Will You Get Real Value from an Online Degree?

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In search of higher education, lucrative careers and better credentials, nearly 6 million Americans are enrolled in some kind of online course, according to data from the Online Learning Consortium. Distance learning programs tout online courses as an efficient and low-cost way to complete a degree. But are they worth the time and financial investment?

Here’s what to consider before you enroll in an online learning program:

What it really costs

For students looking to complete distance learning programs at in-state schools, the cost probably won’t vary much from traditional students attending classes in person. However if you’re comparing for-profit online schools to out of state public universities, for-profit schools tend to have lower tuition costs on average ($15,610 vs. $23,893 per year). Before you enroll in a for-profit university you should note that it is more difficult to obtain scholarships and grants when studying at a for-profit school.

Degree mills (for-profit schools that aren’t accredited such as American Central University or Golden State University) offer the lowest degree prices, but these institutions offer little in the way of education, and they drag down the appeal of all online degrees. Check to see if your school is accredited here.

A lower sticker price for an online degree might not translate to a lower out of pocket to you as a student. Before committing to an online institution, consider cost saving measures such as attending a Community College for two years and applying for scholarships at an in-state, public school. In many cases, this will end up being your lowest cost option.

However, if distance learning is right for you, you will qualify for subsidized loans if you attend any accredited school (this includes some for-profit online schools). If the school you plan to attend is accredited by one of the national or regional accrediting commissions (see this list to learn more), you will be eligible to receive the Pell Grant and Stafford or Perkins loans.

Online Degree Completion

Students in online only programs complete courses and degrees at a slightly lower rates than students in traditional programs. This may be due to a lower level of student support for online students, or the fact that more distance learners have both career and family demands in addition to their education.

Because online degrees have lower completion rates, you should ask yourself whether you have the time and resources that you need to complete your degree; if you don’t, it’s not worth the money. If your primary goal is to learn and continue your education, you may that Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) through Khan Academy or Coursera fit your needs with negligible out of pocket costs.

What you won’t get from an online program

If you earn an online degree through a traditional university, employers will perceive your degree as on par with traditional degrees from that school. For example, a Master’s Degree in Statistics from Texas A&M is equally valuable if you earned the degree through their distance education program or while attending class on campus. However, not every employer views online for-profit universities favorably. Top tier online schools are working to change sentiments, but you should research the acceptance in your field before pursuing a degree from a for-profit institution.

Distance education programs offer fewer networking opportunities compared to traditional schools. Online students do not have as much access to professors or peers as traditional students which is a drawback during the learning process and the job search process, but recently, high quality online schools offer new technology to help their students network and job search.

You also shouldn’t expect as much hands-on help in your coursework as an online student. Distance learners need to be self-directed, and able to pick up complex concepts on their own. Students may need to teach themselves computer programs, and they will be expected to do labs or other physical projects on their own.

Advantages of online degrees

Online programs from top-tier online universities and not-for-profit universities offer high quality education that may increase your marketability. You can earn your degree with greater flexibility than in a traditional education model, and you may be able to earn your bachelor’s degree even while you hold down a full-time job and raise your family.

Depending on the school you choose and your financial aid package, an online degree may have a lower out of pocket cost compared to a traditional classroom setting. Online universities accept more transfer credits than traditional universities which can help you complete your degree faster and reduce your costs.

Especially for adults hoping to complete a degree, distance learning and online universities offer advantages that traditional schools cannot.

Is an online program for you?

The value of an online degree depends upon how you want to use it. If a degree will allow you to advance in your company or your industry, and you want to earn your degree while working then an online degree offers value above what a similarly priced brick-and-mortar school offers. Distance learners have increasing opportunities to study in a field that aligns with their personal and career goals.  Popular degrees for distance learners include healthcare administration, business administration, information systems and psychology, but hands on fields like nursing and elementary education continue to make inroads for students pursuing their degree online.

On the other hand, if you’re not a self-directed learner, or your industry frowns on online education then the money will be wasted. Degrees from non-accredited universities aren’t going to be worth the money for most people.

If you choose to pursue an online degree, be sure to compare the out of pocket cost to you (including fees), consider whether you have the time and resources to complete the degree, and line up your funding ahead of time. It’s also important to weigh your expected increase in income against the cost of the degree. Online degrees aren’t a slam dunk in value, but you may find that it’s the right choice for you.

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