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Online College Degrees: Are They Worth the Money?

Read up on their advantages, plus how to pick the right online school and how employers perceive them.


ONCE CONSIDERED a poor substitute for the real thing, online higher education degrees are moving into the mainstream. These days they’re fully embraced by high-quality public and private not-for-profit institutions, which collectively serve 70% of all online students.1

Even the Ivy League is in on the action. And an increasing number of students are turning to online courses for their undergrad and grad degrees. Online MBA, anyone?

Graphic showing a photo of a young woman working on a laptop surrounded by a group of online education stats. The text for the stats reads: Who’s going to school online? Age: 44% of students are between ages 18 to 24, 43% are between ages 25 to 44 and 13% of students are over 45. Employment: 45% of students are employed full-time, 25% are employed part-time, 26% are unemployed and 2% are retired. Location: 53% of students live in-state, 41% of students live out-of-state, 1% live in another country and 5% have unknown locations. Gender: 70% are female and 30% are male. Funding: 44% of students use personal funds to fund their education, 38% use student loans, 29% use government grants and 20% use employer aid. Source lines: Learning House, “Online College Courses,” 2016 and WCET, “Distance Education Enrollment Report,” 2016.

While the cost per credit tends to be similar for both online and on-campus students, their other advantages may be hard to ignore. The flexibility of being able to study at night and work by day that online programs offer students, as well as the cost efficiency of learning remotely (no housing or travel expenses to consider), make them a tempting option, says Richard Polimeni, head of Education Savings Programs, Bank of America. He adds, “Both federal aid and 529 accounts can be used to cover eligible expenses for online students.”

“Both federal aid and 529 accounts can be used to cover eligible expenses for online students.”—Richard Polimeni, Head of Education Savings Programs, Bank of America

As for how employers perceive these “virtual” degrees, “there’s a growing awareness that online or on the ground doesn’t matter. What matters is the institution,” says Dr. Joshua Kim, director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. If you’re looking to join the ranks of online degree seekers, Kim suggests that you consider the following.

Take a test run. One advantage of online education is that many courses are now offered à la carte. Taking an online course or enrolling in a multicourse certificate program can help you evaluate whether an online degree track is right for you.

Check out the reputation of the program—and opportunities for networking. Make sure the school you’re interested in is accredited by using this search tool from the U.S. Department of Education. “Keep in mind that it’s not just the degree that’s valuable—it’s the network,” Kim says. When researching programs, look for notices of group work and opportunities to meet in person. Pursuing an online degree at an in-state institution may also help build your network by making it easier to meet with classmates and professors in person. This might explain why more than half of online students attend programs in their state.2

Do your homework on the instructors. Online degrees may give you access to professors who are professionals working in your field. But a program run entirely by adjuncts should be a red flag, says Kim. “A good professor will be responsive and work hard to create a community among the online students, whether it be through discussions, a blog or group project work,” adds Debra Greenberg, director, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions, Bank of America, who teaches marketing as an adjunct professor at Rider University.

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1,2WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, “Distance Education Enrollment Report,” 2016.



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