Are Online Colleges As Good As On Campus Colleges?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

Online education has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. From 2002 to 2007, student enrollment in online degree programs grew over 19 percent, a huge increase compared with the 1.5 percent growth in college enrollment overall. Many traditional universities and colleges now offer online degrees as well as on campus programs. Thirty-five percent or one in three of all higher learning institutions now offer online degrees. In other words, online education has definitely arrived and joined the establishment. The increase in online or distance learning is due in part to the increase in demand for these courses and to the simple fact that the technology now exists to make online education fully functional.

Which is Better?

Is a distance learning degree as valid as an on campus degree? The answer to that question hangs on other considerations. First, is the online degree program accredited by an accreditation organization that is approved by the Department of Education or by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation? If it is, then the education delivered by the online method is just as valid as that received on campus. Accreditation is important.

Second, does the online program use the same curriculum as the on campus program? While the method of delivery might be different, that is, face to face versus online discussion, if the educational materials are the same, then the validity is the same.

Third, it depends on the degree program you are interested in. If you are considering a degree in the hard sciences, healthcare or engineering, then the program likely incorporates hands-on learning components such as lab time or time in the advanced computer technology center. Students in a nursing program are required to train in a supervised medical facility as part of their degree. Prospective teachers will spend a semester or so student teaching. Health care students might have laboratory projects to complete. If your degree requires physical resources such as labs or computer centers, then an on campus program would be better. Other degree programs translate excellently to the Web, such as healthcare management, information technology or business degrees.

Fourth, what do employers think of online degrees in the field you’ve chosen? This question is still being asked and investigated, as more and more employers become more comfortable with distance learning degrees. A survey completed by Excelsior College and Zogby International found that 61 percent of small business owners and CEOs are now familiar with online degree programs.

When it comes to your degree, the reputation of college weighs more than online or on campus delivery. Accreditation by a recognized and approved accreditation association matters greatly. If those two things are in place at the university or college you’re considering, then online versus on campus should be decided on your own characteristics. If you are highly motivated and have good time management skills, then online learning would be a good fit for you. If you need face to face interaction and enjoy hanging around with fellow students, then on campus would be more comfortable.

Pros and Cons

The advantages of online education include:

  • Flexibility
  • Convenience
  • Great for those with full time jobs
  • No hassle with driving, parking, babysitter fees
  • More time and opportunities to participate—via email and online discussions at any time
  • Everyone welcome—great for disabled, shy, older students

The advantages of on campus learning include:

  • No need for self-policing, class always at the same time and place
  • Connecting with classmates
  • Extracurricular activities, lectures, films, socializing on campus
  • Career networking—stronger with face to face than online name to name recognition

The commitment from both teachers and students for either online or on campus education is the same. Students must be committed for the long run achievement of the degree, whether it is obtained online or on campus. Whether in an online or on campus program, students are expected to do the reading and studying necessary to complete assignments. Both online and on campus learning experiences will involve participation on student learning teams. Both must write papers, complete projects and pass exams.

Overall, it depends on what a particular student needs and wants and his or her personal characteristics. Someone who is presently working full time but who wants to get a degree would either have to attend part time or take classes online. Students fresh out of high school could go either way if they have the self discipline for online study. Universities and colleges also offer hybrid programs that are partly online and partly in class. For some degrees, the hybrid program is a good bet with the best of both worlds.

Rest assured, once you check that reputation of the school and its accreditation are good, then the online or on campus decision depends more on your needs and desires than on the validity of the degree. Thinking about your educational and career goals will help you make this determination.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.