are online degrees worth it

Online degrees are not new ideas. However, they have recently become more prominent and mainstream. The question some students have is whether it is worth the time, effort and money to earn an online degree.

For many college students, earning your degree through online learning sounds like an ideal choice. Not being tied down to attending a class at certain times gives students the flexibility to work outside of school or enjoy more free time. Yet students are also conscious of the fact that their degree can mean the difference between unemployment and a successful career. They may worry that if they earn their degree online, it may not be taken seriously by employers later on. There may even be a worry that the degree is invalid or not worth as much as a degree earned through traditional college classes. Concerned students may wonder, would it really be worth it to earn my degree online?

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The History of Distance Learning

The earliest form of distance learning took the form of correspondence courses. These courses were mailed back-and-forth between student and teacher. They were often offered through for-profit institutions that famously advertised on television using famous faces to peddle their classes. The majority of correspondence courses focused on practical skills, like bookkeeping and HVAC repair.

Later, telecourses became a fad that allowed students to watch programming that accompanied physical lessons. Telecourses could be rented from accredited institutions or for-profit technical schools. They could be fully televised programs or, more often, they accompanied traditional, in-seat classes.

The advent of the internet made these earlier forms of learning obsolete. Students began to communicate with instructors through email, online chat sessions and message boards. For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix focused on providing these degrees to students in large numbers with few requirements. Many employers found that students from for-profit institutions didn’t earn the skills needed for employment. This tainted the idea of online learning.

Around this time, accredited, reputable institutions like Columbia College of Missouri and the University of New Hampshire began to offer full degrees online. They utilized programs that had been developed by professors who were experienced in in-seat learning. These degrees were just as rigorous as in-seat offerings with the added bonus of flexibility. In the case of Columbia College, online classes were originally targeted to military personnel before being offered broadly across the country.

The Rising Popularity of Online Learning

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

Online learning has become hugely popular in recent years. According to a CBS News article, almost 75 percent of colleges now offer online classes. Nearly 4 million of the country’s students participate in online learning. There are still colleges, like the University of Phoenix, that are almost exclusively online institutions. Although there are a large number of unlicensed online “diploma mills” with virtually worthless degrees, most online colleges are legitimate and award degrees that are just as valid as those from traditional colleges. Many online institutions also specialize in classes in growing career fields such as engineering and computer technology. The degrees earned in these fields will give students an advantage when they enter the job market.

Naturally, schools that are solely online aren’t the only options. Online degrees are available from trade schools through Ivy League universities. Students can earn diplomas, certification, undergraduate and even graduate degrees through online studies.

Why Choose an Online Degree?

Learners at all levels are finding online degrees to be a safe, flexible alternative to in-seat classes. They are good options for parents, full-time workers and those who prefer to avoid crowded classroom settings. Online classes can be taken on week-ends, late at night or during lunch breaks. The flexibility alone is enough to make many people opt for online rather than traditional, in-seat classes.

Another reason to choose online vs. traditional coursework is the cost. On the surface, online learning can be more expensive than typical tuition. However, online courses often include the cost of books and certain lab fees. One feature that is avoided with online learning is the high cost of living on a college campus. Residence halls, activity fees and meal plans are often as much as or sometimes more than the cost of tuition. Those wanting to save some money while still earning a degree might opt to learn online.

Opportunities for Going Back to School

An online degree is also a good choice for those affected by the sluggish economy. Older students who may have lost their job may choose online learning to earn a new degree and find new employment. Online classes will allow them the flexibility to care for children or other household responsibilities while still making progress toward a new career. Many online colleges even offer introductory lessons for older students who may be unfamiliar with using a computer. This allows those who are worried about adjusting to an online format to feel more at ease.

As with traditional college learning, online classes require hard work and responsibility. Yet this hard work does pay off in the form of a degree and, someday, a career. For a student who works or who just wants a flexible schedule, online learning can be a good option for pursuing a college degree.

Are Online Degrees Respected by Employers?

Although students might worry that their degree will be discounted because it was earned online, for many employers this is not the case. As long as the college awarding the degree was a legitimate one with proper accreditation, the degree is just as valid as one that may have been earned through traditional learning. In some professions, it is more important that the degree was obtained in a particular field than where it was earned.

There are instances in which an online degree is more attractive to potential employers than one that was earned in-seat. An employer may find it appealing to see that the student was able to manage a career and family while also earning an education. Excelling while earning an online degree shows a high level of commitment, intelligence and a strong work ethic. It also shows potential employers that the student is self-sufficient and able to work well without direct supervision.

It is important to remember that not all employers will look at online degrees in the same light. Some may have had bad experience with employees who used online diploma mills to earn an education. This is one reason a student might consider attending an online campus that is connected to a traditional, brick-and-mortar school. Employers might be more apt to hire an individual who has a degree that is backed up by a solid reputation whether or not it was earned online.

A Hybrid Approach

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

Many schools have opted for a hybrid approach when it comes to earning degrees. They may offer some classes online and some in-seat. Others might give students the opportunity to choose from day-to-day whether they take classes online or stick with the traditional method. The aforementioned Columbia College of Missouri is one of many universities across the country that has adopted a high flex model. Joining schools like Pace University and the University of Florida, schools like Columbia College have outfitted classrooms with technology that allows students to either visit the room in person or tap in from another location. Students who typically attend in-seat but are ill or must be away from campus don’t have to miss learning opportunities. Students who prefer to study online have the option of meeting their professors and other students in person.

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

It is important to remember that a college education is about so much more than entering the workforce. There are many jobs that require specific degrees and training that can only be obtained through college classes. Medical professionals, engineers and scientists are unlikely to succeed without a targeted degree. However, many other careers are learned on the job.

In most instances, the degree that is earned is far less important than the broadening of horizons that was gained by learning in the first place. A good example of this can be found within the leadership of the United States. Both George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan studied economics and sociology. Joe Biden and Richard Nixon received degrees history. Bill Clinton’s undergraduate degree is in Foreign Service. Barack Obama studied political science while specializing in English literature and international relations.

While most students won’t become president of the United States, they will grow mentally and emotionally from their studies. This is true whether they study online or in person.

Paying for an Online Degree

Students sometime worry that they won’t be able to pay for an online degree. Typical scholarships rarely apply to online classes. For-profit schools rarely, if ever, qualify for state and federal aid. How does a student pay for an online degree?

The first option is to seek a school that is accredited and eligible for aid. Luckily, most schools fall into this category. A student, even one who is solely studying online, can apply for aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most online programs have staff dedicated to helping students with this process.

Another option is to talk to an employer. Many employers offer assistance to students who are taking classes online. Lastly, most online universities offer payment programs so that tuition doesn’t have to be paid in one lump sum.

Am I Ready to Learn Online?

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

Online learning is very different from traditional methods of education. Students must be self-starters who are entirely independent. Being well-organized isn’t a bonus but a must. Students must have access to the right equipment and ample time to take classes.

Some students find it difficult to stick with an online program when they don’t have a regular schedule. It is wise to plan ahead for a specific time of day to take the class even if it is a flexible model. For instance, a student might decide to squeeze the class in during the day only to find that they have let the day slip away. They will then tell themselves that they will make up the class the following day only to find the same thing happening again and again. A wiser choice is to self-schedule. One might decide to take all online classes back-to-back. They might instead opt for two in the early morning and two more at night. They could also spread classes out throughout the week. It’s not important when the classes are taken. It is important that a schedule is in place to make sure the classes aren’t forgotten.

Students must have an excellent internet connection and a back-up plan in case computing equipment or the internet connection is lost. Luckily, many classes can be reached through a laptop, tablet or cell phone in case of emergencies. Some students choose to take their classes at local libraries. A bonus to online classes is that they can be taken anywhere. A student who loses an internet connection at home can turn to a coffee shop with free wifi for a temporary solution.

It is important for an online student to develop a relationship with the instructor who is managing the class. Students should take the time to reach out to that instructor in order to develop a relationship that will help with learning. Online teachers usually have many more students than those professors who focus on in-class instruction. Developing a relationship, even through the internet, can help a student to become more invested in the coursework.

Relationships don’t end with the professor. Students should try to communicate with others who are taking the class online. Discussion groups are commonplace in online classrooms. Having that connection to others is integral to having a full college experience.

Along with setting aside time for each class, students need to ensure that they have adequate homework and test prep time. Excellent online schools have coursework that is just as rigorous as that work that is in-seat. Without having the luxury of being in a physical environment with other students, those assignments may be even more difficult. Time management is an important, perhaps the most vital, skill for online students.


In the end, whether or not an online degree is worth while is determined by the amount of work and effort the student puts into it. A future employer will be able to tell if the student has been successful regardless of where the degree was earned. What is more important is the amount of knowledge the student has gained. Learning is easily accomplished in an online setting with the right school and the right mindset.

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