Is online education the miraculous solution to the cost and scheduling problems that have plagued students for generations?! Is it the end of face-to-face discussions and idyllic campuses that define the college experience?! Spoiler alert: it’s neither. Like most things in life, there are ups and downs, pros and cons, to getting an online college education, and the truth is somewhere in the middle—especially since online programs vary a lot.
Check out our list of pros and cons to earning a college degree online to see how it might work for you.
Pros of an online college education
You have tons of flexibility
Online learning has opened up educational opportunities for people who might not have had them before, whether due to geography, family responsibilities, even being differently abled. With online education, no matter where you live, as long as you have a computer and reliable Internet connection, you have options.
Not only that, but you have the convenience of deciding when and where you engage in your online classes. Though there will likely be deadlines for assignments and exams, and you may encounter some live lectures and scheduled group discussions (or hangouts for group projects), with online education, you can generally work through the course material at your leisure. You can also log in and access course work and lectures at virtually any time, which are handy for reviewing the material for exams.
You have tons of options too
You'll find practically any type of degree you’d want offered online: associate, bachelor’s, master’s, certificates, and even doctorates. Though there aren't as many online as in-person college choices, you can still conduct a college search to find the online program that fits your needs, including whether you want a hybrid (online and in-person) or an entirely online program.
The cost is generally lower
No matter what online college program you attend, you will almost certainly save money on room, board, or commuting costs. (Just keep in mind that even some predominantly online programs have an in-person component, such as one weekend on campus a month, which may require you to pay for travel and lodging.)
Online programs tend to be cheaper than their in-person counterparts as well, since colleges can save money on overhead costs. However, this isn’t always the case. You may find little or no difference in tuition costs between a college’s online/hybrid and in-person programs, especially as online education becomes more mainstream (which is good for online ed’s reputation but potentially bad for cost savings).
You can complete the program faster
Going through an online college degree program on your own, you may be able to finish more quickly than in a traditional program. This can be especially helpful to students who want to use online programs to complete a degree, since they may be able to take only the classes they need to graduate, rather than gen eds. It also puts you into the workforce that much sooner.
You’ll be working with a driven group of peers
It takes a lot of dedication, determination, and drive to earn a college degree online, so although attrition rates still seem to be higher among online classes, the students who do stick with them are the kind of people you want in your professional network. (That being said, it’s harder to network with your online peers; keep reading...)
You’ll get better at writing and communicating in general
When most or all of your interactions take place online, it’s communicate well or bust. You will be judged primarily on your writing abilities, so you’ll learn to put forth your best work and clearly articulate your meaning. (You’ll find tips for writing and other ways of excelling in your online classes here.)
Online class discussions are a unique and democratized experience
In an online class, you will almost certainly have to participate in discussions—often for credit. So if a fear of public speaking has held you back in the past, you may enjoy the ability to type out your responses and review them before you post. And when everyone is required to participate, you can read and learn from all of your classmates’ thoughts. Finally, it’s harder for one or a few people to dominate the conversation when everyone is required to speak.
Cons of an online college education
You need to be highly motivated and self-directed
The freedom that makes online education such a blessing for some can be a burden for others. If you struggle with procrastination and time management—or with school in general, like many students do—it can be hard to get through your online college course work on your own.
Sure, traditional college programs require a hefty dose of time-management skills too, but because online courses are primarily self-directed, you need that much more motivation and self-discipline. You’ll get all the same lectures, readings, essays, homework, and group projects as an in-person class, but you’ll be expected to work your way through it largely on your own.
Self-discipline is also a finite resource, and it takes a lot of it to carve out time to watch lectures and work on projects, particularly if you’re fitting them into the end of a busy day or workweek. And, obviously, the more responsibilities you have to juggle, the harder that balancing act becomes.
You’ll have limited face time with professors and peers
Even though your online college professors might hold digital “office hours,” you still may find it difficult to engage with them, whether you have questions about the material or are looking for some professional advice or mentoring. Professors are also much more “hands off” in teaching online classes, so if you’re looking for extra help or one-on-one time with them, you’re going to get very little (if any) of it. This isn’t to say you can’t develop mentoring and networking relationships with your online professors, but it’s harder.
As for your peers, forget about old-fashioned socializing. You’ll be relegated to chat rooms and online hangouts. Opportunities for study groups and networking after class are hard to come by too. Again, it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely going to take extra effort, like organizing a meet-up in a central location.
You lose the campus experience
No study sessions in the library. No joining campus clubs and gaining extracurricular experience. No running to the academic or career center for help. No college computer labs with their plethora of fancy (and expensive) software. No hitting up a frat party on the weekend. Your house is your lecture hall, and your neighborhood is your campus. Again, this might be part of the appeal of earning your degree online. But if you think you’ll regret missing the on-campus experience, especially if you’re coming straight from high school, you may want to reconsider attending an online program.
You need to have the right technology
You need a fast, reliable, and up-to-date computer and Internet connection. Most online schools will post the technology recommended—or required—to take their courses. If you don’t have it, you’ll need to get it, which can be an extra financial burden. And depending on the online school and their IT services, you may not have much support if you need help. (But as a potential “pro” counterpoint: in our tech-centric world, it’s also good to have experience navigating new technology!)
Your peers and professors may not be as good at communicating as you would like
Online learning is probably a new undertaking for your peers and perhaps even your professor, so you may need to be patient with them when your online-only interactions are not quite as fast/helpful/friendly/easy to understand as you would like.
You may encounter misconceptions about online education
The reputation of online education has been steadily improving, especially as more and more “traditional” schools like UNC Chapel Hill, Texas A&M, and University of Florida get in on the online ed game. (In fact, a lot of higher ed experts say online education will be the new normal in the coming years.)
Still, a lot of people think of online education as easier and less reputable than an in-person education. That’s simply not the case. To be sure, there are some lower-caliber online degree programs out there—and that’s not including scam “schools” or diploma mills (see below). But online education programs vary in their selectivity and rigor just like brick-and-mortar schools do. And their course work is just as challenging as it would be in person, if not more so, given the self-discipline required to complete an online degree.
You need to beware of online education scams
Though the government and law enforcement are cracking down on diploma mills and other online degree scams, they’re still out there, preying on students. Red flags include a guaranteed degree, guaranteed scholarships, lack of accreditation, super-short programs (we’re talking a couple months or even weeks), and virtually nonexistent admission requirements. Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Here are some more helpful tips for recognizing diploma mills.
This is also why it’s so important to conduct a thorough college search, regardless of whether you want to get an online or in-person college education. This means you should know the overall reputation of the school and your intended major; its student outcomes like job placement, student debt, and graduation rate; and how its mission and values jibe with your own.
Related: Your College Search, Step by Step
Your major might not be covered (or covered well) online
Not all majors are available online, and even among those that are, some work better in a virtual setting than others. If you’re interested in a more hands-on major, like those in the health professions, you may be better served by an in-person degree program.