As society and technology continues to evolve, more and more prospective students are opting to attend online colleges instead of traditional universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.4 million students took at least one distance education course during the Fall of 2012. Other key findings in the study include:
- Graduate students are more likely than undergraduates to study online. About 22% of the 2.9 million graduate students in the U.S. study exclusively online. Conversely, 11% of undergraduates solely took online classes.
- About 51% attended online colleges in the same state as where they live.
- Arizona, West Virginia, and Iowa had the highest percentage of students enrolled in online colleges with 48%, 40%, and 39.7% of all students respectively.
Online colleges provide flexibility and are ideal for those who cannot commit themselves to a full-time academic schedule. These students could be:
- Working part-time or full-time, supporting their current careers
- Having responsibilities at home, such as a child or special-needs family member
- Residing in areas without a brick-and-mortar college
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing an online college. By finding a school with proper accreditation and a solid reputation, it’s possible to get a credible and competitive education online.
What Can I Expect from an Online College?
“Online learning is not the next big thing, it is the now big thing.” – Donna J. Abernathy
Despite popular belief, online colleges can provide the same academic rigor and expectations as traditional universities. Online colleges require a certain number of credit hours like traditional universities (usually 120 credits for a Bachelor’s degree, the equivalent of about 40 courses).
The length of your degree program will vary based on the amount of credits you complete per semester. Since many students at online colleges juggle full-time jobs or responsibilities at home, they may take fewer credit hours per semester and complete their degree at a more comfortable pace. Highly-motivated students can complete their degrees at an accelerated pace by taking more credits per semester.
Most online colleges offer similar formats when it comes to classes. For example, most in-class communication is completed via message boards and chatrooms. Some classes may require students to stream live or virtual lectures, while others may require students to make recordings or do live presentations for special projects. Most online classes offer classes in an asynchronous format, which means all course material can be accessed online. Some colleges, however, may require some synchronous courses, which require you to attend some sort of in-class component, either online at a specific time or in a physical classroom.
Students are expected to communicate regularly with their classmates and professors, practicing netiquette at all times. Networking is a crucial component to online colleges. Students should work to build relationships with classmates and professors who may be valuable help down the road when it comes to letters of recommendation or potential career opportunities. It’s a common misconception that online colleges lack opportunities for networking offered by traditional colleges, however, the responsibility simply lies on the shoulders of students willing to put forth the effort.
It’s also important to note that many traditional colleges now offer online options, such as online degrees and individual online classes in which you pay per credit. Although the latter may not be the most financially efficient way to complete your degree program, it may be a viable option if you’re in need of one or two classes to finish your degree.
Advantages of Online Colleges
“Not everyone fits into the traditional school model, and the online program provides another way for us to meet the diverse and often unique needs of our students.” – Pete Chapin
Depending on your situation, there are numerous advantages to attending online colleges compared to traditional schools, including:
- More flexibility for working students and stay-at-home parents that want to finish their degree or pursue a new program of study while still focusing on their current careers and responsibilities
- Increased educational options for those with learning disorders or physical disabilities that make it difficult to get around
- New learning opportunities for independent learners and those with social anxiety who may excel better in an online setting, working at their own pace
- More accessibility for students who are unable to relocate or do not live near a university
- Some specialized degree programs may only be available online
- Students will be able to take classes concurrently with other education (for example, enrolling in an online class at an online college while you’re attending a traditional college)
In short, online colleges provide numerous benefits to those who may be otherwise restricted or unable to complete their degrees at a traditional four-year university.
Financial Aid for Online Colleges
Thankfully, there are plenty of financial aid options for those looking to attend college online.
Federal Student Aid – Available to students enrolling in an accredited online college through filling out a FAFSA. Some aid packages include funds that do not need to be repaid like traditional loans.
Grants – Thousands of potential dollars in grants are available to prospective students based on financial need or choice of career (for example, TEACH grants are designed for those looking to become educators).
Loans – Federal loan programs offer relatively low interest rates. These loans do not need to paid off until after graduation, however, students should carefully read the specifics of any loan program before applying.
Work-study – Believe it not, work study is available at select online colleges. Through working in positions like a virtual assistant, for example, students may offset some of their educational costs through a work-study program.
Scholarships – Much like traditional universities, scholarships are available to virtual students based on certain criteria such as financial need or career situation (such as single parent or full-time worker).
Paying for college, online or otherwise, can be a potential headache, however, financial aid is an especially viable option for those already working full-time.
Important Considerations for Choosing an Online College
Although online colleges can offer a legitimate, competitive education, success will require significant time management skills and self-motivation. Likewise, students should consider whether or not they’ll realistically be able to juggle their careers and an academic workload.
Online colleges can also be expensive, especially for students attending a for-profit university. Students should very carefully determine whether or not their prospective online college is properly accredited and avoid ones that are simply a “degree mill,” offering degrees with little or no value at a high cost.
Many students also face issues with employment after graduation, as some employers have a negative perception of online degrees. Although the number of students pursuing an online education is on the rise, employers in career fields requiring hands-on experience, such as physical therapy, may be much less likely to honor an online degree.
The rise of online degree programs from traditional colleges is helping remove the negative stigma of online education. For this reason, it may be advantageous to seek out such programs that already have a positive reputation and have a widely recognized brand.
Which Online Colleges Are Right For You?
Within the next four years, over half of the workforce will be expected to have a college education. Online colleges provide a viable means of post-secondary education for those whose needs cannot be met by the traditional university system.
Interested in a flexible, competitive education online? College Atlas has many online college and online degree options for you to search from. Chances are, the right fit is out there for you.