Online vs. Traditional Graduate School . . . the Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Freelance Writer

Apr   2015



Whether it was location, major, or size, you likely had a “wish list” of traits for your undergrad schools and made your choice based on your comfort level once you visited the campus. Choosing a graduate school is similar, but there are some important differences, particularly when facing the preponderance of online and hybrid course options available to grad students. There are now more schools offering online grad degrees than ever before. Advanced online degrees have many pluses, but also a few drawbacks. It’s important to consider your options before you decide that online is best for you.

The good

Online graduate degrees offer two big advantages. First, graduate schools can offer a wider variety of majors—often programs they just couldn’t afford to run in their traditional track. From arts management and museum studies to homeland security and agricultural studies, schools can use the resources and professional expertise of faculty members from across the country and around the world to teach courses online. Whatever advanced degree you are interested in, chances are it’s merely a click away.

Convenience is another advantage. If you’re not heading right back to a full-time graduate program following undergrad, the flexibility and convenience of online courses is a huge selling point. You’ll likely have to fit your studies in between a job, family obligations, and other commitments. Online classes allow you to study and complete your work on your timetable. Another bonus? Not driving to campus a few hours a week means less wear and tear on your vehicle.

The bad

It’s no shock that online courses lack the social interaction you receive from traditional in-person classes. If you have questions when you’re working at home, you have to e-mail your professor or post your question to the class website or message board and wait for a response rather than getting immediate feedback in real time. This lack of in-person social interaction also makes it harder to form and maintain friendships with your classmates, not to mention build valuable professional connections that may benefit you later.

Online courses call for much more self-discipline than traditional classes. You will still have deadlines and course requirements, but the feelings of accountability and engagement may be less intense. You’ll also miss out on the group discussions found in nearly every traditional graduate course. These discussions can be lively and invaluable. They often give helpful context to difficult reading assignments or other work, which can be tough to replicate on message board postings.   

The ugly

On a more practical level, whether online or traditional, it’s important to make sure that the school and its programs are reputable institutions that will truly help you reach your goals. Online education has become hugely popular in recent years, and some questionable cyber-schools have emerged. So how can you make sure the school is legit? In short: research. Start by browsing through the school’s website and looking for things like accreditation, transferability of credits if you switch schools, and support services like career placement assistance or a registrar. You should also try to determine graduate placement rates and average student debt, if not on the website than by contacting the school directly. Most traditional graduate schools are very in tune with students’ needs; online schools may be more difficult to determine.

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About Sara Hodon

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.