Going to school online is far more convenient than regularly commuting to a campus. Especially for people with jobs, families, and other commitments that make it difficult to move or maintain a regular schedule. But does that convenience come at a cost? Are online degrees different than what you would earn on-campus?
Yes and no.
If you’re not careful, you could wind up earning a degree that doesn’t give you credentials employers will respect or an education you can use. But if you know what you’re doing, you can earn a degree that’s virtually the same as what you’ll get on campus.
We’ve put together a breakdown of the differences you’ll probably run into with an online program. Some of these things vary from school to school and program to program. Others are always going to be part of an online education. We’ll cover the learning experience itself, social aspects of the program, cost, and what happens when you graduate.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of going to school online.
How is the learning experience different for online degrees?
It’s pretty convenient to crack open your laptop and “go to school” from your own home. And the best online courses do a pretty good job maintaining this convenience and creating a “virtual classroom.” But no matter how great an online program is, some things are just going to be different—for better or worse.
Cons of learning online
A sprawling college campus may not be as comfortable as your home or your favorite coffee shop, but there’s a reason universities pour so much of their resources into their campus. Some of them have been accumulating academic resources for centuries. As a student, going digital means giving up some of those amenities.
You probably don’t have a lab at home
Even if you’re not a STEM major, you’re probably going to have some science-related classes built into your general requirements. Lab work is where you learn how to apply the concepts you’re studying in the classroom. No matter how good a video is, you’d learn more through the hands-on experience.
Colleges and universities can’t expect people to build a state-of-the-art research lab in their apartment, so most of them will either cut these courses altogether, not include lab work or turn these into “hybrid” courses—meaning you study and “go to class” online, then come to campus for labs.
You don’t have a physical college library
Digital libraries are really helpful when you need to peer-reviewed articles for your research paper. But libraries can get pretty complicated too—there’s an entire field of library science dedicated to organizing massive amounts of information. If you get stuck online and have trouble finding something, your school should have technical support to talk you through your issues, but unless they have some kind of screen sharing support (doubt it) you may just wind up getting more frustrated.
Physical libraries have a few big benefits you won’t get from the comfort of your computer:
- People who can direct you to the exact resources you need.
- Books and resources that only exist in print.
- The ability to borrow textbooks you need for class instead of buying them.
- Quiet places to study.
Unless you live alone, it can be hard to find somewhere to focus for a few hours. Interruptions can add hours to your study time and reduce the quality of that time. On-campus libraries have quiet lounge areas where everyone else is doing the same thing—studying—and some college libraries even have soundproof rooms specifically designed for studying.
On-campus libraries may also be where your school provides tutoring services. Not all online programs have a digital equivalent of tutors.
You probably won’t have the same selection of courses or majors
This is one of the biggest ways your online degree will be “different” than an on-campus degree. To offer a class online, colleges have to record all of the lectures and make all of the materials available online.
That might sound easy, but you’re paying thousands of dollars for this—they don’t want it to look like it was filmed on a cellphone. The best online courses incorporate interactive media and require professional design work and videography.
At most colleges, the vast majority of their students primarily go to school on campus. As a result, most of their classes are going to be on-campus only. You can take just about any course or any major somewhere online. But in any given school, you’re going to have fewer courses and fewer majors to choose from.
You may not have the same professors
You may have noticed that some schools are really anxious to tell you when their online courses are taught by the same faculty as their on-campus courses. The reason? Lots of schools have different faculty for their online programs.
That means even if you’re going to a prestigious school with award-winning professors who are widely known within their industries, you’re not learning from them. Online instructors are more likely to be people who don’t have the credentials to be a “professor.” That’s not to say that they will be bad teachers, or that they don’t know what they’re doing. Some professors are terrible teachers—even if they have a great reputation for their research. But the lower the bar, the more likely you are to wind up with a bad instructor. And that means you’re more likely to get classes you won’t learn as much from.
Even if a college says the same faculty members teach its online courses, you still might not have the opportunity to learn from some of their best professors. Remember how the selection of courses is usually smaller? That means fewer professors. Not every professor has room in their schedule to teach an online course.
Every school manages their faculty differently. If you’re concerned about the quality of your education, find out who you’ll be learning from.
Your instructors may not be as available
The best online programs have some form of “virtual office hours” that let you video chat with faculty or at least use an instant messaging service. But a lot of programs don’t have this. In those cases, your professors are hopefully available by phone or email, but who knows.
I’ve had professors who seemed to hover over their email at 2 a.m., and they would reply instantly. Others may not get back to you for a couple of days. That’s not something you’ll probably know until you’re in class, and it’s going to be different for every professor.
On-campus professors have office hours built into their schedule. So when you need personal help, you can claim a spot or just show up. With some online programs, your best bet is to turn to tutors—assuming they have those.
Wow. OK. Now let’s look at the good stuff.
Pros of learning online
Despite the limitations I listed above, there are a lot of great benefits that can come with online learning. If you ask me, Arizona State University has one of the best explanations of the pros of online education:
Online degree programs are usually more flexible
The majority of online college courses are asynchronous—meaning you can “attend” class at any time by watching recorded lectures at your convenience. This is one of the main reasons people choose online classes. You can take a class before work, after you put the kids to bed, or during your lunch break.
Once in awhile though, you’ll run into an online course or program that requires live attendance. That means even though you’re an online student, you still have set class schedules. This usually only happens when a university “doubles up” and combines an online class with an on-campus class. There are some benefits to this—you can interact with the professor and learn from the discussions happening in class.
But even if you have an online class with a set schedule, it’s still going to be more flexible than an on-campus course because you don’t have to physically be there. You can be anywhere—which hopefully means wherever you work best. Whatever your schedule, you can pop on your headphones and turn any room into a classroom. You don’t even have to change out of your pajamas.
You might get more from online discussions
Like ASU Online shared in the video above, online discussions mean more people can participate. A single person can’t take up the whole class’ time by being the loudest, boldest, or wordiest.
An online discussion forum lets you take as much time as you need to thoughtfully ask questions and respond to comments from other students. You don’t have to feel pressured to come up with something on the spot (which can result in bad questions that waste everyone’s time), and if you need to, you can even turn to the comfort of your textbook . . . or Google.
Some online classes have video discussions. This is rare, but there are pros and cons to this. You might feel like you get to know your classmates better than you would in a forum, but if you ask me, it blends the worst of both worlds. You lose the ability to type out your thoughts, and interruptions are more disruptive. Plus, everyone is joining the conversation from their own environment, which may not be a great place to chat (like, say, anywhere in public). However, you do still have your computer on hand when you need to look something up. And no one will even notice you’re not looking at them.
Most online classes will still require some form of class discussions and participation points. When that happens online, it’s usually easier to get involved and contribute to the conversation. And since more people can participate, you get exposed to more perspectives.
Online courses may have interactive media
In an online class, you don’t have to sit in front of a professor and watch them click through PowerPoint slides. Some schools spend a lot of money to make their online courses into an interactive digital learning experience. This means you can apply what you’re hearing in lectures in the middle of class—without disrupting anyone else.
Plus, your professors can give their lectures in the field! Seriously, they can be in a field.
Take a look at this online course demo from Oregon State University’s Ecampus:
One of the biggest challenges of creating interactive media is that it looks dated really fast. An interactive video from five years ago may feel like it was made 15 years ago. So if a school isn’t keeping them up-to-date, you’ll be able to tell.
Online classes take less of your time
How far away is the closest college campus to you? Even if you scheduled on-campus classes back-to-back (allowing a few minutes to walk from one room to the next), you’re wasting time every day just getting to class. Even if your commute is short, online campuses cut that time down to zero. Or however long it takes you to walk to your computer.
If mobility or transportation is a challenge for you, going to school online completely removes this obstacle—plus it significantly increases your choices for where to go to school. (You might still have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to school out-of-state though.)
Those are some of the major ways online courses change the actual learning experience. Now let’s get into how it affects the social aspects of going to college.
How going to college online affects your social experience
Obviously, a college is going to have a lot of non-academic amenities, which may or may not be important to you.
On-campus students often pay a fee for the gym regardless of whether or not they use it. Usually, these aren’t run-of-the-mill gyms in cramped spaces. Colleges and universities tend to put a lot of money into their recreational facilities—they do need to be adequate for college athletes, after all.
But college gyms aren’t just good for a workout between classes. This is a place to meet other students or bond with classmates. Many college gyms even host events and intramural sports to give you opportunities to get to know people in a non-academic setting.
If you already have a gym you go to or you just aren’t interested, this isn’t a huge deal. But it is a social aspect of on-campus life that you miss out on as an online student. (Unless you live close to campus.)
Coffee shops, cafes, and cafeterias
The larger a college campus is, the more places it will have for you to sit down and enjoy something to eat or drink. This probably won’t make or break your experience, but these can be great places to hang out with other students. You may even find a new favorite place to meet up and study.
Guest lectures and career fairs
If you don’t live anywhere near campus, you’re going to miss out on some unique opportunities. Most schools have professionals and popular speakers visit campus and give guest lectures or presentations. Not every school is going to film these (or have the rights to film them) for online students to join in. These are unique learning opportunities which you may or may not be interested in. On-campus classes may be required or encouraged to attend these events together.
That said, if you’re interested in the speaker, they probably have videos you can watch online. You might just miss out on some interactive opportunities, or another chance to get to know classmates.
Career fairs are another big event that you could miss out on. These are great places to meet potential employers, network with other students and alumni, and maybe land a job. Some schools are making an effort to give online students similar opportunities, but it’s hard to replicate the face-to-face interaction. Washington State University facilitates online career fairs for their Global Campus, but this is pretty rare:
An internship is the next best thing to a job. And if it’s a paid internship . . . well, it is a job. Some degree programs have internships built into the program. You’re more likely to find programs like this on campus because schools are going to have the best connections to internships in their community. And if you do find an online program that requires an internship, the school may try to help you set it up, or you might be on your own. Either way, they’re a lot less likely to have the connections you need to secure a worthwhile internship.
I took a class that required an internship, and my professor pointed me towards a local medium-sized company. Out of about 30 students I was one of the only people who wound up with a paid internship at a corporation. Some people had to invent their position and duties. Don’t underestimate the value of networking.
This alone might make online degrees the best choice: you’re far less likely to have group projects. Whatever professors say about “the value of teamwork,” they’re terrible. Anyone who disagrees is probably not a good student.
You know what happens at a job when a group of people work on something together, and one person does all the work while the others do nothing? Well, it might wind up being kind of similar to a group project. But the best thing for the organization is to reward the person who did all the work, and for the other people to go “work” somewhere else.
And you know what else? At a job, everyone has to be there to work on it together. You don’t have to juggle around everyone else’s personal lives to meet and make it happen.
In a group project, though, everyone gets the same grade. Unless the professor has worked out some scenario where you grade each other (pressuring good students to give bad students good grades) or where each person gets a separate grade—in which case, why not separate them into individual projects?
Anyways, these are bad. I blame the existence of group projects on bored and/or lazy professors. But thankfully as an online student, you may never have the frustration of working on one.
Does an online degree cost the same as an on-campus degree?
Tuition costs vary widely from school to school, and there’s no guarantee that online tuition will be any different than in-state or out-of-state tuition. If there is a difference though, online tuition will probably be less than out-of-state tuition.
Some schools may offer different tuition prices based on how many credits you take, or what kind of degree program you’re enrolling in.
While tuition may be less, most colleges will also charge additional fees for online courses. This probably won’t come close to your tuition costs, but it does add up.
However your actual class expenses pan out, there are a couple of ways online students can save a lot of money:
- Room and board
Paying to live on campus (or moving to live closer to campus) can cost as much or more than tuition. If you live in the suburbs, relocating to a city could drastically increase your cost of living. And if you live with your parents, well, maybe they won’t charge you rent. Unless you’re old, then they should definitely charge you rent. But less than it would cost to move.
Parking passes are another way college campuses bleed students dry. After paying for a parking pass one quarter, I discovered that it was cheaper for me to risk the ticket every day. That might stress you out, but it was like $80 over four years versus a couple hundred bucks per quarter. And as an online student, you don’t even have to make that decision.
Will anyone know that I got my degree online?
Unless you advertise that you went to school online, or the school you went to is exclusively online, no one will ever know the difference. Usually. Some schools may make a distinction between online degrees and on-campus degrees. If they feel like they need to make that clarification, I’d take it as an indicator that their program isn’t high quality, or they aren’t confident in its merit.
What do employers think of online degrees?
There’s been a lot of stigma around online degrees, and it used to be for good reason. Online schools were popping up left and right handing out fake degrees, which made it hard for employers to take them seriously. But a lot of prestigious colleges and universities offer degrees online now, and they have the accreditation to back it up.
Depending on your field, employers are probably more interested in what you know than where you learned it. A vital concern with graduates from online schools is that they don’t have social skills—remember all those social things you miss out on?
You’re more likely to encounter negative reactions to an online degree, but as long as you can address their concerns (by knowing things and demonstrating social skills) you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Plus, you really don’t have to tell them you went to school online unless you want to talk about how hard you had to work to have a full-time job and finish your degree while raising a family, or something. I don’t know.
The reality is that an online education today is pretty comparable to what you’ll find on campus. As long as you know the signs of a good online program and watch out for red flags (like a school with no accreditation), you can take the next step towards your dream job right from home.