Is an Online Degree Worth It?

Online education is increasingly popular, but you might be wondering whether it's worth it. Melissa Venable, Ph.D., debunks the myths about earning an online degree.
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Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
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Contributing Writer

Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., has more than 15 years of experience in online education and training as an instructional designer, curriculum manager, and adjunct professor. She is also a certified career coach. Melissa works on research, instructional d...
Updated on February 6, 2024
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Lyss Welding
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Higher Education Research Analyst

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
Learn more about our editorial process is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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  • Online programs are absolutely worth it, depending on your circumstances.
  • In general, online programs are not easier than on-campus programs.
  • Online programs aren't necessarily more affordable, but they can be.
  • Just like degrees earned on campus, online degrees are widely respected by employers.

While, personally, I have never liked the term "online degree," it is commonly used to describe a college degree that is earned through online courses and programs rather than by attending on-campus classes.

The tendency to always qualify an education as "online," however, may contribute to myths about the online format compared to a traditional, on-campus education. These myths often relate to how difficult the degrees are to complete, how they compare in terms of costs, and how they are received or respected by employers after graduation.

What can you expect as an online student? Will the experience be worth your time, effort, and resources? Below are my answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions.

Is Online College Worth It?

The online students participating in BestColleges' 2023 Online Education Trends Report overwhelmingly shared their satisfaction with online programs in multiple ways, including the following:

Would recommend online education to others.

Say their online degree has had or will have a positive ROI.

Say online education is better than or equal to on-campus options.

  • Willingness to Recommend: Ninety-eight percent of online learners said they would recommend online education to others. Last year, we saw this percentage increase slightly among those who have already graduated from an online program.
  • Return on Investment: Ninety-six percent of online learners think that their online degree has had or will have a positive return on their investment (ROI). For this majority group, an online degree is worth it.
  • Perception of Quality: Three in four online learners (75%) feel that online education is "better than" or "equal to" on-campus options. The majority also think that their current and potential future employers share a similar perception.

Why Attend College Online?

You might choose online learning over on-campus options because of the flexibility and accessibility that online education can afford.

  • Flexibility: Online programs may offer different, flexible types of learning formats. For example, some online programs combine scheduled virtual classes conducted via platforms like Zoom with asynchronous learning — meaning you can complete or participate in some course activities on your schedule.
  • Access to Learning Around the World: Earning your degree from home saves you time commuting to class. These days, you can enroll in a number of online degree programs offered by colleges and universities across the country without having to uproot your life and move.
  • Keep Up With Life Commitments — and Much More: Many current online college students and graduates in our online education survey said they chose online over on-campus learning due to existing life commitments.

Other reasons included:

  • Pursuing a field of interest
  • Taking advantage of employer incentive programs to enroll
  • Dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when online program enrollment soared.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Are Online Degrees More Affordable Than Studying on Campus?

Maybe, but you'll need to do the math in advance to see if the programs you are considering will be affordable for you. In our 2023 online trends survey, students agreed that total program cost was one of the hardest things to get a handle on when making a decision to enroll in an online program.

What's more, 30% of online graduates we surveyed said they wished they had done more research about cost and financial aid before choosing their program.

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Relatively few online colleges report their annual costs to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the NCES College Navigator database, just 38 distance-learning-only programs reported program net costs. Net costs refer to what students pay after financial aid, like grants or scholarships.

In 2021-2022, these programs' average net cost was about $17,200 a year. That's slightly cheaper than the average net cost of college across all universities.

Online options at public schools were the least expensive compared to other school types; private, for-profit online colleges were the most expensive.

A Deeper Look

Why You Should Research School Costs Closely

On average, distance-learning-only schools have lower tuition and fees than on-campus options. However, your costs could vary. Keep in mind:

  • The tuition figures above come from a very limited number of online colleges — just 38 to be exact.
  • College costs vary widely across public, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges, whether you attend on campus, in person, or a hybrid combination of both formats.
  • Often, online learners do not get in-state discounts at public universities.
  • Online learners may save on some hidden college costs (like transportation and meal plans). Still, they could be subject to others (such as technology fees).
  • You can find some of the most affordable online programs at schools that offer online and in-person options.
  • Traditional institutions that offer both on-campus and online degree programs may charge different tuition rates and fees depending on the format, and online is not always less expensive.

The flexibility of online programs may allow you to continue your existing work schedule as a college student, which provides sustained income that can make a big impact on your personal financial situation.

Researching and comparing costs across schools and programs can be a challenge, but below are a few points to consider.

Tips to Compare Online Program Costs

  • Check
    Understand College Costs and Fees: This is another way in which each school will be unique as you make financial comparisons. Many institutions set tuition rates by degree level (i.e., undergraduate, graduate) and credit hour, while others have established rates per course or semester. Schools may charge online students either in-state or out-of-state tuition rates.

    Fees are also common and can range from orientation and activity fees to technology and commencement fees. Connect with admissions and financial aid advisors to get the details for each institution you are considering.
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    Explore Employer Partnerships: Does your employer have any existing affiliations or arrangements? Almost 1 in 10 online students we surveyed (9%) said that they chose their online program for this reason.

    These kinds of partnerships can include benefits such as tuition reimbursement, reduced tuition and fee rates, and customized courses based on your employer's needs. Talk with your supervisor and human resources office for more information.
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    Consider Transfer Credit: You may already have some college credit from previous attendance at an on-campus or online institution. Our BestColleges College Transfer Guide provides a checklist for becoming a transfer student. Having these credits accepted toward graduation in another program can help to reduce your overall costs.

    Work with admissions counselors to find out more about the transfer process at each institution you are interested in attending, keeping in mind that each school's processes and policies may be different.

Your actual costs will likely be different from other students' enrolled in the same program. Your financial aid package and number of transfer credits make an impact, for example. Do the research for each program you are considering and work with admissions advisors to develop specific estimates for what an online program will cost you.

Are Online Degrees Easier Than On-Campus Programs?

Short answer: Probably not.

Will the courses be more convenient to access? Absolutely. Will online education allow you to attend programs that weren't available to you in the past? Almost certainly.

However, the normal stressors of earning a college degree apply equally to on-campus and online programs, and adding school deadlines to your work and family calendars means staying busy.

Online programs offer convenience and flexibility, but there is still a commitment of time each week you'll need to devote to reviewing course materials, participating in class activities, completing required assignments, and preparing for exams.

Below are a few tips for students who are worried about committing to an online degree.

How to Prepare for an Online Degree Program

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    Plan Ahead: There are a few guidelines to help you manage your schedule. Arizona State University Online recommends planning for six hours of study time per week per college credit you take. So, a typical three-credit course would demand 18 hours of study time per week. University of Pittsburgh's time management calculator can help you estimate the time you'll spend in class and studying based on the number of credits you are taking.
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    Expect the Unexpected: In our online trends survey, 20% of students who successfully graduated from online programs shared that one of their biggest challenges to reaching graduation was managing unexpected life events. For example, students in my online classes over the years have gotten married, started new jobs, and dealt with natural disasters — all while enrolled in classes.

    Online courses are often offered in accelerated five- or eight-week academic terms. Managing these "life happens" events can be a challenge in such a short time frame. As an online college student, you will continue to have other priorities in your life, and being prepared to manage them will be a key to your success.
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    Focus on Building Time Management Skills: The more you add to your day, the better your skills and the higher your motivation need to be to keep everything moving forward. Map out your typical week; think of it in terms of 168 hours for work, school, family, sleep, and any other activities you have planned.

    Where in your schedule have you left time to complete online coursework? Time management is an essential skill for online students who must be self-directed to meet class deadlines and manage multiple priorities.

    Where and how could you improve? Try the "How Good Is Your Time Management?" quiz from Mind Tools to help you understand your current skills and get specific strategies for improvement in areas such as goal setting, prioritizing, managing interruptions, and procrastination.

If you are thinking about pursuing a degree online, there is a lot to consider. You can make the most of the flexibility and convenience that online learning offers by being prepared. Research the options available and bust the myths related to the requirements, costs, and acceptance of online education. Setting realistic expectations for what the experience will be like as a student, as well as after graduation, will help you make forward progress toward your professional goals. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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