Once a rarity in higher education, the availability of online degrees has exploded in recent years. With flexibility as the hallmark of an online program, they’ve become increasingly popular. Practically every college and university now provide at least some of its curriculum online, and many offer full degrees at every educational level, from undergraduate certificates to doctoral degrees. Some programs are conducted completely online, while others offer blended learning options where students split their time between in-person and online classes. Let’s take a look at online degrees, including how they work, how to enroll in one – and how much they cost.
As with traditional, on-campus degrees, what students earn after graduation from their online program will vary depending on the area of study and the level of education; of course, higher degree levels typically correspond to higher salaries. The following table provides a quick summary of what students can expect to make with particular degree fields.
Prospective online college students may not realize that distance learning wasn’t always a common educational path. During the 2003-2004 school year, about 15 percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online course. Less than 10 years later, that number had more than doubled, to 32 percent. By the fall of 2015, over 6 million college students – about 30 percent – were taking at least one online course in college.
With the ability to take courses on a flexible schedule, eliminating the requirement to be in a particular classroom at a particular time, online programs are great for those who don’t have the time, ability, or inclination to pursue the traditional college experience. This means online degrees are great for parents with family responsibilities, full-time workers, and those located far away from a particular school, such as rural and international students.
Online college employs a different learning format, but enrolling in a course or program is typically much the same as it would be for a brick-and-mortar school. Students can expect to take the following steps:
Before enrolling in a program, figure out what academic credential or degree is necessary for your end goal. For example, is an associate degree required or will a certificate or diploma suffice?
The greatest benefit of online learning is the flexibility it offers. However, each program is structured differently; some include on-campus coursework assignments, or specific online scheduling requirements, such as for lectures or class participation.
With your goals and requirements serving as guideposts, research different online programs and identify several potential candidates.
Before completing the application, identify what you have to do to apply, such as take entrance exams, obtain letters of recommendation, and write personal essays. Allow sufficient time to register, study, and complete exams such as the SAT or GRE, and give your references ample warning to write letters on your behalf.
Get your application materials in order, and apply to schools. If admission standards are competitive, plan to apply to more than one school to increase your chances.
If you will need monetary assistance to help pay for school, collect your financial information. The first step is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s also a good idea to research individual scholarships or grants offered directly through the school or a private organization.
Once the acceptance letters start arriving, you’ll need to choose one school. If you’re a highly sought-after student, you might even be able to negotiate additional financial aid to ease the financial burden.
From an academic perspective, an online degree is exactly the same as a traditional degree, with students following the same curriculum as their on-campus counterparts. Since so many on-campus courses include technology learning elements, such as online discussion forums or digital assignments, sometimes the only difference between an online and on-campus course is the form of the class lecture. Online courses usually deliver lectures through video or audio streams that are either transmitted to students in real time, or recorded for viewing at a later time.
Completing homework, turning in assignments and communicating with teachers are often done through an online learning management system, such as Blackboard, Moodle or Canvas. These systems can also deliver class materials and content, and students can communicate directly with professors through these systems. Professors are also usually available by telephone, email, or online chat.
To some extent, online courses or programs allow students to choose the location from which they attend, but students should not expect full control. Many programs require at least some in-person participation. Courses labeled “fully online” or “100% online” do offer wholly remote learning, and because students aren’t required to ever set foot on campus, schools offering these programs will explicitly tout this benefit. Programs with some on-campus or in-person curriculum requirements may be referred to as a “blended” or “hybrid” program, and are common in study areas that require intensive hands-on learning, such as nursing.
Assuming a course is available online, classes will be either synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous learning, also referred to as “fixed time” learning, means that students must abide by a particular schedule for some portion of the class. This can include live lectures and real-time class discussions among students. Asynchronous is the opposite; as long as students meet their assignment deadlines, they can work at their own pace, with no scheduling obligations. Asynchronous learning may sometimes be referred to as “open schedule” learning. While synchronous learning limits flexibility, it also allows greater interaction with the professor and among fellow students.
The flexibility of online courses means students set their own pace, which might be faster or slower than the traditional timeline. The exact amount of time will depend on the course load and field of study; however, a rough estimate of the time it takes, along with credits required, is listed here.
Two years; 60 to 65 credits
Four years; 120 to 130 credits
Eighteen months to two years; 30 to 60 credits
Three or more years; 60 to 80 credits (The time needed to complete a dissertation may extend this.)
Several online programs offer accelerated curricula for students who want to fast-track their education. For example, a traditional MBA takes two years to complete, but some online MBA programs allow students to complete their degree in 18 months. Even if this is not a formal option, students can manage their academic schedules to complete self-paced coursework as quickly as possible.
As online degrees gain a level of maturity, they have largely overcome the skepticism surrounding them in their early days. In most schools, all students receive the same transcript and diploma regardless of whether they obtain an online or on-campus degree.
Accreditation can put the credibility issue to rest. Accreditation is the process of an independent organization reviewing a school’s academic programs to ensure they meet a basic level of instruction and are properly preparing students to enter their fields. Students interested in enrolling in an online college or university should confirm the school (and individual program, if applicable) is accredited. Getting a degree from any unaccredited school, online or not, is not worth it.
Most online programs accept transfer credits just like any traditional university or college. Each school will have its own set of policies and procedures, but getting college credit for Advanced Placement courses in high school and prior college coursework is quite possible. Students should confirm their online school will accept transfer credits, and then will need to provide a copy of their transcript plus course descriptions for the desired transfer credits.
Many online schools provide academic credit for life experiences, especially military service. Some also offer credit for things like work experience, professional licensure or prior knowledge. Each school has its own criteria and procedures to confirm that a student’s prior experiences justify awarding college credit. In general, students can expect to submit a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) portfolio. The PLA includes evidence of their life experience that demonstrates college-level knowledge, including transcripts, a resume, work examples, letters from employers, copies of professional licenses, and test scores. For example, some schools allow students to test out of some courses if they achieve a certain score on a placement exam.
Tuition for online degrees varies widely, just as it does with on-campus programs, but these differences usually stem not from the online status of the degree, but from other factors that affect traditional programs as well. For example, a student’s residency status, the type of school (public or private), and the overall course load can affect how much an online degree will cost.
Given the flexibility and individualized pacing online education offers, online programs usually charge by the credit, which is typically $150 to $600 per credit hour. However, there are often other fees, including a technology fee and/or assessment fee. These can add up to a few hundred dollars per semester, but are relatively small when compared with other expenses. Assuming a full course load of about 15 credits per semester, an online student can often save money compared to an on-campus student by avoiding commuting expenses and the high costs of living on or near campus.
As a very rough rule of thumb, online students can expect to pay about $10,000 per year for their academic degree. So, a master’s degree that takes two years to complete will cost roughly $20,000, while a four-year bachelor’s degree will cost about $40,000. However, these amounts can be significantly less if the student obtains an in-state tuition rate or brings costs down through financial aid. Learn more about college savings plans and see how much a degree may cost you at the link below.College Calculator
Online students are typically eligible for the same financial aid awards as any other college student, but should keep a couple of things in mind. First, because online coursework is often self-paced, students must be sure to complete the minimum number of credits per academic period to maintain their overall eligibility, as well as the specific level of financial aid. Dropping from a full-time to a part-time student will result in less financial aid, and some scholarships may only apply to full-time students.
Second, students must ensure they attend an accredited school or program. Most scholarships, grants and federal-based financial aid require students to attend an accredited school or program. Besides that, those who might want to transfer credits in the future can usually only transfer them between accredited institutions.
Interested in learning more about financial aid for college? See our in-depth guides on the topic at our College Resource Center for more info.