Online Colleges: Your Degree and Learning Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Earning your academic degree from an online college or university—sometimes called distance learning—has become an increasingly popular choice.

[Featured image] A woman wearing a yellow sweater and glasses sits at laptop working on an online degree course

Of the 16.6 million undergraduate students in the United States in 2019, nearly 2.5 million exclusively took online classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [1]. For graduate students, it seems to be even more favorable, with 42 percent enrolled in an online program in 2019 [2]. And those numbers keep growing. As of the spring 2021 semester, enrollment in online colleges grew by 2.2 percent [3].

Attending college online can be beneficial. Not only does it broaden access to education for students who are not able to relocate, but schedules tend to be more flexible than in-person colleges. This makes it easier for those who want to keep working while earning their degree. The number of prestigious colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools, offering online programs has also expanded since online colleges first appeared in the 1990s [4]. 

In this article, we’ll go over the types of degrees you can earn from online colleges and other key factors to consider as you decide whether attending an online college is the best option for you.  

What kind of degree can you earn from an online university? 

Education at any level has benefits. Associate degree holders earn $157 median more per week than high school graduates, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)  [5]. That figure jumps to $524 per week with a bachelor’s degree. Out of the occupations BLS tracks, around half require an academic degree [6]. 

Depending on your educational needs, you can earn a number of different degrees online—and even certain professional degrees

Associate degree

An associate degree takes around two years to complete. With it, you can either transfer into a bachelor’s degree program, or begin working in a number of different professions, including registered nurse, web developer, dental hygienist, or paralegal. 

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree takes around four years to complete, though thanks to the self-paced nature of some online degree programs, you may be able to speed up that timeline. With an online bachelor’s degree, you can either seek out a more advanced degree, such as a master’s, or enter the workforce and begin a career in a number of fields. 

Learn more about earning your bachelor’s degree in a lucrative field such as business administration, computer science, or marketing from a top university on Coursera.

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Master’s degree

A master’s degree takes between one and three years to complete. Similar to the major you choose for your bachelor’s degree, you can expect to focus almost exclusively on a particular subject or area, such as applied data science, international business, and mechanical engineering. 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

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Doctoral degree

A doctorate, or PhD, is a terminal degree in many disciplines, and generally takes between four and seven years. While it’s less common to earn your doctorate degree online, there are some programs available to explore, though certain disciplines may be limited. 

Law degree

A law degree, or JD, is a professional degree that takes around three years and is the primary credential for people who wish to practice law. As with a doctoral degree, it’s possible to earn your law degree from an online university, though less common, as there aren’t yet a wide variety of options available.  

Benefits of attending an online college

There are numerous benefits associated with attending an online college or degree program:

Lower overall costs

The costs associated with studying at an online college may be lower than attending an in-person institution, especially since you won’t be responsible for costs like room and board or commuting to campus. Tuition and fees differ by institution and even program, but US News estimates that online bachelor’s degree students will pay a total cost of between $38,496 to $60,593 [7]. The average total cost of attending an in-state public college is $103,456 when accounting for additional costs like room and board [8].

Flexible scheduling and learning environments

Online classes tend to fall into one of two categories: synchronous classes (meaning you and your classmates meet with your instructor at a set time) or asynchronous classes (meaning you do not meet with your instructor, but instead work through lessons and assignments individually). With either one, you can decide your learning space, studying where it’s most comfortable or convenient for you. Online classes also tend to be more flexible than in-person classes, which can be helpful if you’d prefer to keep working while attending school. 

Strengthen key transferable skills 

Earning your degree from an online college often necessitates greater time management and self-discipline than attending in-person classes because sitting down to learn, study, and complete assignments is up to you. While attending an online college isn’t for everyone because of those demands, it can help you refine important transferable skills, like working independently, that employers appreciate.

How to choose the best online college for you

As with an in-person institution, there are certain factors to consider when determining whether attending an online college or university is the best option for you. It’s a good idea to research which degree programs are available in the subject or discipline you’d like to study, and spend time reviewing what learning in each program will look like. 

Let’s go over a few ways you can explore your options: 

1. Determine what you’d like to learn. 

There are many majors available to study online. Spend time figuring out what you’d like to study, and what type of degree you’d like to earn in that subject, and then verify which online colleges offer degree programs in that discipline. Start keeping a list of programs that sound like they’d be a good potential fit. 

2. Verify each online college’s accreditation. 

Once you’ve found potential degree programs, verify the type of accreditation each online college or university holds. Accreditation means that an online institution has been vetted by an independent accreditation agency for quality assurance. There are two main types of accreditation in the United States: regional and national. Online-only colleges tend to hold national accreditation, while in-person colleges that offer programs online tend to hold regional accreditation. For example, all eight Ivy League schools are regionally accredited. 

Why accreditation is important

Transferring credits: Finding an accredited program can be especially important if you’re interested in transferring your credits or degree into another program, such as applying to a bachelor’s degree program after earning your associate degree. Every college sets its own transfer standards, but it can be harder to transfer a degree you earned from a nationally accredited program to a regionally accredited program. 

Financial aid: Confirming that a school is accredited is also important if you intend to apply for federal financial aid because the United States government does not provide funding—in terms of grants or loans—to non-accredited institutions. 

3. Research each potential program. 

Once you have an idea about what you’d like to study, where you can do that, and how each school is accredited, you should spend time researching the programs on your list and pay attention to the following factors: 

Coursework: Embarking on a degree program is an exciting choice, but it’s important to ensure it’s the right one for you. Review the coursework you’ll be expected to complete for each program and make sure the course descriptions match the outcomes you hope to achieve. Look to make sure the general scope of the program aligns with your educational goals, and that you’ll walk away having gained new knowledge or strengthened your skills. 

Types of classes: When you take your classes fully online, you may have the option of synchronous or asynchronous classes. Look at what types of classes each program offers, and whether it aligns with your needs. For example, if you intend to keep working full-time while going to school, it may be helpful to find a program with asynchronous classes—or synchronous classes offered in the evening.  

Faculty: Spend time reading faculty bios for each program, and pay attention to the credentials and experience each professor or instructor has to offer. Depending on what you want to study, you may want to seek out faculty with more professional experience—or a more pedigreed academic background. 

Location: Even though an online college can provide more location flexibility because you can learn from anywhere there’s internet access, you may want to investigate in-state options because, as with in-person public institutions, tuition may be lower than if you study out-of-state. But typically, online colleges are designed with a wide variety of students in mind, not just local attendees, so their pricing reflects that geographically diverse study body. 

Non-profit vs. for-profit: When they first appeared in the 1990s, online colleges gained a reputation for being much less rigorous about the students they admitted, which contributed, in part, to the idea that an online education is less valuable than one achieved in person. That perception has shifted over the years, but for-profit institutions are more likely to be nationally accredited, which may mean the degree you earn isn’t always as transferable as regional accreditation. 

Other ways to learn online 

There are a number of ways you can strengthen your educational credentials—or learn about a specific subject—without enrolling in a longer degree program. Let’s go over a few. 

Certificate programs

Many colleges and universities offer certificate programs designed to teach you skills in a number of professional areas, like copyediting, commercial property management, financial planning, and more. On Coursera, you can enroll in beginner and advanced Professional Certificate programs from industry leaders such as Google, IBM, and Meta. Each certificate program takes between five and seven months to complete, and can help you develop important job-ready skills.  

Bootcamps 

If you’d like a more in-depth, but ultimately shorter, dive into a subject or field, bootcamps can be a helpful alternative to degree programs. Generally designed for professions in the tech industry, you can gain job-ready skills in areas like computer science, data science, and UX. Bootcamps are designed to be completed in a concentrated amount of time, so you can accelerate your learning. 

Courses 

Without enrolling in a full degree program, you can take independent courses on Coursera from a number of renowned university partners. Learn about statistics from Stanford University, financial markets from Yale University, or gain an introduction to user experience (UX) design from Georgia Tech. Explore more on Coursera

Next steps 

There are a number bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees from top US universities that are regionally accredited, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois, on Coursera. You can also find an array of prestigious European universities. With each program, you’ll learn from the same faculty members who teach on-campus for their respective institutions.  

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Article sources

1. National Center for Education Statistics. “The NCES Fast Facts Tool,  https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80." Accessed January 28, 2022.

2. The College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf." Accessed January 28, 2022.

3. EdScoop. “Online College Enrollment Growth Outpaces Real-World Institutions, https://edscoop.com/online-institutions-enrollment-outpaces-real-world-college-thanks-part-time-students/." Accessed January 28, 2022.

4. University of Denver. “Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning in the United States, https://digitalcommons.du.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=law_facpub." Accessed January 28, 2022.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, 2020 : Career Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm." Accessed January 28, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Projected Openings in Occupations That Require a College Degree : Career Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/article/projected-openings-college-degree.htm." Accessed January 28, 2022.

7. US News and World Report. “3 Costs Online Education Saves Students, https://www.usnews.com/education/online-learning-lessons/articles/2017-06-02/3-costs-online-education-saves-students." Accessed January 28, 2022.

8. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of College [2022]: Yearly Tuition + Expenses, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college." Accessed January 28, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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