Is an Online Degree Worth It?
Published on January 15, 2020
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.
Are Online Degrees Easier Than On-Campus Programs?
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. But 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.
There are a few guidelines to help you manage your schedule. The University of North Carolina-Greensboro recommends planning for eight hours of study time per week in an online undergraduate program and 12 hours per week in an online graduate program. Straighterline, an online education company, reports that students typically spend an average of 75 total hours completing the requirements of a self-paced, online college-level course.
Expect the Unexpected
In our BestColleges 2019 Online Education Trends Report, 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 &emdash; all while enrolled in classes.
Online courses are often offered in accelerated 5- or 8-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.
Build Your 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, and managing interruptions and procrastination.
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. According to students in our 2019 online trends survey, one of the hardest things to get a handle on when making a decision about an online program is the total cost.
That said, 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.
Explore Employer Partnerships
Does your employer have any existing affiliations or arrangements? Almost one-quarter of online students in our annual survey 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.
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.
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 with in-state and out-of-state tuition rates may apply either to online students. 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.
Your actual costs will likely be different than 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 Respected or Taken Seriously?
Online schools and universities used to be the only way to pursue a degree online. However, many traditional institutions now offer online versions of their on-campus courses and programs.
In our annual trends survey, we asked school administrators about the demand for new online programs, and 99% said they see it increasing or staying the same over the next few years. When we asked school administrators about how they decide to offer new online programs, the majority reported taking "projected economic development and industry growth," the "needs of local employers," and "general hiring practice trends" in mind. These reasons are all related to employment in some way, and rely on acceptance of online education by those in hiring positions.
Can Online Degrees Get You a Job?
Will every online degree be accepted by every employer? No, but we can't guarantee something like that for on-campus degrees either. The trends in employer partnerships, anticipated growth in the demand for online programs, and a need for online learning options in growing industries lean toward more acceptance of online education in general.
In addition, the online students participating our trends report survey overwhelming shared their satisfaction in multiple ways, including the following:
Return on Investment
Eighty-five percent of online learners think that their online degree has had, or will have, a positive return on their investment. For this majority group, an online degree is worth it.
Willingness to Recommend
Eighty-nine 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.
Perception of Quality
Seventy-seven percent of online learners 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.
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.