Enrollment in online colleges has increased due to factors such as social distancing and the affordability and convenience of online learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly seven million students enrolled in at least one distance education course in fall 2018, compared to less than three million students in fall 2012.
Furthermore, according to a 2020 survey by Wiley Education Services, 78% of online learners who had previously taken in-person courses reported that the quality of their online courses matched or exceeded that of their seated courses. This guide explores the benefits of online learning and considerations for selecting a virtual program.
Online degrees have been rising in popularity, and most employers recognize online degrees as being as legitimate as on-campus degrees. Like in-person students, online learners can set themselves apart from other job candidates by earning certifications, participating in internships, and building portfolios. Both employers and graduate programs recognize online degrees, as long as they come from accredited institutions.
Is Online College More Affordable?
Online learners often receive reduced tuition rates. In fact, some colleges and universities charge all distance learners in-state tuition rates. Additionally, online students often avoid paying extra fees, such as campus maintenance and student activity fees.
Attending college online can also help students save on commuting expenses. Online learners who live with a guardian or roommates often spend less on rent and groceries than the cost of on-campus housing.
However, prospective online learners should factor in the cost of owning and maintaining a computer and paying for reliable internet.
When choosing an online college, prospective students should pay close attention to each prospective school's accreditation status. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee third-party accrediting agencies.
Each regional accrediting agency evaluates colleges and universities in a particular region, and national accrediting agencies review institutions throughout the country. For example, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission grants national accreditation to online colleges, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges awards regional accreditation to schools located in the Southern United States.
Programs can also earn accreditation. For example, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business accredits business programs. Learners can use the search tool from the U.S. Department of Education to identify accredited online colleges and programs.
Benefits of Online College
Attending college online comes with many benefits. Many students enjoy the flexibility of online learning and take advantage of career-building resources. Below are a few common benefits of virtual learning.
Many schools deliver online programs in an asynchronous format, which means students can watch recorded lectures and participate in online discussion boards at their convenience. Students who want slightly more structure and accountability may prefer synchronous online programs. Synchronous classes require students to log in at set times and engage in live chats with peers.
Online learners can study from anywhere with a computer and a reliable internet connection. Online college students often save money on car insurance, gas, and public transportation fees. Learners can also complete coursework during the time they would otherwise spend commuting.
Many online programs provide opportunities for students to network with peers. Learners can connect with classmates through virtual study groups, and many courses require group projects. Additionally, courses may require students to complete projects with local businesses, and many online programs feature industry experts as guest lecturers.
How to Tell if a College Is a Good Fit for You
Selecting the best online program takes time and research. Students should choose a program that aligns with their academic and career goals. For example, some learners prefer fully online programs, while others choose to blend online and on-campus coursework.
While many colleges offer program information online, prospective learners can contact an admissions counselor for more details. Additionally, prospective students can connect with recent program graduates to learn about their experience. Alumni may share how their online coursework prepared them for the workforce.
What to Consider When Looking into Online Colleges
With so many online colleges to choose from, students can find one that meets their needs and career goals. Programs vary in price, content, and format. The list below includes important considerations for individuals researching online programs. Learners should choose the program that best suits their unique needs.
Learners should select an online program that aligns with their career goals. For example, an aspiring public relations professional who wants to work in social media management should choose an online program that includes courses on social media strategy and campaign management.
Some online college degrees offer concentration or minor options, which allow learners to tailor the program to their individual career goals. Prospective students should carefully read the course descriptions and requirements before committing to a program. They can also ask their admissions counselor about positions that recent graduates have secured.
Some online learners prefer to complete their studies at their own pace and as quickly as possible. These students often thrive in asynchronous or accelerated courses. Learners in asynchronous programs can watch recorded lectures at unconventional hours or at times that do not interfere with other obligations.
To enter the workforce quickly, students can choose accelerated programs, and individuals who want the freedom to choose their own pace can enroll in a self-paced program. Learners in these programs can complete their degree as quickly or slowly as they wish.
Students who work best in structured environments often prefer synchronous courses or hybrid programs, which include a mixture of in-person and virtual courses.
Course requirements vary significantly. For this reason, learners should read sample syllabi for each prospective program. Some programs feature exam-based classes that require primarily short-answer and multiple-choice assessments. Other courses require written assignments and discussion sessions.
Individuals should also research each program's thesis or capstone component. A master's thesis or capstone requires anywhere from 40-80 pages of writing. While completing these projects, learners work to solve a problem or contribute new industry knowledge. Some online programs also feature in-person requirements, such as an in-person orientation, clinical rotations, or an internship.
Professors can serve as life-long mentors, so selecting a program with professors you connect with can benefit you after graduation. Prospective students can reach out to instructors to ask questions before applying. Some professors may even invite interested students to participate in a phone call or video call to learn more about the program.
Most online programs assign each student an academic advisor, who is usually one of the professors in the learner's program. Academic advisors help students stay on track during their studies and choose classes that align with their career goals.
Prospective college students should also research the cost of tuition and fees before committing to a program. Colleges often charge per-credit tuition rates, and distance learners may need to pay virtual classroom fees. Students should also budget for books, internet, and required technology.
Individuals can consider each school's scholarship and financial aid packages. Students who demonstrate financial need may qualify for grants and subsidized loans from the federal government. Learners can also apply for scholarships from third-party organizations.
Individuals who plan to earn a college degree online should note that not every major works well in a fully online format. For example, a student completing a master's degree in choral conducting needs to practice in person with a choir. Certain art degrees require access to studio tools, such as a photography darkroom or a pottery kiln. Additionally, aspiring medical professionals must often complete in-person clinical rotations and supervised hours to meet licensure requirements.
Other programs may include in-person lab work, an annual orientation, or supervised exams. Students should research in-person components before enrolling.
Some colleges offer free online courses. Though these classes rarely offer credit, taking a free online course allows learners to sample a subject or an online program. Partners such as EdX work with schools including Arizona State University, Boston University, Princeton University, and Harvard University to offer free massive open online courses.
Students can participate in a free online course to try online learning without the risk of earning a bad grade or wasting money. Even high school students can participate in massive open online courses.
Succeeding in online college courses requires organizational skills and self-discipline. Students must limit distractions and keep track of deadlines. Keeping a paper or digital planner can help learners remember to complete coursework. Virtual students can also create a dedicated at-home office space for focusing on lectures and writing papers. Distance learners can maintain accountability by completing virtual study sessions with a partner.
With an increasing number of remote jobs, online learning prepares students to succeed without constant supervision. Online learning comes with freedom, but students may need practice to become comfortable excelling independently.