially crucial for older learners without the technical fluency of students fresh out of high school, virtually all of whom qualify as “digital natives.” Employers value workers with tech skills, regardless of age, industry, or career stage.
3. On-Campus Expenses Are Lower
In recent years, many (if not most) traditional universities and colleges have expanded their online course and degree offerings. Some, like Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus, offer dozens of self-paced undergraduate and postgraduate programs that require little to no on-campus contact. These programs’ degrees are usually indistinguishable from their on-campus equivalents.
Tuition for online degree programs offered by brick-and-mortar institutions tends to be comparable to tuition for in-person coursework. But distance learners save on myriad additional expenses that can significantly increase their total cost of attendance. Such expenses can include transportation to and from campus, student activity fees, room and board expenses for residential students, and textbooks (though many online courses also require students to purchase textbooks).
4. It’s Easier (& Less Expensive) to Audit or Take Courses for Fun Online
The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has been a tremendous boon for casual, lifelong learners — students of all ages whose endless curiosity (or practical inquiry) doesn’t necessarily translate to active degree-seeking. Because they’re not limited by classroom size or institutional resources, rarely require more than a couple of hours of homework or reading each week, and are often led by academics from prestigious institutions like Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MOOCs typically attract hundreds or thousands of enrollees per session.
Although many MOOCs offer completion certificates that may satisfy employers’ or professional societies’ continuing education requirements, these courses don’t confer college credit. But speaking from personal experience, quality MOOCs are rewarding all the same. For prospective degree-seekers who’ve been out of the classroom for years, they may help ease reentry into academia. Reputable organizations that connect students with free MOOCs (or paid courses offering transferable credits) include Coursera, Academic Earth, edX, Udacity, and Udemy.
Cons of Online Courses
While online courses have their advantages, they’re not for everyone. Potential downsides include uneven value for the cost, uneven quality of instruction, limits on close collaboration and extracurricular contact with fellow students, and poor suitability for students who need extra help or thrive in small-group settings. Weigh these drawbacks carefully before signing up for an online course or enrolling in a degree program.
1. Not Everyone Thrives in a Distance Learning Environment
According to an analysis by Inside Higher Ed, students enrolled at institutions that deliver most or all instruction online were significantly less likely to graduate within eight years than students at institutions that provide some or most instruction in person. The studied data included recent high school graduates (“traditional-age” undergraduates) and adult undergraduates enrolled in mostly online programs, hybrid programs, and mostly on-campus programs, suggesting that distance learning issues cut across age and demographic lines.
Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia University find that community college students who take online courses are less likely to complete or perform well during the courses. These results were more pronounced for certain subgroups of students, including males, Black students, and students with lower prior GPAs.
The factors responsible for such outcomes are undoubtedly complex. But it’s fair to surmise that online courses are best suited for self-sufficient, self-motivated students with effective time management skills — the sorts of students who naturally need less support from faculty, academic support staff, and classmates. Midcareer students with years of workforce experience under their belts could be better suited to online learning environments than younger students used to closer supervision in the classroom.
2. Some Employers Remain Skeptical of Online Coursework & Degrees
Employer perception of online degrees has improved over the last decade. But many remain skeptical of applicants with online degrees due to negative publicity around for-profit “diploma mills” and the lingering perception — only sometimes backed by reality — online instruction is inferior to traditional classroom-based learning.
Evidence suggests that outside perceptions of a program may vary based on factors like field of study and the pedigree of the degree-granting institution. A 2012 study published by the University of West Georgia indicated that half of hiring managers felt there was no difference between an online or on-campus Master of Business Administration (MBA), which is excellent news for midcareer MBA candidates. But an analysis by Drexel University found that employees much preferred candidates with online degrees from accredited, well-respected brick-and-mortar institutions to graduates of lesser-known online-only schools with questionable reputations.
3. Distance Learning Isn’t Always as Collaborative or Enriching as On-Campus Instruction
Employers’ reluctance to embrace candidates with degrees of uncertain value underscores a crucial point about online distance learning — that instructional quality really does vary from course to course and program to program.
That isn’t only because some instructors are better than others. That problem exists in traditional classroom settings as well. Rather, certain disciplines — including many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) specialties prized by employers — simply don’t translate well to the digital realm.
High-resolution, low-latency videoconferencing might facilitate real-time conversations between distant lab partners. But it can’t transport them to the lab or drop them into the field. Thus, many STEM programs continue to require students to spend some time on-campus or participate in on-location externships with potential employers.
4. Online-Only Students Have Few Extracurricular Opportunities
True online degree programs — that is, programs with no on-campus coursework required — offer fewer extracurricular opportunities for participants. For all practical purposes, students who don’t live within commuting distance of campus have no such opportunities That might be an acceptable sacrifice for midcareer students who care only about earning a degree or certificate and for lifelong learners auditing courses for their own edification. But it’s a significant drawback for students eager to experience campus life.
Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in Online Distance-Learning Courses or Degree Programs
If your goal is to audit a free online course or two, you needn’t be as picky about where you enroll. But if you hope to earn credit toward a postsecondary or advanced degree or certification, you need to tread carefully. Pay particular attention to the sponsor institution’s accreditation status, credit transferability, and academic support for students.
What Do I Hope to Get Out of This Experience?
Your online learning goals probably fit into one of these four broad use cases:
- You’re a curious sort who wants to learn a new skill or about a new topic without any career-oriented end goal in mind.
- You seek specific knowledge, credentials, or skills and expect recognition (such as a completion certificate to present to an employer) for your accomplishment.
- You want to earn college credit, possibly as a prerequisite to enrollment in a traditional or hybrid degree program.
- You’re pursuing an online undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
The more you hope to get out of your online learning experience, the more effort you must put into crafting it. So your answer to this question directly relates to how seriously you need to take the course or program selection process.
Does a Reputable Accrediting Body Accredit the School & Degree Program?
The United States Department of Education’s College Navigator allows students to verify the accreditation of any school and provides useful information about graduation and retention rates.
Accreditation is a nongovernmental peer process designed to assure higher-learning institutions meet minimum standards while helping them assess and improve themselves. In the U.S., one of more than a dozen recognized institutional accrediting organizations that have been reviewed and approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education accredits colleges and universities.
Before enrolling in a course or particular school, check the accreditation status of the institution and the study course. This process helps ensure you’re getting good value for your educational dollars.
Are Online Students Being Set Up for Success?
Before enrolling, learn as much as you can about the types of support (and its extent) you can reasonably expect from your institution. Columbia University’s Community College Research Center offers an array of recommendations for students and practitioners in the online learning space. Their most relevant suggestions for students include:
- Assessing the availability of technical support and tutoring, including after-hours
- Assessing course design quality, including whether the institution’s online course offerings funnel through a central online learning portal and the rigor with which they adhere to a standardized online course template
- The quality and extent of online faculty development
What Will It Cost?
Generally, online credits cost about as much as in-person credits, so this question shouldn’t be difficult to answer. Because in-state residents typically get big tuition breaks, it might still be worth the cost and effort to cross state lines to establish residency in the state where you’d like to enroll in a public online degree program.
How Much Work Does the Program Expect of Me?
According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, online degree programs that seem too good to be true — that is, they promise a “legitimate” degree or certificate while asking very little of students — usually are. Signs of a “diploma mill” scam can include:
- The institution has no physical address — mailed correspondence originates from a P.O. box, virtual office, or coworking space.
- The program doesn’t require students to complete projects or take exams.
- The program features little to no collaboration between students.
- The program’s cost per credit is significantly lower than what your local public university charges in-state students.
- The program doesn’t make faculty or staff accessible to students.
- A recognized body doesn’t accredit the institution.
- The institution is based outside the United States.
Is Any On-Campus Work Required?
Many “online” degree programs are actually hybrids that require students to take some on-campus courses or do on-campus lab work. It’s vital you find out how many on-campus courses the program requires so you can account for the additional costs of on-campus fees when setting your education budget. If this information isn’t readily available on the institution’s website, contact the registrar directly to get details on the courses available and any specific degree requirements.
Can You Transfer Earned Credits to Another College?
This one is a critical question for any degree-seeking student to answer. To answer it, you most likely need to contact the institution to which you hope to transfer the credits. Think twice before taking a course if your future college or university doesn’t accept the credit.
What Academic Assistance Is Available to Online Students?
When a course lacks the give-and-take of a classroom, students may require opportunities to communicate with the instructor and other students. Before signing up for a class, you should find out whether they encourage communication and how they facilitate it.
Gaining a solid education and earning a college degree has never been more valuable and will continue to grow in importance. At the same time, the opportunities to learn have never been greater, as technology leverages talented teachers and simplifies complex relationships.
Online courses should be part of every student’s educational journey, regardless of age, area of interest, or attained degree. Investigate the opportunities available to you and enjoy gaining new knowledge and making the most of your education.
Have you ever taken an online course? What was your experience like?