You can do almost anything online these days. You can buy a car, apply for a credit card, buy a TV, make new friends and find old ones. Over the past decade earning a college degree without leaving home has become easier and much more accepted, but not universally. Unlike the value of the TV you purchased online, an education is only as valuable as the person reading your resume says it is. What is the value of an online degree when compared to a degree earned from hours of sitting in the classroom? You may know the answer already: It depends.
TUTORIAL: Education Savings Account: Introduction
Remote learning isn't as new as some people think. All the way back to the late 19th century there were correspondence courses where people could learn shorthand by completing lessons and mailing them to the teacher.
When online degrees first appeared they weren't well-received by the educational community because of fear that online education would wipe out traditional education models just as it was threatening to do to brick and mortar retail establishments. Second, degree mills, online programs where life experiences were often used as a means to award an advanced degree became common with online schools. Still today, education experts blame some of the for-profit schools for tainting the validity of online degree programs. (For related reading, see Online MBA Programs: Study From Home And Succeed!)
Today is largely different. Educational facilities now embrace the idea of online education so much so that they're in the business themselves. Two-thirds of the largest and most well-known colleges and universities have online degree programs. Public schools, feeling threatened by private or charter schools, have started online classes as well.
That doesn't mean that there aren't drawbacks. If you're a parent considering an online education for your K-12 age child, understand that there is a significant amount of data that shows a child who doesn't do well in a traditional setting probably won't do well in an online setting. One of the largest online campuses for K-12 age children, the Colorado Online Virtual Academy, only had a 12% graduation rate in 2010 in part because online campuses have a large percentage of students who weren't showing promise in a traditional setting.
If you're considering an online campus for your post-secondary (college) education, an online campus is much more promising. The two-thirds of college campuses that now have online degree programs had a combined student population of 3.5 million people in 2006, the latest data available. A recent study found that 45% of corporate CEOs found online degrees acceptable, but of those who had knowledge of these types of programs, 83% found online degrees just as legitimate as traditional diplomas.
What Should You Do?
If you're planning to enroll in an online degree program, take note of these four points of caution. First, experts warn that there is still a lot of stock in the name. Since most well-known public and private schools offer online degree programs, look at these schools first. If you get your online degree online from Florida State University, you don't have to disclose the fact that it was done online.
Second, think of your industry. If you're in an Internet/new media field, studies show that 70% of online degrees are seen as legitimate. Contrast that with marketing degrees that only hold a 29% acceptance rate.
Third, master's degrees obtained online are seen as more valuable than bachelor's degrees. This is largely because these "degree mills" offer many more bachelor's degrees than post graduate programs. Consider earning a traditional bachelors and supplementing it with an online master's degree.
Last, online degrees are often more accepted when the person is already in the industry. If you're a teacher who earns an online masters degree in education, this is often regarded as more legitimate than somebody not in the industry. Using an online program to better your knowledge of your field while still working full time is universally seen as the sign of a driven individual. (For related reading, see Should You Head Back To Business School?)
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The Bottom Line
Online degree programs are growing rapidly and because of this, the sophistication of the degree program now rivals traditional educational environments, but they aren't for everybody. For those who chose to study online, self-discipline as well as a large amount of study time are still required. Don't confuse online with easier or less time consuming. Online degree programs tend to be much more writing based than discussion based, so if you don't enjoy writing, a traditional setting may be better for you.