Students considering online degree programs often have questions, like “Which is better: a traditional degree or an online degree?” and “Is my learning style suited to online learning?” These questions are important to answer, but first and foremost, weigh the general pros and cons of the experience. Doing so will give you a better idea of whether or not the option could be for you. If it seems like it could be, you should then follow up.


What are the drawbacks of online degree programs?

  • Stigma: When online learning first appeared some 25 years ago, skeptics saw it as a trend that wouldn’t last. They continued to judge online classes because they attracted many nontraditional students who needed the flexibility (e.g., adult and returning students, students with children, or those who passed a high school equivalency exam). These skeptics also claimed that technology made it easier for students to cheat, so no one was actually learning. Of course, none of this is true. Online learning has stuck around; nontraditional students are not inherently worse than traditional students; and technology has developed to make cheating virtually impossible. While the stigma remains in some circles, it is lessening with time. More than one in four students will take an online class, so the job force is filling with highly qualified candidates that just so happen to be former online students. Most employers give them the same level of consideration that they give to candidates who studied on campuses.
  • Learning curve:The structure of an online class is different from that of any traditional class you’ve taken before. Getting used to it can take some time, but you can prepare yourself. You may decide to read more about online classes or take a MOOC or ungraded online class for practice. Knowing what to expect from your online class ahead of time will help you adjust to its structure quickly.
  • New programs: The youngest Ivy League school is over 150 years old. Of course, no online degree program can compete with that age just yet, but newer programs aren’t necessarily worse than older ones. Skeptics may say that a younger university is more likely to go out of business or be bought out. While there may be some truth to that, there are advantages of new programs. Online classes, for example, adapt themselves to our changing technologies. Once only supported on computers, online classes are now accessible from tablets and cell phones, too. At an online degree program so young, you can help define the college. Your suggestions are likely to be heard.
  • Fewer courses of study: Not all subjects are suited to online study, if available at all. Students studying medicine, sculpture, or the culinary arts, for example, often need hands-on experience to master their subjects. If you need various apprenticeships, residencies, or in-person trainings to stand out in your field, an online degree program is probably not for you.
  • Less face-to-face interaction: Some students in online classes feel less accountable because a teacher isn’t physically there to call on them during class. Self-motivated students don’t have to worry, however. They realize they aren’t in the class alone. First of all, your professor and classmates will all be logging on to access class materials. You will communicate via email, chat, videoconferences, and telephone calls. If you happen to live near an associated brick-and-mortar campus, you can meet up with your peers for study sessions or drop by your professor’s office hours.
  • No instant feedback: In a classroom, a professor asks questions, calls on students, and responds to their comments and concerns. The professor of your online course isn’t necessarily available when you are. If you don’t understand something, it’s up to you to email the professor and wait for a response. This frustrates some students, but others aren’t held back any more than they would be in a traditional classroom. They know that their professors aren’t their only resources. They have the internet, a dictionary, a textbook, and their classmates’ phone numbers at their disposal.
  • Higher dropout rates: Research shows that online students drop out or fail their classes more often than traditional students do. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    • Unexpectedly high academic standards: While entrance requirements might be relaxed at an online degree program, the academic standards do not suffer. Many students aren’t expecting their classes to be competitive; they may have signed up for school on a lark rather than with goals in mind. Early on, the students who are unable to keep up are weeded out from the rest. If you truly want to learn and now is the right time for you, you won’t become part of the statistic.
    • Overscheduling: Keep in mind that online classes are extremely popular with students who have busy lives and scheduling conflicts. It’s possible that a student intends to finish his or her degree only to realize that between work, family obligations, and school, there is actually too much on his or her plate. However bright and capable, these students simply don’t have time in their lives at the moment to pursue their degrees. They drop out and may reenroll later. Dropout rates do not factor these circumstances into consideration.

What are the benefits of online degree programs?

  • Access: So, you can’t deal with the rush-hour traffic to commute to campus after work? Do you live an hour from the closest town, and your transportation is unreliable? Do you have kids and no day care? With online classes, excuses don’t always have to interfere with your learning. Open up your laptop and study from anywhere.
  • Flexible scheduling: With online learning, you can enroll in class part-time or full-time; choose classes that occasionally meet in person or that take place completely online; and log on to the class platform at 1 a.m. or 1 p.m. You won’t be scheduling around your class. It will be scheduling itself around all of your other commitments.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Online classes are accessible to anyone with internet access, so you are sure to have interesting classmates. In an online class, you may be learning with veterans, parents, professionals, and retirees. Their life experiences will inform their contributions to class. A veteran will have a unique perspective in a history course, and a parent will share practical knowledge in an early education class. Bounce ideas off of your peers. Learn from them just as much as you learn from the readings and class materials.
  • Affordability: The cost of an online education varies greatly depending on the university, but online classes tend to lower your tuition bills. At some brick-and-mortar universities, credit hours are credit hours, so your tuition will be the same whether or not you complete the credits in person or online. At others, online classes are much less expensive than traditional classes because there is less overhead. Depending on your financial situation, you might be able to access financial aid. The affordability of online colleges depends on each student’s situation, but many people find that online classes come with lower costs. Why? Students can live at home and keep working in the process of obtaining their degrees.
  • Fewer entrance requirements: To attend college—online or otherwise—you will need a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some online colleges have an open admissions policy, which means that you will be automatically accepted to the school if you can pay the application fee and provide a copy of your diploma or equivalency exam results. Other online degree programs want to see transcripts from your high school or previous institution. Don’t panic if you didn’t ace your previous classes. Most online colleges understand that some students develop their work ethic and mature after high school. If your grades weren’t stellar back then, a school may accept work experiences, letters of recommendation from employers, or a successful video interview in place of the GPA requirement. Every program is different, so ask your admissions counselor if any of the requirements can be waived. Online colleges don’t typically require test scores from the SAT, ACT, or GRE, but high scores can help secure your admittance.
  • Location: When you can work from anywhere, you can live anywhere. There’s no need to find an apartment a block from campus or relocate your family to a different city. Online colleges also help students with physical disabilities or chronic diseases who prefer to work from home under the conditions that make them the most comfortable.
  • Learning at your own pace: If one lesson is a breeze for you, proceed to the next. Otherwise, take your time to digest the information and do your own additional research.
  • Credit transfer: If you’ve started and stopped your college career multiple times, you’ve probably accumulated some credit hours. Do something with them so that your time and money isn’t wasted. Online colleges are often more flexible about applying your previous credits to your current program, but each school is different. Your admissions counselor can help you get started. You can also read more about returning to school and transferring.
  • Vocational focus: You can pursue a liberal arts degree at an online college, but most online degree programs will help you find a job in a specific field after graduation. Graduates often leave prepared and certified to work in their fields.

Page last updated: 02/2017