What is an Online Degree Program?

Picture yourself attending college as an incoming freshman on the first day of school: the lecture hall is packed, the textbooks are dense, the print is small, and the professor behind the lectern seems to drone on and on and on…

Some people might picture this scenario and be perfectly happy, but there are plenty of others who would rather do anything else than study for a degree this way. When you add to that the rising cost of tuition, living in cramped and uncomfortable dorms and the mountains of texts to work through in a full class load and it’s no wonder that achieving a college degree the old-fashioned way can seem so impossible. But now, universities and community colleges are working harder than ever to adapt and change their curriculum to meet the needs of more students from diverse backgrounds, not only to tap into new populations of students eager for an opportunity to pursue their own educations, but to better serve their communities and be more modern and accessible. The result of these efforts was the creation of online degree programs. What is an online degree program, you might ask? The answer: higher education that is more convenient and accessible than ever.

Nowadays, there are numerous degree plans that can be completed entirely online from start to finish, complete with all the traditional aspects of higher education, such as lecture notes, textbooks, comprehensive exams and lab time requirements, and the strenuousness of these programs is constantly being adapted to ensure that students who choose these programs are still learning and being challenged as though they were sitting in a lecture hall, living in the dormitories, taking part in study sessions and living the typical college life.

History and Beginnings

Online education in its earliest form was actually considered to be correspondence education: in the late nineteenth century, colleges and universities in Europe began to offer a few degree plans that could be completed by scholars from America, with the idea being that a regular correspondence between students and professor would take place until the teacher believed the student was ready to receive a degree, with the approval of the university they represented. All the discourse, assignments, feedback and grades were sent in the mail, and it was a long and arduous process, initially only feasible for the wealthy and upper-class.

In the early 2000s organizations like the University of Phoenix began forming and offering degree-related courses and placement classes for people wanting to return to school and finish their degree or use some of their prior professional experiences to translate into college credit they could apply to a degree plan. Now, the universities and colleges that do not at least offer online classes as part of a degree plan are in the minority overall, and many more institutions offer entire online degree plans for students that can not attend classes in person. This is not a trend that is limited to your average community college, either – even Ivy League universities are getting in on the action, as is the case with Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to complete online programs and courses offered as part of a larger degree plan, many schools have broadened their services to include more students that might not otherwise have been able to pursue higher education. For example, universities like West Texas A&M recently implemented and released an online program that is a series of courses that students with intellectual disabilities can complete to get a certificate of completion and achievement, and programs like this exist in countless other colleges as well.

And with more and more people turning to technology to provide ease and convenience into their daily lives, online colleges and degree plans will continue to be marketed as the feasible option for anyone and everyone who want to seek education on their own terms.

Advantages and Disadvantages

One of the most obvious advantages of online degree programs is that online programs are typically very convenient for the student. For people who cannot afford to attend school full-time, people who live in remote areas where a college is not within their physical reach, or people who might have health issues or other obstacles that would prevent them from being able to attend classes the traditional way, online education can seem like a godsend.

There are also those who want to be able to complete assignments and coursework at their own pace and on their own schedule, and online degree plans are easily customizable to the student and what they bring to the table. There is also an advantage in that online education is often advertised as being cheaper and easier to enroll in than traditional higher education programs.

Online classes save money for both the student and the school in that there is no need to pay for school supplies, a classroom, or other aspects of in-person classes. Financial aid, Pell grants, student work releases and other types of funding are still available for online education, however, so financing an online degree plan is easily affordable in many cases.

For all the benefits that online education offers, there are some disadvantages. In recent years some online colleges and virtual schools have been accused by students and staff alike for being fraudulent and offering phony classes and certifications, which has caused some to swear off on online classes.

There have also been some articles and studies published that claim some virtual schools make false promises to prospective students in that they will be able to guarantee their students job placements upon their program completions; one notable example of this are online training programs for paralegals and licensed vocational nurses.

And ultimately, the fact that a degree is offered online in many cases does not make it any less rigorous than a regular degree plan, so potential students who assume that a degree plan offered on the Internet can be achieved without any effort will be mistaken: online education is being modernized and constantly adapted to fit the rigors of the job market, so that a degree from the University of Phoenix could be just as creditable as a degree from any traditional college.

Choosing for Yourself

When thinking about online colleges versus in-person education, ask yourself this: is the experience of a classroom and lectures, dormitories and student meal plans, on-campus events and late-night study sessions something you feel is invaluable to your college experience? Or, is the purpose of your degree plan only to better yourself and earn your accreditation so you can move on to other things? Can you remain self-disciplined enough to assume complete responsibility over your coursework and handle more autonomy over your courses than other students would have? Is the experience of earning your degree equally as important to you as the degree itself, or do you view your degree plan a means to achieve other goals, both personal and professional?

Depending on these answers, an online degree plan might be the right thing for you, as it has been for many others. No matter the college or the student or the reason to enroll, online degree plans will continue to be prevalent and increasingly common in the world of higher education, and so long as they continue to meet the needs of their communities, they will continue to be touted as a positive and viable option for anyone willing to apply themselves as scholars and achievers.

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