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Pros and Cons of Online College Degrees

Updated on June 19, 2013

It is a commonly accepted fact that college graduates will earn over $1 million more in their lifetimes than their peers who did not attend college. Pursuing a college degree is seen by many as the surest route to achieving the American dream, and finally getting ahead in life by improving their skills and marketability. Unfortunately, a degree has traditionally been out of the reach of many people. Those who live in remote areas, people with small children, and those who are already employed will find it difficult to attend a regular university.

Today’s technology has made it possible for those with special challenges to pursue a college degree from the privacy of their homes via online college participation. Online degrees have been offered for many years now, both by schools specializing in online degree programs and by traditional universities that have added online programs. The premise is simple: make a college degree universally available, in spite of any restrictions or hardships. On the surface, it is a great idea, but online studies are not for everyone. As with any other educational program, it is critical to compare distance vs. local education and determine which best suits your personal learning style.

If you’ve been asking, “Should I take an online college degree?” read on for important distinctions between online vs. traditional college education.


This is perhaps the most widely understood aspect of distance learning programs, and one of the biggest advantages of online college degrees. In most online programs, schedules are asynchronous. This means that the work is done on your schedule, without a required meeting time. The only requirement is that the work is submitted prior to the deadline set by the instructor. This means that if you are working full time already, or are serving in the military, you can fit classes around your schedule. Business people who travel frequently can access classes from any location with a network connection. This flexibility also means that those serious about completing a degree quickly are often able to finish a class in a very short time, reducing the overall length of their course of study.


There are also disadvantages of online college degrees that must be considered. The flexibility is great, but the sacrifice is that there is no group motivation or interaction, and no accountability face-to-face with the peer group or instructor. This means that your self-discipline is the only force keeping you motivated. If you have problems with will power and self-discipline, a traditional university may be a better fit for you. If you have great self-control, then completing the coursework for an online degree should be no problem.


A second possible benefit of studying online is cost. This is a possible benefit; online college programs are typically less expensive than a brick-and-mortar school, but not always. As with traditional colleges, the more prestigious universities and their online degree programs will be more expensive than less prestigious schools. Of course, there are additional items to take into account when looking at the overall cost picture:

  • Transportation costs: Traveling to a normal university daily takes a toll on your vehicle, and on your wallet.
  • Textbooks: For most online degree programs, textbooks are not needed. The required reading and research are done online. This saves a considerable amount of money each semester.
  • Childcare expenses: If you are able to successfully divide the time between household duties and studying, it is possible to avoid additional childcare expenses by studying online at home.
  • Opportunity costs: Your time also has a cost. Instead of sitting in traffic during your commute, this time can be dedicated to completing coursework.

As to the costs of tuition, bear in mind that for accredited online degrees, financial aid is available just as with traditional colleges. Overall, an online degree program is likely to save costs, but the total expense should be compared.


A major risk of completing your online college degree is the quality of the education offered. Many employers are still somewhat skeptical about accepting online degrees with the same assurance as those from a traditional school. There are fears that it is much easier for a student to cheat when attending classes online, and concerns that many online degrees are from “diploma mills”, schools set up with the aim of earning profit instead of providing a strong education. To combat this, be sure to research your potential online schools carefully. Ensure that the school you choose is fully accredited. This means the educational requirements will be higher, and the costs could be higher, but you will receive a much more respected degree in the end.


It is also important to remember that your choice of field of study will be a factor. If you plan to study computer science, an online degree is a good choice. Most liberal arts degrees or business degrees, including graduate degrees, are good possibilities for distance learning and an online college degree. If, however, you want to be a nurse or an architect, the hands-on training required means that you’ll need to attend a traditional school. In any training curriculum requiring hands-on work and one-to-one mentoring or training, an online degree won’t be a possibility.


Finally, your personality is a vital consideration. If you are a very social person, the networking opportunities and personal interactions of a traditional school will suit you better. For those who don’t mind working alone and have no problems with relative isolation, an online degree will be fine. Students who need instant feedback to questions will prefer to attend classes in person for immediate access to the instructors and teaching assistants; distance learners must be prepared to wait for the instructor’s email.

The online college landscape is steadily improving, and more employers are accepting online degrees as the equivalent of traditional studies. The accessibility of financial aid continues to remove financial barriers. The penetration of high speed Internet into nearly every home and hotel room ensures access to the virtual classroom. The online education community will soon reach parity with the traditional education system, allowing every student to choose his own path.


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  • Rhonda_M profile image

    Rhonda Malomet 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    There are a lot of high quality schools that offer online degrees. You can even get online degrees from Harvard's extension school and most bricks and mortar university are increasingly adapting their programs to online format, giving students the choice to study in class or online. Buyer beware though...scrutinize for profit universities carefully, so your homework investigate reputation and suitability to your goals. These places are very much in the sales business. They'll quickly assign you an 'enrollment' consultant, aka sales consultant who will 'work' (read: work on you) to ease your path into the institution.

  • starchet profile image

    Chetan Jariwala 5 years ago from San Jose

    I am all for distance learning degrees. I think the whole system will keep getting better as years go by. Traditional colleges will just become a piece of antique!