How Online Colleges Schools Stack Up to Traditional Colleges

Today's students have a variety of choices when it comes to higher education. They can enroll in traditional "brick-and-mortar" colleges or in online colleges, or even complete their degrees through a combination of both modes, in what are called "hybrid" programs. Though there has been controversy over the validity of online education, some studies show that the results of online courses are similar to those of face-to-face instruction. Now, even high profile universities such as Harvard and Stanford have initiated their own online programs.

If you are trying to decide whether online or traditional college is right for you, it may be useful to consider the following features of each format:

Online Colleges

  • Many online courses offer synchronous sessions, in which students and professors meet online at a predetermined time, but most online courses are asynchronous, meaning that students access course material and participate in class activities on their own schedules. This allows students to maintain their work and family commitments with more flexibility than is available at traditional colleges.
  • Course materials, such as lectures, discussion boards, and emails, are recorded and always available, so if you miss any information or require more explanation, you can survey the material again.
  • Though net tuition costs differ depending on the school, online programs typically decrease the associated costs of college, such as commuting, housing, and course materials. With rising student loan debt now greater than credit card debt, any opportunity to reduce total costs is beneficial.
  • Contrary to popular myth, online programs can be just as demanding as any other form of higher education. Students develop internal motivation and refine their communication and technological skills through their online work. They have to meet deadlines and demonstrate specific standards of achievement, just like students at traditional schools.

Traditional Colleges

  • Regular face-to-face class meetings offered by traditional schools provide the structure that many students need to complete their assignments on time. Some argue that this also encourages greater accountability among students, who have to deal in person with faculty and other students.
  • Students at traditional colleges can have the full campus experience, including living in a dorm and becoming more independent and meeting and living with a variety of different people. The sense of community created by extracurricular activities often leads to productive networking after graduation.
  • Traditional colleges offer more direct interaction with faculty, which many students find helps them learn more effectively than communicating via computer.
  • Traditional colleges are often more highly regarded due to a combination of long-term accreditation and historic achievements. Walking the same halls and sitting in the same seats as some of America's greatest scientists, artists, and political leaders conveys a sense of intellectual legitimacy that is unquestioned by employers.

Both online and traditional higher education has pros and cons. In the end, it is up to each individual to figure out how much time he or she will have to devote to earning a degree, what type of degree program he or she is interested in, and how much he or she can spend on education. For some, online programs are a perfect fit. Those who need a more structured learning environment, though, should try a traditional college degree program instead. However, it is also possible to have the best of both worlds in a hybrid program, in which some of your courses are online and some face-to-face. It's also possible that individual courses themselves may contain both elements of interaction. The choice will depend on a student's individual academic needs.