Online Colleges Options/Types

Different Online School and University Types

The beauty of online college programs is the flexibility they offer students. Classes are available live or on demand; lessons can be paused or re-wound; information can be absorbed 24/7. This is not to say that online programs lack structure; in fact, there are many different options available to students looking to learn on the web.

Public vs. private schools

Generally speaking, online public schools are the web-based branch of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. Institutions like Penn State and the University of Florida are public universities with beautiful campuses, but they also provide students incredibly rich online offerings to both supplement and work in tandem with their classroom-based learning. At many public schools, students can name their involvement in online learning, deciding for themselves how much (or how little) of their course load they'd like to take online. Online public universities tend to be less expensive than private options because they are often partially subsidized by the state or local governments.

Nevertheless, the majority of online college courses in the United States are offered by private programs. These schools run the gamut from broad schools most of us have already heard of  Kaplan University and smaller, emerging schools that specialize in specific career paths (i.e. the Oregon Culinary Institute). On average, students finish private college programs more quickly than they do public ones (~5 years vs. ~6 years), and those with specific focuses often have an easier time finding a good first job out of school.

Live vs. on-demand classes

Though most programs offer both, it is important to draw a distinction between the two, as personal preferences differ. Some people prefer live online classes because they are able to interface with the instructor (and possibly her teaching assistants) in real time. In other words, your teachers can answer your specific questions. Some people are turned off by the inflexibility of the live classroom; its schedule is set and you have to make sure you're in front of your screen at the right time.

On-demand classes offer students an asynchronicity that live courses simply cannot provide. Students can learn wherever they want, whenever they want. They can often pick their favorite instructors, and students can rewind to certain parts of the lesson that may be thorny or in need of stress. One of few downsides is that students can't ask the teacher live questions. Many programs work around this by offering live online "Office Hours" that complement the on-demand experience.

Two-year vs. four-year programs

The split between two-year and four-year programs at online schools doesn't differ much from the split at traditional, campus-based schools. Accordingly, two-year online colleges serve the same role as do community and junior colleges. Students can earn associate's degrees, certificates, transfer credits and other pragmatic stepping stones to a rewarding career. These programs tend to be less expensive (even on a yearly basis) and slightly easier with regard to admissions.

Four-year online programs typically confer bachelor's degrees and offer a broad spectrum of majors and classes. Students with a more academic bend prefer four-year programs to two-; they use the extra time to delve deeper into their studies. Office-based jobs also tend to prefer applicants with bachelor's degrees -- the ROIs on these degrees tend to be higher, despite the additional cost. Recent grads might have a more difficult time finding work initially after four years spent in the humanities as compared to someone who graduates from a two-year program with a vocational degree. Ultimately, however, individuals with bachelor's degrees tend to have greater earning power.

In the final analysis, online colleges provide as many options as campus-based programs do. And with a few extra layers: students can study whenever they like with the advent of on-demand learning.