4 Factors in Choosing Between Online and Traditional Degrees

Jul 30, 2020

By Jonathan Cantarero 

If you’re applying for a degree program, one question to consider is whether to get an online, hybrid, or traditional degree.  Having gone both the online and traditional route, I know this can be a tricky decision to make. In this article, I discuss four factors to consider as you mull over your options.

1.     Distance-Learning Options 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing you need to do is find out is what types of learning platforms are available for your specific degree program.  If your dream is to be a biochemist, but there are no online programs in biochemistry, then you can safely scratch that option off the list.  That being said, online education has advanced so much over the past few years that a total lack of online availability for your program is pretty unlikely.  There are literally hundreds of online problems in virtually every area ranging from cybersecurity to public health policy. The real question is whether your degree can be completed fully online as opposed to through a hybrid format.  Below are the three basic program formats to look four:

  • Traditional Degrees – As their name suggests, traditional degree programs are generally completed fully on campus.  Although most schools will offer some individual courses that can be completed online or in a hybrid format (i.e. in-person classes supplemented with online course work), the bulk of the coursework is typically done in the classroom.  Of course, if all you’re looking for is one online course per semester, then a traditional degree may provide all the flexibility you need.
  • Fully Online Degrees – These degree programs can be completed 100% online, which generally means that all you need is a laptop and the course textbooks (or ebooks).  Online courses usually involve more interaction than in-person classes to ensure that learning is actually taking place.  Common components include discussion posts, weekly reflections, and short essays—all of which basically amount to the participation credit you would have received in a traditional course.  From my own experience, schools vary in the platform they use to administer an online course, but the majority of these programs are intuitive and easy to use.  
  • Hybrid Degrees – Hybrid programs allow for more courses to be taken online than a traditional program would allow. Oftentimes, a majority of credits can be taken remotely.  One thing to look out for with these programs is whether on-campus coursework takes the form of traditional semester-long courses or whether they may be completed with shorter “modules” such as week-long intensives during the winter and summer breaks.  For example, many hybrid programs in religious studies are done online during the fall/spring semester with a few in-person intensives completed in the summer.  These intensives can range anywhere from a weekend to 10 days.  

As you can see, each of these formats offers particular benefits depending on your priorities.  Getting a firm grasp of what options are available for your particular degree is a great start to making an informed decision. 

2.     Cost of Attendance

Cost is usually the first factor that comes to mind in deciding between an online and traditional degree.  For those on a budget, tuition rates are generally much lower for online degrees than for brick-and-mortar programs.  However, this is not always the case, so be sure to compare prices before applying.  Even if tuition is the same, there are several indirect ways in which online degrees can save you some extra cash.  In my current online master’s program, for example, I’ve saved thousands of dollars in three areas:

  • Housing Expenses – By far, the biggest savings in pursuing an online degree program is living expenses.  The average cost of room and board in the United States is around $12,000.  If you study in large cities like New York City, that number can easily double to over $24,000.  Multiply that by the number of years in school, and you may end up reconsidering school altogether!  If you’re thinking of an online/hybrid program because you want to stay close to home, these savings make that decision all the easier. 
  • Commuting Expenses – A second way online/hybrid programs save students money is by eliminating all or most transportation-related expenses.  Whether you live on campus and take the bus to class or live at home and commute in rush hour traffic, getting to and from class can be a real strain on your wallet.  Not to mention, you’re wasting valuable time commuting that could be spent doing other things, like studying or working a part-time job.  All told, studying from the convenience of your home saves both money and time. 
  • Food, Food, Food – If you’ve ever done the math to see how much that savory cup of coffee actually costs you over time (a $3 cup of coffee once a day, five days a week, over a 9-month semester, will run you about $540 per year), then you know that eating out is a huge expense.  Even the average meal plan at your school usually costs more in the long run when you consider the comparative cost of cooking and eating at home.  Needless to say, eating at home is yet another big expense you can avoid with an online/hybrid program.

At the same time, while a traditional degree might be more expensive, there are also more funding opportunities. For example, there are scholarships and fellowships available to traditional students that might not be available to online students, significantly decreasing the cost of enrollment. If you are flexible, you might consider applying to both, including funded graduate options, to get a full perspective on possible costs. ProFellow has a free directory of fully funded graduate programs, available here.

3.     Impact on Learning and Grades 

This factor cuts both ways depending on your personality and study habits.  For that reason, it may end up being the decisive factor in your decision.  There are two basic questions you should ask yourself in figuring out which degree format is really more “convenient.” 

  •  What Type of Learner Am I? – If you’re a self-starter who enjoys learning on your own and can do without the structure of an in-person class during the week, then an online program might be for you.  But if you long for the routine of commuting to school, the requirement of sitting in class, and the option of speaking with a professor in their office, then a traditional program might suit you better.  If you get distracted easily and have a lot going on at home (children, pets, remodeling, etc.), then maybe an online degree is not practical.  One way to work through these considerations is to watch some free classes online and see how you feel.  Can I say focused?  Am I retaining the info?  Does rewinding the video help?  Am I holding myself accountable?  These are worthwhile questions to explore. 
  • What Kind of Experience Do I Want? –  This may seem like a silly question to the outside observer: If I’m looking at online degrees it’s because I want that experience.  But the truth is that many people go for online learning because of logistical and financial considerations like keeping a well-paying job, being there when kids come home from school, or just avoiding an awful daily commute.  Take a minute and consider whether the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa.  While all those perks sound amazing, it could mean little if your studies suffer because you’re just not an online learner.  At the same time, think about whether the in-person experience is absolutely crucial for your academic success.  Do you need to have access to the physical library?  Do you need to join an on-campus club or association to have a meaningful experience?  More and more people are answering these questions in the negative and have happily gone in the other direction.

4.     Job-Market Prospects 

It used to be that online programs were looked as inferior to traditional ones because of that intangible benefit of having a “real” or “authentic” college or graduate experience.  While that has largely subsided in recent areas, you may be wondering whether they’re any negative connotations associated with your particular online degree.  The short answer is: it depends.  Anecdotal stories from friends and colleagues tell me that the humanities benefit the most from online programs compared to STEM and fine arts programs.  Of course, some of this has to do with the inherent hands-on nature of those programs, and employers have a right to be concerned about whether you can adequately substitute these experiences with distance education.  However, a big factor in answering this question boils down to the student’s reason for pursuing distance education in the first place.  A student who got an online degree in economics while getting real-world experience at a mutual fund, insurance agency, or financial institution will be in a much better position to enter the job market than someone who just wanted to save on expenses.  Thinking about how your degree format would fit into your 30-second pitch might give you some perspective on whether it will be looked at (rightly or wrongly) differently from a traditional degree program.  

Almost every college and university offers some form of distance learning.  A generation ago, online degree programs were a novel idea few and far between—at least that’s what my professors tell me.  Nowadays, however, there are literally thousands of online courses you can complete without ever getting out of bed.  I hope these four factors will help you make a smart decision and get the most out of your education.  Wish you the best!

Jonathan Cantarero is an attorney based in New York City.  He is a former Graduate Fellow at the City University of New York School of Law (2013-16) and Schulte, Roth, and Zabel Fellow for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (2014-15).  Whenever he is not reading legal briefs or posting on ProFellow, Jonathan, who is also a seminary student, enjoys writing on the intersection of law and religion. 

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