A lot of stress can be involved in choosing where to get your college education. Rather than choosing a brick-and-mortar school based on its proximity to your home, the beauty of the campus, or extracurricular activities, many students are choosing to take online college classes that lead them to degrees. These may be traditional students who are just graduating from high school and would rather not leave home to go to college. But even more common are non-traditional students who are looking to an online education after they’ve already had some experience with life or in the workforce.
Whatever the reason, if you are thinking about attending an online college or university, you’ll likely want to weigh the Pros and Cons so that you can make the most educated decision possible. Although online degrees are becoming more and more popular, they don’t work for everyone. In fact, more students tend to drop out or fail out of online classes than out of face-to-face classes and this may be simply because that style of learning simply isn’t for them.
So let’s take an honest look at the good and the bad that can be expected by online students. First, the Pros:
Pros of Online College Degrees
The benefits for getting an online education are strong. Here are five of the top Pros:
1. Flexibility in Scheduling
Face-to-face lessons in the classroom come with some benefits, but they also carry with them significant time restraint in comparison to online classes. In fact, flexibility in scheduling is one of the most common reasons that students cite for taking college classes online, according at a survey performed by Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research in 2014. This scheduling flexibility is particularly important when considering that many online students are non-traditional, meaning that they may have jobs, families, or both to consider. Having the ability to perform classwork from any location at any time is a critical part for students who may have full-time jobs, who have children or elderly parents to care for, or who need to flexibility in their schedules for some other reason that would make it almost impossible to attend a traditional college campus class. Online college provides this as one of its greatest benefits and will likely continue to grow for this very reason.
2. Technology Offers Freedom
Laptops, tablets, and smart phones have changed not only the face of technology, but also the way that we are able to be educated. What used to require going to the library to study now only requires the push of a button. And online college classes are no different. When you study online, you can take your classes anywhere. If you travel for your job, you don’t have to miss your classes but can simply take your laptop with you and log in wherever you are. If you’re a parent, you can take your tablet with you to study while you wait for your child to finish ballet lessons. No matter where you go, your education can follow you there with email, chat rooms, research, and writing papers. Technology makes online college accessible to almost anyone, anywhere.
3. Cost Effectiveness
The costs involved in attending on-campus classes include everything ranging from the cost of gas when commuting to the cost of parking, the wear and tear on your vehicle, and meals eaten out in between classes. In addition, other cost factors include the time involved in traveling that could be used to work or study. Typically, there are also fewer “campus fees” involved for online students as there is no expectation that the students will be accessing a gym, sports center, library, or other campus areas when they do not live in the same town as the school.
Not only are the expenses lower, but many times the actual tuition costs of online colleges may be less. Of course, this depends very much on the reputation of the school as well as other standards. While it should not be assumed that online classes cost less, this may be a consideration as well. A survey by Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research concluded that cost is one factor in decision making for online students, but certainly not the only one, and many students rely on financial aid to pay for college.
4. Greater Diversity and Less Discrimination Opportunities
While a local college may have a strong concentration of local students in attendance, you may find yourself in online college classes with people from literally all over the world. Chat rooms and other assignments may allow you to interact with interesting people that you might never meet face to place.
In addition, many people enjoy the fact that an online college class means that your persona gets to remain invisible to the people in your class as well as your teacher. Your gender, skin color, nationality, age, personal orientations, or even the way that you dress can remain a mystery to your classmates. Instead, the playing field is levelled and you can be judged solely on your intellect and your work. For many people, this kind of learning environment sounds like a dream!
5. Finish More Quickly
Many online college degree programs work at a faster pace than the same programs offered through a more traditional learning environment. Many online students have the option to go to classes year-round without the need for summer, winter, or other types of semester breaks. In addition, some programs are removing many ‘unnecessary’ courses from their online degree programs, aiming for less of a well-rounded liberal arts degree and more for a targeted field of study degree. This means that you can carry a more pointed course load toward your major and still finish more quickly than a traditional student might. Plus, because many online programs are aimed toward older students, they expect to give transfer credits for previously completed courses without needing many of the basics, resulting in a faster turnaround time for students in their degree programs.
Cons of Online College Education
Understanding the drawbacks of an online education is critical in helping you to make the right decision for your future. Here are five of the most common Cons:
1. Self-Motivation and Personal Responsibility
Online classes can be easily skipped, dropped, and otherwise ignored because there is very little accountability. Without the face-to-face interaction required and relationships formed from a traditional campus class, an online student can easily slip through the cracks and simply disappear. In fact, dropout rates are much higher for those attending classes online vs. those attending classes on a campus.
And since there are fewer physical reminders to attend class, since it may not be scheduled at a specific time, those students who are prone to procrastination may find themselves in a difficult situation just before midnight every time an assignment is due. If a student is not able to be personally responsible for himself, for finishing his coursework without teachers or classmates reminding him, then an online education may not be the right choice—at least until he grows up a bit. This is another reason that online college is particularly effective for adult learners.
2. Lack of Social Interaction
If you’re the kind of person who would rather have her nose in a book than chatting with friends, then online college may be the right place for you. On the other hand, just the fact that you are a social butterfly does not disqualify you from fitting in at an online college or university either. As long as you know how to plan your time well and make intentional choices to surround yourself with other people (i.e. working on a laptop in a coffee shop rather than at home along) then you may still find yourself thriving by still being able to surround yourself with people and getting your education at the same time.
3. Networking Issues
Sometimes the problem is not that you want to be around other students and faculty, but you might need to be. Some courses of study are more interactive and the development of relationships within certain circles is critical for success within certain programs. For instance, students in fields of study that rely on group projects in order to develop leadership skills, dive into creativity, and polish management styles may find it hard to get the depth of learning online that could otherwise be obtained through in class interactions made on the campus. For instance, only 6% of online students who participated in a Learninghouse and Aslanian survey in 2014 were majoring in Counseling and Human Services.
While this may not be a deal-breaker, if you are planning to study online in a program which clearly has a deep need for networking with others, be sure to ask questions of your admissions officer. Even better, try to get a phone call with the head of your potential department to find out more about how this aspect works.
4. Technology Can Fail
As we become more and more dependent on technology in the 21st century, we also become more and more debilitated when it fails. The reality is that if your computer crashes or your internet connection goes out while you are trying to work on your online classes, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. However, the good news is that technology has become more reliable, and teachers in online schools do often have some grace for the fact that technology can get in the way. Plus, the amount of technology that is used even when students do attend class on campus (emailing teachers, turning in assignments online, etc.) means that a failure in technology will hurt you no matter where you attend school!
5. Reputation with Potential Employers
Some employers and hiring managers still are not on board with the idea that an online college degree is equal in value to the degree earned at a brick-and-mortar school. Although this is not always the case, it might be helpful to consider what an online degree means in the specific area you intend to study. While an online degree may be perfectly acceptable in some technological or computer fields, it may be much more frowned upon in an area that requires more social interaction, such as social work or family sciences. Ask around to professionals you know who are practicing in the field you are interested in to find out. As time goes by and online colleges continue to become more prevalent, this should be less and less of a problem.