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For some students, online college offers the flexibility and accessibility they need to earn their degrees while balancing work and other obligations. With modern technology, online students can get the same high-quality education that in-person programs offer without rigid schedules.

As the popularity of distance education courses continues to grow, more students are becoming aware of their enrollment options and choosing to create flexible course schedules that accommodate their busy personal lives.

If you’re considering going to college online, here’s what you need to know about how online courses work, the pros and cons of distance learning, and how to choose the right online college for you.

How Do Online Colleges Work?

Online colleges allow students to attend lectures and complete coursework via the internet without having to participate in in-person classes.

With distance learning, you’ll still have classes, homework assignments, exams, and group discussions. But rather than having to make your way to class every day, all your learning materials will be available digitally, typically through an online learning hub like Blackboard or Canvas.

Depending on the class, you might watch pre-recorded lectures on your own time or be expected to join a video call for live lessons. You might also be expected to participate in online discussions with your peers and complete online exams, and instructors often offer virtual office hours via video calls. This allows for the flexibility to learn wherever and whenever you want, as long as you have access to high speed internet.

In most cases, online classes use the same curricula and are taught by the same instructors as their in-person counterparts, so distance learners can feel confident knowing they aren’t sacrificing the quality of their education in exchange for more flexibility and convenience.

Is Online College Worth It?

Online college offers students the opportunity to achieve a high-quality education while working around their other obligations. It is generally more accessible and flexible than traditional in-person programs, and since you don’t have to worry about costs associated with living on campus, online college may also be more affordable.

But this doesn’t mean online learning is the best fit for everyone. Below, we’ve provided a few advantages and disadvantages of online college to consider before applying to any programs.

Advantages of online college

Some of the benefits of going to college online include the following:

  • tickFlexible

    Online courses are more flexible, allowing students to complete coursework on a schedule that works for them. Online students can also enroll in accelerated programs or choose part-time programs depending on their needs.

  • tickAccessible

    Distance education programs are more accessible than in-person programs. Coursework can be completed from anywhere with an internet connection, meaning students don’t have to commute, relocate, find childcare, or request time off from work to go to class.

  • tickCost-effective:

    While online tuition is often the same or comparable to in-person tuition, distance learners don’t have to pay for transportation, on-campus housing, or other fees associated with living on campus.

  • tickWork and study:

    Online programs make it possible for students to work while studying. This means that students can continue to earn professional experience and build their resumes while completing their degrees.

Disadvantages of going to college online

There are also a few drawbacks to online college that students should consider, including:

  • tickIsolation

    With online courses, students can expect to interact less with their peers and instructors than they would with in-person classes. This may be a significant disadvantage to students that value the social interaction and development offered by the traditional college experience.

  • tickLess structure

    Some online classes are entirely self-paced, which may be a drawback for students that benefit from the rigid structure of in-person courses. Not all students have the discipline necessary to be successful in self-paced programs.

  • tickFewer networking opportunities

    One of the most significant advantages of in-person programs is the ability to network with peers and professionals in your field. Online courses offer fewer networking opportunities due to their isolated nature.

  • tickTechnology requirements

    Online college requires students to have reliable access to high-speed internet, a computer, and other technology. This can be a barrier to entry for some students.

Should I Go to College Online or In-Person?

Choosing between online college and in-person programs often comes down to personal preference and circumstances.

Before enrolling in an online course, students should ask themselves if they have the discipline necessary to attend online classes and complete online coursework. Online students face less accountability, making it easier to fall into the habit of skipping classes and procrastinating in favor of other classes and obligations.

Students with full-time or part-time jobs outside of college may also prefer online college as the flexibility makes it easier to balance work with school. Traditional in-person programs may interfere with their work schedules, making self-paced online courses a more practical option.

Your major may also dictate whether you should take classes online or in person. Science majors, like chemistry, often require in-person lab hours and, as a result, are only possible to complete partially online.

You can also consider a hybrid learning format if you’re struggling to decide between online or in-person courses. This means that you enroll in both in-person and online courses. For example, you might enroll in in-person classes for topics you struggle with and need more help from instructors and enroll in online courses for less demanding subjects.

How to Choose the Best Online College

The best online college for one student isn’t necessarily the best for another. While some schools are considered more prestigious than others, the right online college for you depends on several factors that vary from person to person.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding which online colleges might be a good fit for you.

Check the accreditation status of the college

To ensure you’re receiving a high-quality education, make sure any school you apply to is accredited by an organization recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Accredited schools have been evaluated to ensure they meet high standards for education. Not only do accredited schools offer a higher-quality education, but if you want to apply for financial aid, transfer your credits, or qualify for any number of professional certifications, you’ll need to attend an accredited school.

Degrees from non-accredited schools are less valuable, and employers may disregard your education entirely in some cases if your degree is not from an accredited institution.

To check if one of the school’s you’re considering is accredited, you can do a quick search on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. The school will also likely have its accreditation clearly stated on its website.

Choose your major

Before you choose an online college, you need to choose your major or at least have an idea of what majors you’re most interested in.

Online course offerings vary from one college to the next, so you need to make sure the college you choose offers online options for the courses you need to complete your major.

Science majors, in particular, often require at least a few in-person courses as they involve lab work and fieldwork.

Decide which program format works best for you

Are you okay with having to complete at least a few in-person courses, or do you need an entirely online program to make it possible to balance your other obligations?

You should also consider whether you prefer synchronous or asynchronous courses. Synchronous courses require you to attend scheduled online classes and complete coursework by their assigned deadlines. Asynchronous courses allow students to watch lectures and complete assignments on their own schedules as long as all materials are turned in by the end of the semester.

Consider the cost

One of the most important factors for many students is cost. But to get a clear idea of how much the program will cost you, you need to look further than the cost of tuition.

You also need to consider expenses like:

  • Textbooks
  • Technology costs
  • Supplies
  • Course fees

To offset your costs, you should also look into the financial aid packages and scholarships that each college offers. Some schools offer more flexible financial support than others, which may make them more affordable in the end, even if their tuition costs are higher.

How to Apply to an Online Program

The application process for most online colleges includes the same basic steps:

  • Complete an online application on the school’s website, or complete the Common App, which is accepted by more than 1,000 institutions.
  • Send your official transcripts (high school transcripts for first-year students, college transcripts for transfer or returning students).
  • Submit your standardized test scores, if required.
  • Write a personal essay.
  • Provide letters of recommendation from your past or present teachers.

Aside from these basic steps, some schools may ask you to complete an interview before admission. You also might have to submit financial aid documents and pay application fees.

Is Online College Cheaper?

Online college can be cheaper than attending college in person.

While tuition for online courses is often comparable to in-person tuition, distance learners can save money on transportation costs, meal programs, on-campus housing, and other fees that may be necessary when attending college in person.

If cost is a significant concern, students can also enroll in online courses with their local community college to save even more money before transferring to a four-year university to complete their degrees.

You can compare the cost of dozens of online programs here.

How to Get Financial Aid for Online College

Most students rely on financial aid to pay for college.

For federal financial aid, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year that they attend college. This application will determine your eligibility for multiple kinds of financial aid, including grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Most states also have their own financial aid programs if you’re considered a resident of the state you’re going to college in. While they may not cover all of your financial needs for school, programs like the Texas TAFSA and the New York State TAP application can offer grants that chip away at the cost of college.

You should also check your school’s website for scholarship opportunities to help pay for tuition, books, supplies, and fees.