How Online Colleges are Effective

Online schools haven't knocked down ivy-covered walls just yet. In a fall 2010 UCLA survey of freshmen at 279 U.S. colleges and universities, the ability to take online courses was cited as a "very important" reason for picking a school by only 2.7 percent of students, compared to more traditional reasons such as an institution's good academic reputation (62 percent), offers of financial assistance (45.5 percent) and visits to campus (41.8 percent).

A more relevant statistic, however, might be the percentage of higher education students taking at least one course online: 31% of higher education students in fact, which adds up to more than 6.1 million collegians in the fall 2011 term, according to the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org, 2012).

Who's choosing online education?

So why are more learners opting for online colleges? For many, the decision-making process comes down to flexibility--the ability to learn at one's own pace in one's own place. The whole notion of going to college is replaced by college coming to you, in sync with your schedule. Students can continue to tend to their work and family obligations while pursuing a degree.

Students can also home in on their specific career paths by earning certifications. There are online programs for everything from foot massage through mobile app design.

It helps that students at online schools are typically a self-selected and motivated group--often willing and able to defy distractions and multi-task. While there's no universal profile of a typical online scholar, research shows they tend to be more mature; leading online education provider University of Phoenix (phoenix.edu) reports that its average student is in her middle thirties (and we say "her" because 63 percent are female).

Key benefits of distance learning

Students at online schools regularly use technology ranging from email and chat to whiteboards and PowerPoint, for a learning experience that offers flexibility and more one-on-one interaction with faculty. Some courses use synchronous or real-time lectures or podcasts, while others feature asynchronous or anytime readings and downloads with both solo and collaborative project assignments. So does online education work? Almost two-thirds of academic leaders in the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org, 2012) survey rate the quality of online instruction as comparable to--or in some cases better--than face-to-face teaching.

Of course, online universities can't replicate every part of the campus experience. If you're seeking opportunities to socialize, you won't find many physical get-togethers or virtual equivalents to fraternities or sororities. In the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, however, many students report being pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie available in discussion forums and networking possibilities among students and alumni.

Online schools and pricing: how they stack up

College education in any format can be a big investment. Tuition at online universities varies widely from school to school, sometimes costing less but sometimes nearing or matching that of brick-and-mortar institutions. Savings, however, can come from living at home while studying instead of paying room and board fees or having to commute to and from campus, as well as paying per course instead of per semester.

That said, while there's no breakdown available for online versus offline, it's worth noting that many online schools are private, for-profit institutions, as opposed to nonprofit colleges. Students at for-profits (online or on-campus) have been proven more likely to rely on student loans and therefore graduate with more debt--an average of $33,050 for the Class of 2008, compared to $20,200 for public and $27,650 for private nonprofits, according to the Project on Student Debt. A 2009 Eduventures report states that the for-profit sector, while accounting for just 7 percent of the higher education market overall, claims about one-third of the online market.

Online colleges aren't for everyone. The distance learning format may not be ideal for students who struggle with self-discipline, or who simply prefer a more face-to-face educational experience. Furthermore, excellent online schools sometimes find it difficult to separate themselves from the diploma mills that lack rigorous academic standards. But learning online is here to stay. Enrollment in online courses continues to rise, as does the number of institutions offering remote courses. The key with online ed is learning the pros, the challenges and figuring out when it's the right choice for you.