What to Know About Earning an Online Bachelor’s Degree

What to Know About Earning an Online Bachelor’s Degree
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on February 24, 2021

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If you're thinking about enrolling in an online degree program, a recent webinar jointly hosted by U.S. News & World Report and BestColleges was designed for you. The event, called "The Benefits of Earning a Bachelor's Degree Online," captured insights from a panel of online education professionals. As an education advisor for BestColleges and online instructor with 10 years of experience, I was honored to participate in the discussion.

The webinar, held on January 29, included tips to help prospective students compare online programs and set realistic expectations for their online learning experiences. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from our conversation.

Online Learning Isn't Just for One Kind of Student

The typical online student used to be older, focused on career advancement, and working full time. But over the years, this image has changed. Today, you'll find a much wider variety of students enrolled in online degree programs.

Today, you’ll find a much wider variety of students enrolled in online degree programs.

BestColleges' Online Education Trends Report found that the age range of online students is extending in both directions. While some programs are welcoming a larger number of students still in high school, other programs are seeing an increase in older students aiming to change careers, advance in their fields, or explore an area of interest as lifelong learners.

Panelist Angela Gunder from the Online Learning Consortium said that pursuing online education can benefit many kinds of learners.

One of these advantages is being able to actively participate in ways that are more difficult in a traditional classroom, such as through digital media and discussion forums. Some students find it easier to engage through technology, and asynchronous forums give students more time to consider how to respond in discussions.

The scheduling flexibility of online bachelor's programs also attracts high school students and working professionals alike.

Prospective Students Should Shop Around, Ask Questions

More options are available than ever before for earning a bachelor's degree online, but not all programs are created equal. According to BestColleges' annual survey, one of online graduates' biggest regrets was not comparing more programs before committing to a school. Panelist Jessica DuPont from Oregon State University Ecampus also recommends shopping around.

You likely have a lot of questions, and comparing programs isn't easy. The panelists' advice to prospective students? Just ask. Start by creating a list of your educational priorities and the kinds of support you need to succeed. Then, talk with school representatives to find out more.

According to BestColleges’ annual survey, one of online graduates’ biggest regrets was not comparing more programs before committing to a school.

You can also reach out to people in your network who have experience with online education — such as teachers, mentors, employers, and online program alumni — for advice and referrals. Gunder said that many schools offer sample online classes you can try before you enroll. These courses allow you to test out the technology you'll use to connect with your instructors and classmates.

Likewise, Bill Fritz, director of admissions and financial aid at Pennsylvania State University World Campus, advised asking the schools you're interested in if you can connect with student or alumni ambassadors to learn about their experiences in the program.

Online Education Isn't Always Cheap, but Aid Is Available

Even today, the myth that earning a college degree online is cheaper than earning a degree on campus persists. To avoid surprises after you enroll, you should research tuition costs, fees, and requirements for staying eligible for financial aid.

Be sure to research tuition costs, fees, and financial aid eligibility before enrolling.

Fritz explained that schools differ in how they charge tuition. For example, an online program may charge per credit or per academic term, and apply in-state or out-of-state rates.

While you should expect to pay some of the cost yourself, you might also qualify for financial assistance. Filling out the FAFSA is a must, but that's just the beginning. You may find funding through scholarships, grants, and employer assistance programs.

In BestColleges' 2020 survey of business leaders, almost half of professionals said their organizations partner with colleges or other vendors to provide online course access to employees. You can also ask your schools of interest about other avenues of support, such as hardship grants, which aren't always listed on a school's website.

The Best Online Programs Are Interactive

Panelists emphasized that one key to selecting a quality online program is to focus on what opportunities students will have to engage with one another and the broader school community. The most effective online programs are designed with connection in mind. Online students should expect to interact with their classmates, professors, and course materials in a multitude of ways.

According to DuPont, the services and activities available to online students should be similar to those extended to on-campus students. These amenities may include academic opportunities, such as undergraduate research projects and study abroad programs, and social opportunities, such as virtual clubs and student government.

High-quality online programs also offer an array of support services, such as academic advising, career counseling, and tutoring.

Give Yourself Time to Adjust to the Tech

It's important to know that high levels of interaction take both time and technology in an online setting. Fritz addressed the fact that online students often experience a learning curve when it comes to tech. Those new to online learning should give themselves ample time to get familiar with the systems and tools, while keeping in mind that the experience will improve over time.

Those new to online learning should give themselves ample time to get familiar with the systems and tools.

DuPont, meanwhile, recommended understanding not only the time commitment required but also the self-motivation you'll need to succeed. Building a support network, which could include friends, family, co-workers, and classmates, can help you stay on track.

Online learners represent a broad spectrum of experience, including with technology. You don't have to be tech-savvy to get started — just willing to learn.

Don't Keep Your Academic and Career Goals to Yourself

In an online setting, if you aren't proactive and vocal about what you need and where you want to go, you might not find the help you need to succeed. As Gunder explained, online students can benefit from being open about their goals for college and beyond.

Talking to people — professors, classmates, advisors, coaches, counselors — can open doors to resources you otherwise wouldn't have known existed. Your online classmates today are your professional network tomorrow, so share your plans with your campus connections and the people in your community. They can't help if they don't know what you need.

Feature Image: PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

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