Online College Degree Programs

Online college degree programs, also known as distance learning programs, allow consumers to obtain a college education without leaving the comfort of their home. Some online education programs charge tuition and fees to all participants, while others offer free tuition, charging only for testing, materials and college credit. Examples of the latter include the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Questions remain about the value of an online education and the type of student for whom an online education is appropriate. Nevertheless, many college students will take an online class sometime during their college career or use online education materials to supplement their classwork.

Prevalence of Online Education Programs

Based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), 6.3% of undergraduate students were enrolled in online degree programs in 2011-12, representing 3.2% of students in certificate programs, 5.5% of students in Associate's degree programs and 7.9% of students in Bachelor's degree programs. As the next chart illustrates, more than a third of undergraduate students in online degree programs are enrolled in Associate's degree programs and more than half in Bachelor's degree programs.

Enrollment in Online Degree Programs by Degree Level

The next chart shows that about the same number of students are enrolled in online degree programs at public colleges and private for-profit colleges. Online programs at public colleges have an even split between 4-year and 2-year institutions, while the online programs at for-profit colleges are mostly at 4-year colleges.

Enrollment in Online Degree Programs by College Type

Students enrolled in private for-profit colleges are much more likely to be enrolled in an online program. More than a fifth (21.4%) of students enrolled in private for-profit colleges (33.2% of students at 4-year for-profit colleges and 2.9% of students at 2-year for-profit colleges) are enrolled in online degree programs, compared with 3.8% of students at public colleges and 4.4% of students at private non-profit colleges.

Students in online college degree programs are more likely to be enrolled in lower-cost programs. More than two-thirds (68.4%) of students in online degree programs are enrolled in online colleges with annual tuition and fees under $8,000. This includes 88.9% of students enrolled at public online college degree programs, 46.6% of students at private non-profit online programs and 54.1% of students at private for-profit online programs.

Characteristics of Participants in Online Education

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces are much more likely to enroll in an online college degree program, with 39.5% of college students who are active duty members of the military pursuing an online education, compared to 5.8% of college students with no military service. This may be due, in part, to deployment in locations where the only option is online education, as well as the difficulties associated with frequent military relocation. The U.S. Department of Defense operates the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) to address the needs of members of the military and their families.

Older, non-traditional students are more likely to enroll in online education. Only 3.1% of college students age 15-23 enroll in an online degree program, compared with 7.7% of college students age 24-29 and 12.3% of college students age 30 and above. Of college students enrolled in online degree programs, a quarter (27.8%) are age 15-23, a quarter (22.5%) are age 24-29 and half (49.6%) are age 30 or older. Similarly, 20.7% are dependent, 18.2% are unmarried independent students with no dependents, 8.6% are married independent students with no dependents other than a spouse, and 52.6% are independent students with dependents other than a spouse.

This trend toward independent and older students may be related to the demands of work and home schedules. About three-fifths (60.5%) of students in online degree programs work full-time, compared with a third (33.7%) working 13-39 hours a week and 5.9% working 12 hours or less a week. Independent college students who are single parents are almost twice as likely as independent students who are married with children to enroll in an online program (10.4% vs. 5.5%). About half (54.7%) are enrolled full-time and about half (45.3%) are enrolled part-time, similar to the overall undergraduate student population.

Female college students are more likely to enroll in an online college degree program than male students (7.4% vs. 4.8%). Disabled college students are more likely to enroll in an online college degree program than college students with no disability (7.1% vs. 6.2%). Federal Pell Grant recipients are more likely to enroll in an online degree program (7.1% vs. 5.7%), with almost half (46.9%) of undergraduate students in online degree programs receiving a Federal Pell Grant.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Education

The main advantage of online college degree programs is flexibility. The online college student does not need to travel to get to school, saving time, money and stress. Online programs are not as time-constrained by class schedules, letting online students fit the classes to their work and home schedules. For example, online students can study from home, avoiding the need to pay for a babysitter or daycare. Online students who have school-age children can be home when their children get home. They can work during the day and study in the evenings and weekends. They can pause the online program if they need to attend to the needs of their children or run an errand.

There are, however, several disadvantages to online education. Students need be strongly motivated, demonstrating self-discipline and drive, to complete the online degree program. Students who study from home are more likely to face distractions unless they have good time management skills and establish clear boundaries between work, home and school life.

Just as not everybody can work well when telecommuting to work, not everybody can benefit from an online education program. The students who learn best online are the types of students who tend to enroll at the most challenging and selective traditional colleges. In other words, the students who could perform well in an online environment are precisely the ones who need an online education the least. For example, Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity, attributed the 2013 failure of the MOOC's collaboration with San Jose State University to the students' disadvantaged backgrounds. He told Fast Company that, "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit." Similarly, a survey by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that most of the people who took an online course from the university's MOOC already held a degree from a traditional college.

The quality of the online education experience may be inferior to the quality of a traditional on-campus college education. Online education lacks the same quality of interaction with faculty and classmates. The instruction is not really face-to-face, without direct eye contact and other social signals that contribute to the effectiveness of the teaching.

The impersonal nature of the education not only makes it more difficult for the students to learn the material, but it also often results in less feedback to the faculty about which topics the students are having difficulty understanding. There is less support and handholding for these students. Discussion boards and email may also be less responsive and immediate than synchronous communication. The communication is often written, not oral, and, as such, is more time-consuming than spoken communication.

There are fewer opportunities to network with other students in an online degree program. Online students can often feel isolated and alone.

An online degree may also be less likely to be respected by employers, except if the online degree program was tailored to the needs of a specific employer who participated in the design of the academic degree program.

Defaults and Degree Attainment

Based on data from the 2009 follow-up to the 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study (BPS:04/09), federal student loan default rates were lower for students from online college degree programs (6.0% vs. 7.6%). This may have to do with a much lower default rate for online certificates compensating for higher default rates for other degree programs.

Based on data from the 2009 follow-up to the 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study (BPS:04/09) and the student's first-year degree plans, certificate attainment rates were higher for students who enrolled in online programs (61.7% vs. 45.8%), Associate's degree attainment rates were lower (15.0% vs. 19.1%) and Bachelor's degree attainment rates were lower (52.5% vs. 59.4%).

Based on data from the 2012 follow-up to the 2008 Baccalaureate and Beyond longitudinal study (B&B:08/12), Bachelor's degree recipients who graduated from an online degree program had $12,857 higher annualized income from their primary job ($59,688 vs. $46,831). A similar earnings advantage for online education was demonstrated at every type of college, ranging from $9,943 at public colleges ($55,084 vs. $45,141) to $18,173 at private non-profit colleges ($67,921 vs. $49,748) to $4,552 at private for-profit colleges ($60,222 vs. $55,670). The earnings advantages may have to do with the mix of academic majors offered as part of online degree programs.

Potential Pitfalls of Online Education

It is important to check that the online degree program is accredited. Not only must the college have accreditation, but also the specific degree program. A list of accredited colleges can be found at the U.S. Department of Education web site.

Beware of diploma mills masquerading as online colleges. Diploma mills are unaccredited institutions that offer fake degrees for a fee and little or no education. The Oregon Office of Degree Authorization maintains a list of diploma mills. There are good articles about diploma mills published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).