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Is the Cost of an Online Degree Worth It?

When considering going back to school, many prospective students - particularly adult learners - find themselves deciding between online and on-campus options. Online learning is intriguing for many adults, but they often find themselves with a lot of questions, and this choice can feel overwhelming. How do you assess the quality of online classes vs. traditional classes? What are the benefits of online learning over on-campus learning? Is online college more expensive than traditional institutions? And where can you find affordable, accredited online colleges that offer both value and degrees that employers will respect?

These, and many other questions about the benefits of online education, often come up when adults are trying to decide on the next move in their higher education journeys. We've listed some of the most common questions adults ask - and give the answers - to help you sift through your options, eliminate confusion and doubt, and make the right decision for you.


The Benefits of Online Learning

Is Online College More Expensive?

This is often the first question people ask when determining whether online learning might be a good fit for them. Many people go into their search for a degree program assuming that online learning will be very inexpensive, and are often surprised to learn that an online degree will be a significant investment. However, although most students will need to rely on financial aid and other resources to help pay for an online degree, it's important to note that online education is usually much less expensive than on-campus offerings - both in terms of tuition and added expenses like transportation and course materials - making it an appealing option for potential students for whom affordability is an important factor.

What's the Difference Between Online Classes and Traditional Classes?

There are a number of differences between online courses and on-campus courses, but these can vary greatly by institution. First, let's focus on the similarities: if you're attending a reputable, high-quality online college, you'll find the quality and rigor of the courses to match, and oftentimes even exceed, those of an on-campus institution. In terms of content, you'll be learning similar material, and will be just as prepared for major-specific career outcomes as those who earned a degree on-campus.

Where the differences come into play is in the format of the classes themselves. Online courses do take some getting used to, as they aren't structured in what many people think of as a traditional format, with an instructor at the front of a physical classroom giving lectures and leading discussions among a group of classmates. That interaction between students and their instructors, and between students and their peers, still exists in an online classroom, but will be done mostly via discussion board or email, not face-to-face conversation. Most students adapt to this online experience quickly, but it's something to be aware of.

What Are the Benefits of Online Learning?

For many prospective students, particularly busy working adults, online learning has some significant benefits over traditional, on-campus learning. Online education allows you to truly maximize your time - you don't need to factor in travel time, or coordinate your schedule around set class times. Instead, you're able to attend class, do course readings, and complete assignments wherever and whenever it's convenient for you, whether that's during your lunch break at work, while you're waiting in line at the bank, or at night after you've put your kids to bed.

Online learning also offers many benefits to individuals who are self-motivated and already have some educational experience (or have completed on-the-job training). Online learning is a more flexible option, so if you do have college credits under your belt, or experience that could be translated into transfer credit, you'll be able to finish your degree much more quickly. You can also take advantage of alternative pathways to completion, like options that allow you to apply what you already know and finish in less time, for less money.

How Can I Tell If a Degree Program is High-Quality?

This will require a bit of research and legwork on your part, but if you take the time to do your homework, you'll be able to sort out the high-quality online degree programs from the pack. While there are a number of factors that affect quality, some of which you will be best off discussing with an admissions representative for the individual institution, there are some key things to look for when assessing your options. These include:

  • Small class sizes, or low teacher-to-student ratios
  • Faculty with real-world, industry experience in the subjects they're teaching
  • Non-profit status
  • Regional accreditation
  • Student support options, including dedicated academic advisors, financial aid officers, career services advisors, and academic support resources
  • Programs with positive career outcomes
  • Testimonials from real students - or reviews online

Where Can I Find an Affordable, High-Quality, Accredited Online Institution?

A great place to start is looking at listings on reputable higher education ranking sites, like the U.S. News & World Report. These will give you more information about any institution's degree offerings. Searching for programs in the subject areas that interest you is another good way to find institutions offering programs in those fields. You can also look at the websites of individual institutions to glean information about things like accreditation and tuition costs.

Many students assume that they should start locally, by contacting a college in their area, but the beauty of an online education is that you can attend any institution with online programs, regardless of where it's located. You should focus on finding the best program for you, so don't feel limited by geography.

And don't be afraid to shop around. Once you've found a few institutions that seem to be a good fit for your needs, take some time to compare them. Feel free to speak to admissions representatives from each, poke around their websites, and ask friends and family if they've had experiences with any of them (both good and bad). Chances are, you'll find differences in tuition, quality, and reputation, and those factors can all help you drive you towards the right school for you.

In short, while making the decision to go back to school - regardless of whether it's online or in-person—can be challenging and even overwhelming at times, the benefits of online learning make it clear that getting an online degree is definitely worth it. With some careful research, you'll be able to find a high-quality institution that meets your needs.

About the Author

Sonya Krakoff

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Sonya Krakoff is the Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Champlain College Online, where she is the voice behind the CCO blog and helps tell the school's story across multiple digital platforms. Sonya has extensive experience in writing, content marketing, and editing for mission-driven businesses and non-profit organizations, and holds a bachelor's degree in English (with a focus on creative writing) from St. Lawrence University.

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