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By Heidi Rivera
December 4, 2020
Money; Getty Images

When you think about college, you might envision packed lecture halls, football games and late-night study sessions. But this image of traditional campus life isn’t representative of all college students. In fact, millions of students earn their degrees online, never setting foot in a lecture hall or a dorm room.

Although such distance learning isn’t new, the number of students choosing digital degrees over traditional, in-person programs has increased substantially over the past fifteen years. More than one-third of the nation’s undergraduates were taking at least a few of their courses remotely in 2018, while about 14% were enrolled exclusively online, according to federal education statistics. And the pandemic has no doubt caused that number skyrocket.

Bryan Payne, vice provost for academic affairs at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, thinks that interest in online programs will only continue to increase with time, even after the pandemic has passed.

“I would say that the future of higher education is online education,” Payne says — and he may be right. Over 70% of colleges in the United States plan on adding at least one online undergraduate program in the next three years.

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Earning your bachelor’s degree online offers you the flexibility to take classes at your convenience and the ability to finish your degree faster through accelerated programs. You could even save some money since you won’t have to worry about expenses like relocating or traveling to and from campus as frequently.

That convenience, speed, and affordability are all tempting reasons to consider getting your degree online. But online programs can also be less engaging and harder to finish than in-person ones. Whether to attend online depends on a variety of individual factors, so we can’t give you a simple should-you-go-online quiz to find out if it’s right for you. However, we can provide you with some food for thought to help you decide. Just check our guide below.

What to Consider Before Enrolling in an Online Bachelor’s Degree Program

Why Are You Choosing Online Courses?

When thinking about enrolling in an online program, one of the first things you need to assess is why you want to do it, says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy. In a recent study conducted among online college students, over 60% of them said that flexibility was one of the main reasons they chose an online program over an in-person one, while more than one third said that they chose online because it’s their preferred way of learning.

If your main motivation in choosing the online route is to have the flexibility to take evening classes or to pursue your degree part-time, Baum says you should think again. Those options are likely also available at a nearby campus.

If, however, you can’t uproot your entire life for the sake of getting a degree, then, Baum says, going online may very well be worth it. It can be a practical option for people with full-time jobs or dependents to take care of, or for those who live in remote areas. “If your option is to either take some courses online and graduate, or not, then you should do it,” she says.

What’s Your Learning Style?

Another important consideration is your learning style. There’s sometimes a notion that virtual classes are less challenging than their real-life counterparts. But while it’s true that they can be more flexible than in-person courses, they can also be more challenging, as you’ll have to learn the same complex subjects with less supervision or support.

“People think that it’s easy to go online,” says Amy Stevens, vice president of academic resources and technology at Southern New Hampshire University. But “in order to acquire the skills and behaviors needed to succeed in an online undergraduate program, you’re gonna have to push yourself,” she adds.

As an online student, your interactions with faculty and peers will be more limited compared to those of campus students. This means you’ll have to adopt a self-directed learning style in order to succeed. So, you’ll have to be completely honest with yourself in terms of admitting whether you have enough self-discipline to go through with it.

Some schools, like Purdue University Global, do offer some synchronous courses, where students can tune-in virtually to a live discussion and interact as part of the class. Others, like Southern New Hampshire University, offer classes mainly through pre-recorded lectures and other materials you can watch at your convenience — what’s known as asynchronous courses.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing either approach, but if you’re taking asynchronous classes, you’ll have to be more proactive when it comes to identifying any gaps in your learning and asking for help. “You’ll have to be an active participant,” says Stevens. “You’ll have to say, ‘I’m confused, I need help with this, or I don’t understand,’ in a way that you may not have to in a traditional class,” she adds.

How Much Time Are You Able to Commit to Studying?

Your level of commitment will also play a big factor in whether or not online is the right way to go. Online programs often have lower completion rates than in-person programs. At Purdue University Global, for example, 26% of students earned a degree within 8 years. (Another 36% transferred to another school.) By comparison, nationally more than 6 in 10 students who enrolled in bachelor’s degrees in 2012 had earned degrees six years later, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In many cases, there are valid reasons for lower completion rates with online programs. One of the most common ones being that a great number of the students enrolled online have complex lifestyles. This, combined with a lower level of engagement, makes online students more likely to drop classes or take longer to finish than residential students who may have fewer responsibilities on their plate.

“Students who are older, have weak academic backgrounds, or have other obligations are going to complete at a lower rate than people who are younger, have solid academic backgrounds, and total flexibility,” says Baum.

So, if you’re thinking about going to school while juggling work and other responsibilities, you’ll need to have a higher level of commitment and be very intentional about how you manage your time to be able to finish. That’s especially true if you’re going to have to take on debt to finance enrolling in an online program. One of the biggest indicators that you’re likely to struggle to repay student loans is not completing your degree.

What Do You Want to Major In?

Another thing you’ll have to factor in is the major you’re interested in. “Large online universities are focused primarily on those majors that really help students achieve their life goals,” says Jon Harbor, provost at Purdue University Global, referring to the fact that universities typically offer online programs in the disciplines with the most demand.

The most common majors you’ll find at online schools include accounting, business administration, health science, and information technology. That’s not to say that you’re only limited to these choices, but if you’re thinking about studying something more niche, like agricultural engineering or art history, you may have a harder time finding a school that offers it online.

Is Not Saving Money a Deal-breaker?

A recent survey by Wiley Education Services, a company that offers technological solutions to colleges to address their students’ needs, found that affordability was one of the key factors online students considered when choosing a program. While getting your bachelor’s degree online can be more affordable than going to campus, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. So, if you’re thinking about an online degree because you expect it will save you money, you may need to do more research.

If you’re interested in attending a public university as an out-of-state student, attending online may be the cheaper option. For example, if you’re an undergraduate student attending Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, you’ll pay about $14,714 per semester, versus $7,026 if you decide to go online.

However, if you’re an in-state student, you may actually end up paying more per credit hour at a public institution if you choose to enroll online. For example, Old Dominion University charges in-state campus students $360 per credit hour, while in-state online students pay $390 per credit hour. That’s because good online programs are expensive to make, experts say.

“There’s a huge infrastructure that we’ve got to create,” says Andrew Casiello, associate vice president for distance learning at Old Dominion University, referring to the tools and technology that must be in place to make and deliver the school’s online courses. “You’re getting the same instruction (as on-campus students), you’re getting the same faculty,” he adds.

Regardless, you can save money in other ways by enrolling online, such as not having to relocate to be nearer to a campus.

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Tips to Find a Good Online College Program

Once you’ve decided that an online degree fits your individual situation, the next step is finding the right program. There are about 45 four-year institutions in the United States that offer bachelor’s degrees exclusively in an online format — and that doesn’t include the hundreds of colleges that offer both and online degrees. So, how can you choose one that’s really worth your while?

For starters, Stevens, from Southern New Hampshire University, recommends checking out both the program and school’s accreditation. If a program is either nationally or regionally accredited, this means that it meets the standards set by the U.S. Department of Education. This also means that it may be easier for you to transfer credits and that you’ll have access to resources like federal student aid.

But accreditation is the bare minimum. There’s still a lot of variation in the quality of accredited colleges and programs.

So it’s also important to check out the program faculty you’d be learning from, says Payne, from Old Dominion University. “Who’s teaching the classes? Are they the full-time faculty that are there and being evaluated in a way that is ensuring that there is quality?’” he says.

Adjunct or part-time professors have limited-term contracts, while full-time professors typically have tenure, meaning that they’ll remain employed unless something extraordinary happens. Because of this, full-time faculty are expected to have the highest level of education, that being a doctorate or another terminal degree, and are audited frequently.

You’ll also want to look for faculty members that have both academic and professional experience. This is always a plus since they’ll be able to teach you the most important aspects of the field that can be applied in real life. You can find this information by contacting the director’s office of your intended program. If you’re curious about finding out who may be teaching your courses, you can always check your program’s website and click on the faculty or staff directory section to get this information.

Just like with traditional programs, Stevens says it’s also crucial to find out the school’s student to faculty ratio. With online programs, it can be easy for colleges to schedule huge courses. But because it already may be harder to connect with your teachers when you’re communicating through a screen, you want to look for online programs that keep class sizes limited. That gives you the chance for more individualized attention from your professors and it will ensure you get answers to your questions in a reasonable amount of time.

Another thing to consider is the resources available to online students. Some of the things a good program should offer are access to include virtual office hours, tutoring sessions, program counselors, and career support.

Harbor, from Purdue University Global, says you should also look for a school that assigns each of its students an admissions advisor. This is especially important if you already have some college credits or work experience since they could save you time and money by waiving some of the classes you already took or that are the equivalent to your experience. You can get this information by contacting the school’s enrollment or admissions department

Lastly, look for successful alumni. “I always tell people to look at the students who graduated from that institution in the last five years or so,” says Harbor. “What are they doing? What are their outcomes? Did they match what you aspire to? If so, then that’s a good sign,” he adds.

One of the ways of measuring student success is by looking at the school’s graduation rate and average alumni earnings after completing. You can find this information for undergraduate programs by searching the institution on the College Navigator or the College Scorecard websites.

However, it should be noted that it may be tricky to find this information specifically for online programs, unless the university has a separate campus for distance learning, like Purdue University Global and Penn State World Campus.

If the school you’re planning to attend offers its online programs as an extension of its current academic offering, then your best bet is to contact the college’s admissions office and ask for outcomes data related to their online programs. If a college is hesitant about giving you this information, then that’s an indicator that it may not be the best option for you. You can also reach out to alumni on social media networking sites, like LinkedIn or Facebook, and ask them about their experience with the program to determine whether it’s worth pursuing.

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