Correspondence Course vs. Online Course

Correspondence courses and online courses have a lot in common, but their few critical differences may affect financial aid eligibility and course pacing.

Updated March 22, 2023

Online learning is a relatively new concept, but the earliest forms of distance education date back to the 18th century. In 1728, Caleb Phillips advertised the first correspondence-based courses in the Boston Gazette, seeking individuals looking to learn from him by mail.

Correspondence courses, as legally defined by the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, typically entail an instructor sending course materials to students to complete at their own pace. Generally, these courses involve less teacher-student interaction than other distance education formats, such as online courses. Instructor communication, pacing, and financial aid availability often differ between the two formats.

This guide explores the differences between correspondence and online courses and offers information to help you make the best choice for your learning style.

Instructor Involvement

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Correspondence Courses

Correspondence course enrollees typically interact less with their instructors than learners taking standard online classes. Students in correspondence courses may only hear from their professors when receiving feedback on assignments.

Instructor involvement directly aligns with federal definitions for whether a course is correspondence or distance learning. This important distinction can affect students' financial aid eligibility.

However, even in correspondence courses with minimal instructor interaction, students can still reach out to their professors over email with questions or concerns as they work through course materials.

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Online Courses

Today, online courses serve as the most common distance learning format, thanks to the accessibility the internet provides for students worldwide. Online courses typically mirror their on-campus counterparts closely, requiring the same components and covering the same objectives.

Instructor involvement and active class participation vary from class to class. Some courses require synchronous participation, often through virtual webinars and lectures or set login times to complete assignments. Other courses operate asynchronously, allowing learners to interact with course materials and complete work on their own schedule.

Occasionally, online courses may require enrollees to take proctored exams at designated locations in their home areas.

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Correspondence Courses

Correspondence courses offer significant pacing flexibility. Enrollees typically set their own pace, completing coursework with limited instructor intervention.

In correspondence courses, students may often register at any time, regardless of semester timelines, provided they complete course requirements within a specified timeframe. Generally, students receive course materials at enrollment and submit work as they progress.

Some instructors provide ongoing feedback and accept assignments on a rolling basis, while others prefer that students submit all required work at one time.

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Online Courses

Pacing in online courses may take on various formats. Some online courses require students to work through assignments and objectives on a set schedule. This format often features live classes and lectures.

Other online courses function on a week-to-week basis, typically opening new coursework modules each week and allowing learners to complete that week's work on their own time.

Online students usually receive instructional materials as the course progresses, much like traditional on-campus classes, with instructors providing ongoing feedback. Many online instructors maintain virtual office hours to answer questions and provide guidance.

Financial Aid

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Correspondence Courses

Correspondence courses can present a challenge when it comes to financial aid. Degree-seekers enrolled exclusively in correspondence courses qualify as half-time, regardless of the actual number of credits they take. Half-time status can impact eligibility for federal aid, including Pell Grants.

Although students may technically enroll in a correspondence course at any time, they must do so by a certain point in the semester to qualify for financial aid at most institutions.

In some cases, degree-seekers may not receive certain types of financial aid until they complete a majority of the correspondence course materials. Students can sign up for correspondence courses outside of this enrollment window, but may not qualify for a higher aid amount for those courses.

Enrolling solely in correspondence courses also alters students' estimated cost of attendance, qualifying them only for tuition, fees, and textbooks and excluding other typically included costs like room, board, and transportation.

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Online Courses

Accredited online courses generally meet the same financial aid requirements as their on-campus counterparts. To qualify for federal aid, students must enroll in an institution accredited by an approved accrediting body as outlined by the Department of Education.

Individual schools may offer different financial aid and scholarship options for online learners. Check with your institution to learn about funding opportunities for distance learning.

Which is Right for Me: Correspondence Courses or Online Courses?

When choosing a learning format, each student must consider their own strengths and any barriers that might block them from completing required coursework.

Correspondence courses have often served learners who otherwise lack educational access. This includes students in extremely rural areas or areas without easy internet access, incarcerated students, and students who require more flexibility and time to complete assignments.

Students must consider their own strengths and any barriers that might block them from completing required coursework.

Correspondence courses may not suit learners who require frequent interaction with instructors and peers. These courses best suit self-starters who work well independently.

Like in-person courses, online courses allow students to engage with classmates and instructors. They require daily and weekly time commitments and often best serve learners who want a traditional course experience without in-person requirements.

Schools typically offer more online courses than correspondence courses, so correspondence course availability and type may vary widely.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a correspondence course?

Correspondence courses entail students completing coursework on a self-paced, independent basis. These courses typically involve limited instructor interaction, and enrollees may complete work within a lengthy time frame.

What is an online course?

Online courses include any class delivered online, typically through an accredited institution's online learning platform. These courses usually mirror in-person courses in pacing and requirements, but may offer additional flexibility in where and when students access materials.

What is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning?

Synchronous learning requires students to attend class at specific times. Asynchronous learning allows students to complete coursework on their own schedule, without set login times or live components.

Can I receive financial aid for a correspondence course?

Yes, correspondence courses at accredited institutions may qualify for financial aid. However, enrollees typically must complete a certain amount of coursework before aid is disbursed. Additionally, enrolling solely in correspondence courses may impact aid eligibility.

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