Online Colleges vs. On-Campus Colleges

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Deciding what college to attend can be a difficult choice to make, especially when you factor in the location, housing arrangements, tuition costs, books, and more. Thanks to modern technology, however, there are plenty of options to consider. To make your decision a bit easier, you’ll first need to first compare online colleges vs. on-campus colleges. You’ll want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s my budget?
  • How much time do I have to dedicate to school?
  • Can I quit my current job to go to school?
  • What majors am I interested in and which schools offer those programs?
  • Which locations can I realistically consider?

These questions can help you determine whether to attend an online college or an on-campus school. You’re probably considering attending college for a number of reasons—maybe to start or advance your career, broaden your horizons, or break into a new field. Maybe you want to meet new people, attend school while working, or be involved in a community. Whatever your reason for going to college, it’s important to develop a list of qualities you need in order to get the most out of your higher education experience.

You may be surprised by how many opportunities online colleges provide that equal or rival those of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), online colleges are now more popular than ever with nearly 2.6 million students attending college exclusively online, which is about 13 percent of college students overall.

Quality of Instruction

The quality of instruction at accredited online colleges is similar to that of traditional colleges. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, taking all or part of an online course can improve student performance. In online courses, you will access content through videos, presentations, live lectures, class chat rooms, and video conferencing. Although there are differences, these resources will help to provide experiences similar to a traditional on-campus setting where you can communicate with peers, access content visually and auditorily, and have the opportunity to speak face-to-face with your instructor.


Whether you pursue online or traditional colleges, tuition costs and additional fees will vary by university. Tuition fees will depend on the type of school you attend and program you complete—there are public and private online colleges, 2-year and 4-year colleges, and degree completion programs. You can save on the cost of room and board, which was on average around $10,000 in 2015. You could also save money on textbooks (if your institution offers free e-books), and transportation.

Attending school online may help you avoid paying out-of-state tuition fees, which are about 2.5 times more expensive at four-year colleges, and three times more expensive at public 2-year colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Post-Graduation Employment

Students who are concerned about the educational reputation of online schools should know that many online colleges do not indicate an online status on your diploma. For example, if you attended Arizona State University or Washington State University online, your diploma would simply indicate that you graduated from your respective university.

The stigma of online degrees is quickly fading away. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 79 percent of organizations hired an applicant with an online degree over a 12-month period. The study also shows employers are willing to support students who want to continue their education online. In another SHRM poll, 95 percent of employees who offered tuition reimbursement benefits were not impartial and accepted both online and traditional programs.


Online colleges can offer more flexibility than traditional schools. Many offer courses that you can begin at any time. Some colleges assign the majority of the coursework at the beginning of the program and allow you to work at your own pace. You may be able to utilize free or paid online courses, like MOOCs or, to test out of prerequisites.

According to a 2015 survey from the Instructional Technology Council, “a greater number of nontraditional students take eLearning courses—48 percent—which is higher than the average percentage of nontraditional students enrolled in on-campus courses. Online education appeals to older students who are working and appreciate a flexible educational environment.”


Online college attendance is growing as well as the number of quality programs available to students. About 50 percent of college presidents predict that most of their students will take online classes by 2021. With improved standards for online schools, new technology, and availability of massive open online courses (MOOCs), online learning is more versatile than ever. An Instructional Technology Council Distance Education Survey reported that 53 percent of institutional respondents offered completely online courses and 15 percent offered blended or hybrid courses.

Environmental Impact

If you’re concerned about the environment, then you’ll love the benefits online courses provide to the planet. According to a study on Sustainable Higher Education from The Open University in the UK, attending an online course requires 90 percent less energy in “productions and provisions” than attending a traditional college. The study says, “The much lower impacts of distance learning compared to campus-based courses is mainly due to a major reduction in the amount of student travel, economies of scale in the utilization of the campus site, and the elimination of much of the energy consumption of students’ housing. These are also key factors for the reduction in the environmental impacts of part-time course delivery.”

Online Colleges vs. On-Campus: So What’s Your Decision?

While the experience of attending college on-campus may be different from attending online, the quality of instruction, cost, and post-graduation employment opportunities are very much the same, if not better, at online institutions. Distance education is making higher education more accessible, affordable, and flexible for students who are unable to accommodate a full-time class schedule or the burden of commuting or relocating. Make college work for you by finding a program and institution that meets your lifestyle and educational needs.

“Sarah Schnurr is a freelance writer and teacher with a background in art and hands-on STEM education. She writes articles on Pre-K through college topics: from finger-paints to financial aid, and everything in between.”

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