Online Degrees: Worth It or Not?


It’s official: everything in the entire world is now online, and we need never leave our homes again. Even the age-old tradition of leaving the nest to attend college is now unnecessary—you can get your degree, even your graduate degree, without ever leaving the bedroom you spent your childhood in. If you’re lucky, your mom will still do your laundry, too.

Online degree programs have exploded in the past decade, with dozens of colleges, universities, and tech schools offering everything from associate’s degrees to doctorates online. Many higher degree programs require a residency on the campus once or twice a year, but the rest of the work can be done remotely from your local Starbucks or even your own cozy bed.

As with any educational program, some schools offer better online degree programs than others. But with schools like Penn State, Columbia University, and Virginia Tech offering online degrees, you needn’t trade prestige for the convenience of home-cooked meals and no commute. Online degree programs have opened up education to anyone with a computer and the cost of tuition.

Who Benefits?

You may think of working adults when you think of online degrees—the waitress in her 30’s with a kid who is working on the bachelor’s she needs for a better job, or the McDonald’s assistant manager getting his MBA at night. But the variety, convenience, and reputation of schools online nowadays are attracting all kinds of students—including those living in the dorms and taking real-time, physical classes.

Online classes are becoming especially popular at state universities that have been affected by budget cuts. According to a New York Times article, students at the University of Florida are earning 12 percent of their credits online each semester, and that number is expected to grow to 25 percent. At University of Iowa, up to 10 percent of liberal arts undergraduates take an online course each semester. At some schools, intro level courses are only offered online.

Besides resident students taking a class here and there, more undergraduates are choosing to do their entire degree online to save money on housing and travel. Online degrees also benefit adults who are unable to move because of job or family commitments, or who live in a remote area.

How It Works

Each institution will have its own take on exactly how its online degree programs work, but in general, they are pretty similar. Each class has its own virtual “classroom,” which typically utilizes a specific kind of software that allows you to log in, access the syllabus, assignments, and other class materials, as well as post assignments, take tests, and participate in class discussions.

Most courses will have discussion topics under which students can post their input to a topic or question given by the professor. Some classes will have a set time when everyone logs in to participate in a real-time discussion either by video chat or group instant messaging. Some classes may include streaming video of lectures or other demonstrations.

The biggest benefit to online classes is that you generally can respond to discussion topics and do your coursework and exams when it is convenient to you. Although some may miss the in-person aspect of the classroom, online classes do still allow for written student-to-student and student-to-teacher contact.

In addition, some programs require a one- to two-week residency on campus. MFA distance programs, for example, almost always require students to spend a week or two together at the beginning of each semester, to facilitate student relationships and get an intensive start on the semester with one-on-one work, which makes the online portion flow more like a real class.

Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

As with any degree program, there are certain things you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing an online school. First of all, be sure the school is accredited, which means that an independent educational body has thoroughly examined the program, faculty, and requirements to ensure that it is a legitimate, quality degree.

Additionally, there have been lawsuits started over regional accreditation; the typical scenario is when a student puts up the dough for an expensive online degree, only to find that these credits were not transferable to other local schools. So make sure to check and make sure that your online school is not only nationally but also regionally accredited.

Currently, there are lawsuits galore against various for-profit entities alleging practices such as misrepresentation, deceptive marketing, or outright fraud. For instance, Westwood Online is being sued by plaintiffs claiming they were lured in by promises of over-inflated post-graduation salaries. Another more prominent school, the University of Phoenix, has also faced an $80 million lawsuit filed by two whistleblowers alleging the obtaining of federal student aid money under false pretenses.

Although online degrees get much more respect than they once did, there may be a prejudice against them in some industries. Asking a recruiter about a specific program is a good way to suss out whether you will run into problems once you are job hunting. If your school has a good reputation as a brick-and-mortar institution, then their online degree program is probably going to garner as much respect from hiring companies.

Check out the faculty for the programs you are considering as well. A good program, especially for a graduate degree, will have impressive, high-level faculty on par with classroom learning.

If done right, getting an online degree can open multiple channels for new opportunities that can be life-changing. Just remember: buying an education is no different from buying anything else. Don’t sacrifice your interests for easy promises and convenience.