Earning a degree online is not for everyone. Plenty of students enjoy attending in-person classes with other like-minded people, interacting face-to-face with professors, and spending time in the engaging intellectual environments that many universities offer.
But for many disciplines — particularly those that center around digital, business, writing, education, statistics, coding, web development, and others — getting a degree online can fit the bill just perfectly.
Here are five reasons to consider getting your degree online, even if you think it’s not for you:
1. You want access to more — and more specialized — choices.
Online education breaks down barriers to physical or geographic limits. If you’re in a rural community, for example, you get access to the same world of online options as you would in a city. “10-20 years ago, if you wanted to finish school or get an advanced degree, chances are your options were one of the handful of local schools,” says Dale Leatherwood, Co-Founder of ClearDegree, which helps working professionals research online education. “If they didn’t offer the program that you wanted, you were out of luck. Now you have dozens or sometimes hundreds of options to choose from when looking to get your degree.”
And some of those option may come at a reduced price. “For online students, some schools charge the same tuition rates for out-of-state students as in-state, which means it’s possible to get a degree from a school in another state for the same cost that students in that state are paying,” says Professor Andrew Selepak, Director of the Master Program in Social Media at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.
But it’s not just about volume, the variety in online programs means greater potential for specialization. “People with very specific degree goals can find the niche that works for them. Instead of a degree in finance, you could get a degree in small business finance,” says Leatherwood. “If you’re in healthcare and like numbers, instead of a healthcare administration degree, you could look into the more than 75 graduate degrees in healthcare informatics,” Leatherwood adds. That kind of enhanced choice can mean more focused, aligned learning.
2. You want to test the waters before shelling out a huge sum of money.
Graduation rates at online degree programs and bricks-and-mortar alike are less than you might think. According to the U.S Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the graduation rate for four-year degrees hovers in the 48-49% range, and no one likes the idea of paying for something you start but don’t finish.
Getting a degree come with significant cost, so if you’re looking to switch careers or change industries, you want to feel reasonably confident that you’re making a smart investment — that you’re going to like the subject matter, finish the program, and enjoy your eventual new career opportunity.
Taking a course or two online can be a great way to test out a variety of things: a subject area, a specific university or program, and even just online learning itself. Also, many students take prerequisites online so that they can save travel time and stress as they weigh whether or not to enroll for the whole shebang.
If you do choose to enroll in the full program, some schools accept transfer credit, and they may even accept some work experience in lieu of coursework, aside from other significant cost savings.
The traditional pitch for online degree programs is that they’re great for busy working professionals, and/or parents who need to study outside of regular hours, after the kids are in bed. But that’s limiting.
3. You want to learn at your own pace, or you have specific learning needs.
Let’s face it: In traditional classroom environments, many students feel like round pegs trying to fit into square holes. “A lot of students have difficulty engaging in an on-ground class because of class size, intimidation, reluctance to sound ‘dumb’ in a live setting, or many other reasons. An online class is great for people who are shy, or reticent to speak or simply need more time to collect their thoughts,” says ClearDegree’s Leatherwood.
On top of that, most online programs are “asynchronous,” which means students can watch lectures and complete assignments on their own time, says Selepak. Say you’re a night person and can’t bear to get out of bed before noon. That kind of flexibility means you can take advantage of your night owl nature, instead of being hampered by it.
4. You’re looking for a change — of careers, environment, or peer group.
The workplace is changing. Digital media and data are everywhere. The world is social. If you’re no longer in your twenties but want to get into a digital role, you may find it hard to find peers to interact with at traditional schools. That’s where an online degree program can be particularly helpful. In a virtual setting, you’re more likely to be valued for your contribution, and not judged on age or other less relevant qualities. “Older students are able to attend school with more of their peers and have interaction with students and instructors that are related to their experience,” says Leatherwood.
Dipping a toe in the water through an online program, even if it’s just a class or two, can help you gauge fit with your would-be future colleagues, says Elizabeth Malson, President of Amslee Institute, a licensed online diploma and certification program for Professional Nannies. “If you are unsure of the job opportunities available, the starting salary, or whether you are going to enjoy the work, then you’ve skipped an important step. I would recommend you find an internship or shadow someone in the career field before enrolling in a post-secondary training program. A few months delay before enrolling to be confident about your career path is worthwhile before you invest a significant amount of time and money.”
5. You have a lifestyle to uphold, and it might not be parenting- or work-related.
The traditional pitch for online degree programs is that they’re great for busy working professionals, and/or parents who need to study outside of regular hours, after the kids are in bed. But that’s limiting. Online degree programs are great for their flexibility. They don’t just fit the lifestyle of busy working professionals; they fit your lifestyle, whatever that may be. Maybe you work nights and sleep during traditional class times, or have an irregular travel schedule. Maybe you are a tornado chaser and need to head out to the Great Plains at a moment’s notice. Or maybe you’re caring for an ailing relative and need to be available to them at a moment’s notice. Not to say online degree programs aren’t great for the child-rearing and day job set, just that other lifestyles often get ignored in the online marketing materials.
In many ways, getting a degree online is no different than getting a traditional degree. In perhaps the most important way (financially), it can be nearly the same. So proceed with caution and healthy skepticism. Consider the cost-benefit tradeoffs, and be thoughtful about taking on additional debt. You may not have pictured yourself as a strong candidate for getting your degree online, but it could just be the right — and best — decision for your particular set of circumstances.
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