How Does Online College Work

Students who want more flexibility are turning to online college to earn a degree while holding a job and balancing other responsibilities. Online colleges allow you to achieve a high-quality education without attending live, in-person lectures or exams.

If you’re considering enrolling in an online program, you might be curious to know how online college works and how it differs from the traditional college experience.

From what you can expect during a typical week at an online school to choosing the right program for you, here’s everything you need to know about how online college works.

Can You Earn a Degree Completely Online?

Yes, it is possible to earn a college degree entirely online. Many colleges offer fully online undergraduate and graduate degree programs in various fields, including business, education, healthcare, and technology. These programs are just as rigorous and comprehensive as traditional on-campus programs, and upon graduation, students receive the same diploma as their on-campus counterparts.

However, it’s important to note that not all online programs are created equal. Before enrolling, ensure that a reputable accrediting body accredits your online program. Accreditation is a process that ensures that a school or program meets specific standards of quality and that credits earned will be recognized by other institutions, which is necessary if you ever plan to transfer schools. If you’re unsure whether your college is accredited or what accreditation it falls into, the U.S Department of Education’s Accreditation Search Tool is a great place to check.

Online degree programs can be a convenient and flexible option for many students, but it’s important to do your research and make sure that the program you choose will meet your educational needs. You can achieve your educational goals and earn a college degree online with the right program and self-motivation.

How Online College Works

Online college is essentially the same as going to school on campus. You’ll attend lectures, complete homework assignments, take exams, and participate in group projects. But instead of commuting to campus every day, you can complete all your work and access your course materials online.

Here is how you can expect a typical online program to work.

What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous programs?

Synchronous and asynchronous online programs refer to the schedule of your classes and how course materials are delivered.

Synchronous online programs are those in which students must participate in live, real-time classes. You’ll need to log into your online learning portal at specific times to view lectures and participate in class discussions and activities.

On the other hand, asynchronous online programs do not have set class times. Instead, course materials are available online, and students can access them anytime. This type of program allows students to complete coursework at their own pace and on their schedules as long as they meet the deadlines for assignments and exams.

Both synchronous and asynchronous online programs have their pros and cons. Synchronous programs offer a more traditional classroom experience and the opportunity for real-time interaction with classmates and instructors. In contrast, asynchronous programs provide more flexibility in terms of scheduling while sacrificing some interaction with peers and lecturers.

How do online assignments and exams work?

Online classes typically assign all assignments, quizzes, and exams through an online learning platform like Blackboard or Canvas. Usually you’re automatically granted access to the courses you’re registered for, and everything is connected through your university email and login information.

Students can log into their accounts, view assignments, including instructions and deadlines, and download any documents they need to complete their coursework. Once finished, you can turn in your work by uploading them directly to your online learning portal. Your professors can usually provide feedback directly on assignments or via comments alongside their grades.

Exams work much the same way. However, when taking an exam, you’ll often be required to use a program that locks your browser until you finish and submit the exam. This is to prevent students from cheating by using the internet while working on the exam.

Synchronous courses may require you to complete exams on specific days at specific times. In contrast, asynchronous courses may provide a window of time during which you can complete the exam whenever you are available, allowing for maximum flexibility

What a Typical Week Looks Like for Online Students

Your experience at an online college will differ depending on whether you enroll in a synchronous or asynchronous program.

Students in asynchronous programs have much more control over how their week looks. You can watch virtual lectures, work on assignments, and complete quizzes and exams whenever you have the availability. As long as everything is submitted before the deadline, you can submit work all in one evening or spread out over time – whatever is easiest and most convenient for you.

Synchronous programs have much more structure and more closely reflect traditional in-person programs.

During a week in a synchronous online degree program, you can expect to:

  • Watch live lectures and participate in classroom discussions
  • Read lecture materials online
  • Complete homework, research papers, and quizzes online and submit them by the given deadlines
  • Complete exams in secure online environments
  • Attend virtual office hours to talk to instructors
  • Use discussion boards to talk to other students

Compared to on-campus programs, synchronous online courses have similar structures but offer more flexibility throughout the week, allowing you to schedule your time in class around your other obligations.

What Technology Do You Need for Online College?

Online courses require access to technology and the internet to participate in and complete coursework. Some of the basic technology requirements for online college include:

  • A computer or laptop with up-to-date software
  • A stable internet connection
  • A webcam and microphone for classroom discussions and presentations

Depending on the college you attend and your courses, you may also need to download software specific to your program. For example, design students may need to download graphic design software like Adobe Photoshop to complete assignments. These software programs may be provided to students as part of their tuition costs, but often students will need to pay for their own software costs, similar to textbooks. Review your course syllabus to learn more about specific technology requirements.

Are Online College Degrees Legitimate?

Yes, online degrees are legitimate, provided you attend an accredited online college.

Students that want their degrees to be taken seriously by employers should avoid non-accredited and for-profit schools. These types of institutions often try to appeal to online learners by offering lower tuition rates and promising positive enrollment outcomes. Unlike accredited institutions, they have yet to be evaluated to ensure they meet high educational standards. The U.S Department of Education has an easy to use tool to determine the accreditation status of any school and their subsequent programs.


Beyond accreditation, you should review the school’s online programs and curricula to ensure they meet your needs. Some schools put more effort into developing well-rounded online programs than others, so be sure to consider past students’ reviews and experiences.

How Do You Apply to Online College?

Applying for online college is similar to applying for traditional on-campus programs, but with a few key differences.

Here are the general steps you’ll need to take to apply for a distance learning program:

  1. Review admission requirements: Each school and program will have its own specific admission requirements. Gather all necessary materials before starting the application process.
  2. Fill out the application: Complete the school’s online application, or if applicable, submit the Common App.
  3. Submit required documents: Submit transcripts, test scores, essays, and letters of recommendation.
  4. Enroll in the program and pay tuition: If you are accepted, you will need to enroll in the program and pay any required tuition or fees.

The application process may vary depending on your chosen school, but these same basic steps apply to most colleges and programs.

How To Choose an Online College

Every student has different needs and preferences, making it important to do your research to find the right online college for you.

Here are a few essential factors to keep in mind when deciding where to apply.


To ensure you receive a high-quality education and a respectable degree, only apply to colleges accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. You can visit these institutions’ websites to search for schools to ensure they are accredited before applying.

Read online reviews

Read reviews from past students to learn more about what to expect from a given online program. Student reviews will provide insight into how the program works, how much time you can expect to commit to coursework, and the quality of instruction.

To find high-quality online programs, you can also check our choices for the best online degrees. You can also review individual professors at the college that you could have for your classes through sites like Rate My Professor.

Check program offerings

Different schools have different online course offerings. Make sure the schools that you’re considering offer your major online.

You should also look at the program curriculum to ensure it is available online. Schools may indicate that certain programs are available online, but after looking into the list of required courses, you may find that they require certain courses to be taken in person.

Review tuition costs and other fees

Before choosing a college, review the school’s tuition and fees to ensure they suit your needs. Each college will have their own tuition prices, and those costs may vary based on factors such as state residency, military or veteran status, and others.

While tuition makes up a significant portion of your overall costs, you should check to see if the school charges any technology or course delivery fees. You also need to account for costs like books, supplies, and living expenses.

Can You Get Financial Aid For Online College?

Yes, you can get financial aid for online college.

To determine eligibility for financial aid, start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After submitting your application, you’ll find out if you can receive any federal loans or grants.

You can also check your school’s financial aid page to learn more about scholarships, grants, and work-study programs offered by your institution.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.