The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) stated that in 2007-2008, the most recent year for which data is available, 20 percent of all undergraduates took at least one distance education course. Nearly a million of these students, 4 percent of all undergraduates, took their entire program through a distance education program. A 2011 survey from the Pew Research Center found that approximately one-in-four college graduates have taken an online class. Pew also predicted that the number of students taking online classes will grow significantly over the next 10 years.
But is online an online degree program right for you? If so, how do you make sure you're choosing the right degree from a reputable institution? With the dramatic growth of this segment of the educational landscape, it's important to keep certain things in mind with regards to online education.
The question of access
Do you have access to reliable transportation? Are there institutions near you that offer high-quality degree programs in topics you are interested in? Access is an important consideration when determining the college you'd like to attend.
One of the factors in favor of pursuing a degree online is the ability to "attend" classes from anywhere with internet connectivity. For students who don't live near the institution they're interested in, or are unwilling or unable to move to earn their degree, this kind of flexibility can be a significant benefit.
However, students interested in pursuing degree programs that require internships, supervised clinical hours or other forms of in-person training may find traditional brick-and-mortar institutions continue to be the best option. Additionally, online institutions may have one set tuition rate for all students, while campus-based degree programs may have less expensive tuition for in-state residents.
The availability of online education means that students have a choice in how information is presented to them. Knowing how you learn most effectively and what motivates you to study and succeed will help you choose a program that may appeal to your learning style.
Some individuals are extremely organized and disciplined when assigned tasks, and don't have trouble motivating themselves to work independently. If you feel confident in your ability to set aside time on a daily basis to do course readings as well as complete homework assignments and other tasks, you may find the online format appealing.
Others may find the structure of traditional face-to-face courses to be an important factor in their educational success. If you enjoy working directly with other students and professors, or find the classroom and university library is a less-distracting environment than your home or a coffee shop, you may be a better fit for on-campus degree programs.
What types of degrees are available?
Not all degrees are available in all formats. As a result, the right educational format right for you may depend in part on your skills and interests.
Programs in areas like business, technology & IT and healthcare administration are increasingly available online. Some of the real-world applications for these types of positions involve working online, so learning the material in the same format may actually give students an idea of the type of work environment they can expect.
Degree programs where physical lab work or other types of hands-on learning, like hard sciences, engineering and health care, is required in order to learn necessary skills or demonstrate mastery may be best pursued in traditional face-to-face classroom formats. Examples include hard sciences like chemistry, technical fields like engineering or healthcare specialties where direct contact with patients is required.
Will employers accept your degree?
Employers' reactions to online degrees may vary widely by field. Researching industry-held attitudes toward educational format prior to enrolling in a degree program may help you make a choice that will build your professional identity.
A 2007 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education stated that those who are most opposed to online degrees are those who are least familiar with them. With online courses becoming more common even at brick-and-mortar institutions, however, this negative stereotype may be fading. Seeking a competency-based program from an accredited institution may help allay employers' fears.
Negative stereotypes of online degrees may start to decrease as more research regarding the performance of online learning starts to come to light. In 2010 The U.S. Department of Education, working off the findings of 45 previous studies, issued an analysis that found online learning has the same level of effectiveness as traditional learning, with even higher levels of effectiveness for hybrid programs, a combination of online and on-campus courses.
That said, there may be certain fields where face-to-face degree programs may either be a necessity or provide a significant advantage over online programs. A 2013 survey report from Public Agenda found 56 percent of respondent employers would favor job applicants who completed their entire degree in a classroom setting.In the same survey, however, 45 percent of employers felt completing an online degree requires more discipline (versus 23 percent for "less discipline, and 29 percent for "about the same") and 80 percent said online degrees provide opportunities for older students to obtain their college credentials.
Which type of degree is right for me?
With so many factors in play, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Taking living situation, learning style and career goals into consideration will help you make a decision that fits your individual circumstances.
"Fast facts: Distance learning," National Center for Education Statistics, June 30, 2014, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80
"Online learning," Pew Research Center, June 30, 2014, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/08/28/i-online-learning/
"Employers often distrust online degrees," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Employers-Often-Distrust/34334/
"Employer perceptions of online degrees: A literature review," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, June 30, 2014, http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring121/columbaro121.html
"Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," U.S. Department of Education, July 24, 2014, http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
"Noy Yet Sold: What Employers and Community College Students Think About Online Education," Public Agenda, July 24, 2014, http://www.publicagenda.org/files/NotYetSold_PublicAgenda_2013.pdf