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Should You Attend an Online College?

Updated on February 8, 2018
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M. D. Jackson has studied psychology since 1989. While her specialty is family relations, she also loves neuroscience and behaviorism.

Statistics and Trends

The decision to complete an online college degree can change a person’s life for the better or for worse depending on that person. According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 32% of people enrolled in for profit education systems graduate (NCES, 2016). Traditional four year college graduation statistics average 60% (NCES, 2016). Why are online colleges failing to see their students through to a diploma? There are multitudes of factors that determine the success of college students. We are going to explore a few factors that determine online success as well as other factors you might want to consider when pondering college options.


Is it Easier to Complete an Online Degree?

If completing an online degree was an easy thing to do, then the graduation rate wouldn’t be 32%. It is a misconception that people are passed to generate revenue in online colleges. I had classmates that dropped out after failed classes or not understanding materials. There were also people who dropped out because they never understood the format of the online class. I imagine many of these people lacked computer literacy. Of course the toughest classes were during the Master’s program.

Just as in any college, there are challenges to being an online student. A misconception about online college is that you can go at your own pace. Online classes have a syllabus just like a traditional college, there are due dates daily and weekly. When the ad says online college is “go at your own pace” they mean you can take a week off in between classes sometimes. They do not mean you can take six weeks to finish a paper. The flexibility of online college is that you can get class work done at midnight rather than having to attend a class.

While I cannot speak for other colleges I can give you an idea of what an average week was like in my online class. Three days of the week I had to post a minimum of three posts in my class concerning topics for the chapters we were reading. These posts were a minimum of 300 words each and had to substantiate our thoughts and position on the subject using APA formatting and each post had to have a minimum of two references. If your posts were weak then you missed points and got a lovely email from the instructor.

At the end of each week, papers or projects were due. These projects were cited and referenced 3,000-5,000 word essays or PowerPoint presentations. All of our instructors had PhD’s. These people were not messing around, they took our assignments seriously. Every paper was run through a plagiarism checker. If a student copy and pasted anything, they were put on academic suspension. We were assigned into peer groups where assignments were split up and if your “team” didn’t perform then you were held accountable and it affected your grade.

Not only did we have to check our own work, we had to review each other’s work. We didn’t have a cool lab to go study chemistry or an instructor to visit. Basically you were on your own to learn what you needed to learn. Final class projects were huge; I remember a 14 page written assignment for one of my smaller classes. Do you know how much you have to expound to get 14 pages out of the Milgram Experiment? A lot!

The first trait you should possess if you want to complete an online class is you had better be a self-starter. No one is going to hold your hand. Your instructor is not going to call you if you miss an assignment. The success or failure is based on your work. If you thought you were going to skate through the system, welcome to reality.

Why do Online Colleges Have a Bad Reputation?

There are several contributing factors when it comes to the reputation of online colleges including expense, recruiting practices, and lack of accountability. My Master’s degree was almost $100,000.00. Did you choke because I did? In 2013 DeVry was hit with legal action for giving bonuses to recruiters, University of Phoenix faced the same law suit in 2012. There are several deceptive practices that for profit schools use to recruit students. One of the deceptive practices is that recruiters tell you grants will pay for most of your college tuition (this is right before they have you sign and say you understand that you will have to pay for it). Not only is it not true, the college sends you money “left over” from your grants, causing you to go higher into debt without explaining that you will be paying later. Recruiters and counselors are turned over frequently and many of them really do not understand how the system works.

Four times during my degree I was sent money and within months the college told me I was short $200-500 on my class. None of the answers I ever got from the accounting department made sense. They should have paid my classes before acquiring loans; however that is not how they do it. If you qualify for the loan, they will use the loan to pay for your classes and send you the remaining grant money.

A class that costs $300 at a Junior College will run you $900.00 to $1600.00 at a for profit online college. The question you have to ask is what will that degree be worth in the job market when you graduate? If you are going for a degree that only pays $30k a year after graduation, rethink it. Another thing to consider is that even though counselors play up the scholarship options, I could not find one scholarship I qualified for in eight years. Most scholarships have age limits and I was way beyond those limits. My second dis-qualifier was my income. At the time I was already making over $40,000 a year. If you are young, scholarships are great, for someone my age that was not an option.

Another deceptive practice used by online colleges is that they help you obtain employment after you graduate. I was constantly told that UOP would place me after graduation. When I graduated, I was sent job offers in which I was completely overqualified, such as: ATT Sales Manager for a location over and hour from my home. I was a sales manager at the age of 18; I didn’t need a Master’s degree to get that job making $9 an hour. The jobs you want in the field are not going to come from your college unless you want to work at your college. Here again we see why online colleges create their own reputation.

In 2006, I started my first online college class, Creative Writing. There were 25 people enrolled in that class, of those 25, only 16 people completed the class. Why did so many give up so quickly? At the beginning of each class people posted a biography and spoke about why they were in the class, some were inspirational, others involved rehabilitation from chemical dependency, divorce, and even personal tragedy.

Reading through the bios on the first day of class, I saw that many of my classmates had limited writing skills. Some of my classmates wrote in incomplete sentences or their writing was incoherent. One student had no knowledge of paragraph structure and she was irate when the instructor explained it to her. How did someone who could not write end up in a college class? The answer is simple; the college didn’t have any type of entrance exam or SAT based qualifications. Literally anyone with $1600.00 or a qualifying grant could go to the college. Obviously these people were not making it through the first class, but that lack of qualifiers made the college $14,400.00 on people who didn’t complete the class. The absence of screening contributes to the horrible reputation that online schools have within the academic community.

At the end of my Bachelors of Science was a horrid math class that required us to complete problems online. Half way through that class the instructor quit the class without notice. Most of us were failing the class due to the fact that none of our papers were graded. When the college finally realized what happened they put an instructor in the class. The new instructor could not access our previous work to correct papers. The outcome was that we all failed the class. UOP should have refunded us for the class and let us retake the class with a new instructor, which is not what happened. My academic counselor told me not to worry because we would be able to retake the class and it would cancel out the first grade, this also was not true. That grade is still on my transcripts. If you start talking to online students similar stories seem to surface. The absence of accountability that online colleges have to their students is completely unethical. Be aware that you may be told what you want to hear, record conversations or communicate through email.

What roll does life play in your decision?

In a traditional college setting most students attend college as their only or primary responsibility. In other words the life focus is not a job or a family but, rather completing classes and scholarly success. Students who attend online schools are more likely to have families and jobs. While I attended University of Phoenix almost all my classmates were working full time. Many of these people were single moms and/or had small children. Having extra responsibilities greatly decreases the graduation rate before you even get to other personality factors. Carefully consider your life situation. Are you buried in responsibilities that are going to hinder your success? If so you may want adjust your life prior to starting an online program.

How Much Support is Available?

When you start a degree program you get a counselor. The counselor’s job is to look at your degree goal and make sure you take the appropriate classes to graduate. Just as in any college you have the option of dropping a class or retaking a class. Your counselor is not going to help with homework; they don’t know anything about your class.Some of the counselors liked to get to know you, many of them are also enrolled in a college program.

Over the eight years I was attending University of Phoenix I had some spectacular instructors and I had some duds. In this respect online college is not any different than a traditional college. Most of the instructors wanted you have a full comprehension of the materials, they worked with you. In reality college is always about what you put into your studies. Since online classes require you to read all the materials, rather than sit in lectures, you should have reasonable reading comprehension skills if you plan to succeed.

Tips to Succeed

Tips to succeed if you start an online program:

  • Challenge any class you can challenge. You can challenge a class by taking a test. I should have challenged half of my bachelor’s degree.
  • Read through your syllabus as soon as you can access it, know what big assignments you have for the class and start them early.
  • Print out your reading material and take it with you everywhere (or load it on an iPad). I use to read paragraphs waiting in line at the bank, grocery store, kids’ baseball practices, and at lunch. Use your time wisely.
  • Highlight key points in books and tab the page with a sticky note so you can find it easily when you post in your class.
  • One of my instructors taught me SQ3R:

Survey your reading material (skim through see what’s there)

Questions what you have read (this helps you to process the practical


Read the material

Recite key points

Review the material

  • I used a simple mental formula to write papers: Establish key points, use only one direct quote about technical information (make sure you cite it), Tell what you are going to say at the beginning, and tell what you said at the end. If your word count is low dig deeper, find out details and exploit them!
  • Last tip: if you can’t find something to post about in a class for participation , find a classmate’s post and reply to them taking the opposite view point, defend it even if you do not believe in that point of view. Debates make the class more interesting and you will never forget the topic.

My online degree was completed while working 45 hours a week and raising kids. I did this by staying up late. Homework was completed between 8pm- midnight every night after the kids were in bed. If it was slow at work, I would read at work or post in my class (this was cleared through my employer).

Is Your Online Degree Worth Anything?

Misconceptions concerning an online degree are all over our American culture. People think of online college as a paid for degree rather than an earned degree. The truth is it takes more drive to complete an online degree than it does a traditional degree. How do I know this? There are no gold stars in online colleges. No one is cheering you on, you don’t have student support systems, and you don’t have the gradual sense of accomplishment that comes from standing looking at a grade posting with your peers. In other words, people in online programs are self-motivated self-starters. Completing an online degree is tough on family and often results in a lack of support from spouses and others affected by your absence.

The world should appreciate the online degree more than a traditional degree, however that is not reality. The answer to the question is that it depends what you want to do with that degree. There will always be employers who have no idea what it takes to complete an online degree. You will have to be as persistent in your efforts for employment in your field as you were in completing your degree. The job market is tough to matter what you decide, be prepared to continue to fight for what you want. Good Luck!


© 2016 MD Jackson MSIOP


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