Friday, January 23, 2015

Looking into the Pros and Cons of Online College/University Studies

T (age 17) will be starting his first college class, next week.

And let me say here for my non-American friends, that in the States "college" and "university" are used pretty much interchangeably.  There are differences between the two, but not to the extent there are in some other countries - such as Canada, for instance.  I will use college here, but am referring equally to colleges and universities.

He is able to begin his collegiate career with one class, in February, because he has chosen to work through his first two years of school - online.

Steps leading to an online college.

We pretty much knew all along that T was college bound, so there were no real surprises there.  His decision to attend school online was unexpected, and a recent development.  Up until this winter, we had not really even considered online college as a serious option.  In fact, part of the impetus of our most recent move was to put us within easy driving distance of a larger number of brick and mortar schools.

First though, I should backup, and give a little history.

I have a bachelors degree, and come from a very pro-college family.  My folks have combinations of bachelors and masters degrees. Among my siblings and their spouses, four hold doctorates, two of us have bachelors, and another three have associates degrees.

The Man of the House, who supports our largish family comfortably, through a career he really enjoys, did not go to college, and comes from a family with a "take it or leave it" sort of attitude towards higher education.  Neither of his parents attended college, his father served a four year stint in the Navy, receiving job training that way, and his sister, who also supports herself well, in a career she loves, has an associates degree.

Given our experiences, we have always encouraged all of the children to seriously consider higher education, but not insisted on it.  It's not always easy to work your way up in a career, without a college degree, but it is certainly possible.  And, we have seen time and time again, that a college degree is not always a guaranteed ticket to a career.  With that said though, as I've already state, T's choice to pursue higher education didn't really come as a surprise.  He is not the most academically inclined person you could meet, but his interests for careers tend to be more of the behind-a-desk-degree-needing variety.

So, this fall, we helped him locate a test center, signed him up for the SAT exam, and started sifting through school websites, determining degree programs, and admission requirements.

In the running were a couple of schools north of the border.  In fact, they were more than in the running, they were topping his list, but with one big drawback - T being an American citizen would not be able to work while attending school Canada.

We have 6 children.  Starting two years from now, assuming we continue on as we are, and if they all decide to go on to college, we can presumably look forward to 10 years of paying for two college students at once, capped on either end by a two year period of paying for only one.  Given that we will still be incurring expenses for little incidentals such as braces, our house, and hopefully a retirement fund - even in the light of scholarships and financial aid, we will need the children to be working and contributing to their education, as well.

And so, knowing that he preferred the Canadian schools, but needed to be able to continue working, and realistically, that he preferred to stay in town in able to form some relationships, and familiarity with our new home, before heading out, we started looking at what the two schools had to offer for distance education.  In the process, we also realized by looking into online programs, many schools we had not considered, because of their locations, were now available to T again.

Then came the real boon.  Not only could T attend a foreign school, while keeping his local employment, but the costs of online school were significantly lower than the what we had been looking at for brick and mortar attendance.  Right off the bat, you can drop the expenses for institutional room and board, and campus fees.  But overall, the cost of tuition for online classes is significantly lower, too.  In fact, when T finally settled on a school, and a program, and we calculated the costs, we were pleasantly surprised.  He can easily cover his tuition completely on his own, with what he is banking from his part time job, leaving him spending money, and a growing car fund.

The Pros and Cons of Online College.

Once I started announcing T's decision to friends and family, and having conversations very reminiscent of when we had announced our decision to homeschool, my type-A personality kicked in with concerns.  We were looking at the benefits, but I was sure (mainly because a couple of my college professor siblings had pointed out a few) that there were also drawbacks to be considered.  I started searching out websites, and picking brains, and came up with a list of pros and cons to consider.

  1. Greater flexibility - Instead of having classes at set times and days, in many cases lectures can be watched online, or listened to, at the students convenience.  Classes can be scheduled around work and family obligations, instead of the other way around. 
  2. Convenience - Again, in many cases, a student can choose when they want to start a class, rather than waiting for the semester to officially commence.
  3. Can set your own pace for learning - While some classes do still have set time schedules, and all have an eventual deadline for completion, many classes allow students to move faster if they wish.  Instead of taking six months, a class might be completed in 4 months.  In fact, some schools even offer a discount on the next class if you complete one early.
  4. Introverts might be more likely to speak up and ask questions in an email format - The online format allows for slow introspection, and time for thorough formulation of an idea, before it is written onto a chat board, or into an email, as opposed to the quick blurting out of an idea or question, before the professor moves onto the next thought or topic.  This type of communication suits some personalities better than others.
  5. Fewer pressures of limited space - Student numbers are not limited by classroom space, and classes are not limited by classroom availability.
  6. Lower costs - in tuition and on campus expenses - parking, room and board, club fees.
  7. Availability - Not only are classes ready when you want them, but potentially, if you can't find the class you want at your chosen school, you could easily transfer in a credit from another school, without changing physical locations.
  8. Continual access to lectures - Can't make out your notes? No problem! Just re-watch that bit of the lecture.  As long as you are enrolled in the class, you can watch the lectures as many times as you like.
  9. Innovations and advancing technology - From video chatting, to message boards, setting up files in the correct format, to taking online quizzes, distance courses are utilizing the latest in technology, and an online student gains a natural familiarity with it.
  10. Lack of in class distractions - No person chewing gum loudly behind you, or sniffing every thirty seconds.  If someone is bothering you at home, you can simply pick up your computer, and move to another room.

  1. Isolation - Anyone used to homeschooling is familiar with this objection.  While isolation can be an issue for students studying on their own, it does not have to be.  There are plenty of community and church clubs and events to keep a student connected in with people, but you do have to go looking for them.
  2. Requires self motivation - Again, something homeschoolers are already familiar with.  Although, I'm thinking that brick and mortar schools also require some self-motivation.  I don't remember any early morning wake up calls from my college professors, no one walked me to class, or held my hand while I researched papers.  It was simply expected the work would be done according to the syllabus.  That much works the same for online classes.
  3. Limited interaction with professors - While it is true, you cannot stand chatting with professors in the hallway after class, or corner them in their offices with a quick question.  You can email them, or call them in their offices.  Most likely you will have a distance office representative to run on campus interference for you, if you can't get through to a professor as well.
  4. No extracurricular campus activities - This is very much like the isolation argument.  And it is true, you won't have football games to cheer at, or chapels to attend.  In the end it really depends on your purpose for attending college in the first place, as to how much this one will matter to you.
  5. Stigma - Thanks to a "Sally Struthers' school of all things ridiculous" perception still lingering from the days before distance learning had really taken hold in the accredited schools, there is a sense that this kind of learning isn't "real college".  However, if the school, and program are accredited then this is completely a false perception (though one you will still face).  A transcript, and diploma from an online degree program looks identical to what you receive if you attend classes on campus.  It is the same degree.
  6. Lack of financial aid - Distance programs are not always eligible for financial aid, because of their reduced cost.  We found that the reduction in tuition more than made up for the lack.
  7. Natural technology problems - Even under the best of circumstances, internet connections can be lost, computers malfunction, and printers jam.  There are bound to be some frustrations along the way.  Imagine loosing your connection in the middle of a midterm exam - will you be allowed to restart it?  These are things to find out before you sign up for your first class, and to be prepared for.
  8. Not getting out - experiencing new places - This con could also be applied to attending local colleges.  It is true that you will not have the experience of loading up all your belongings and heading off for an in-dorm adventure with your buddies.  That does not mean you can't join with a short term volunteer organization, or simply travel on your own, along the way.  Going away to college is not the only door out of the house.
  9. Degrees are limited - This one is simply true.  In all of the schools we looked at, there were far more degree options being offered on campus than through the distance program.  Hopefully this will change with time.  However, in the meantime, there are still a number of online degrees to choose from, and even if the degree you're seeking cannot be completed online - the basic core classes can.
  10. Not able to ask questions in the moment - If the professor says something that puzzles or outrages you, you will not be able to ask for instant clarification.  However, sometimes by listening, instead of speaking, you manage to learn more.  And, not always being able to say what you're thinking, the moment you think it, is a good thing.  Given the rest of the lecture, and time to research and consider, a more complete question or objection might be presented to the professor through an email or chat board.
  11. Professors cannot tell if they are “getting through” - A professor lecturing at you through a computer screen will not be able to see your confused look, or glazed eyes, and modify his approach in the moment.
  12. It’s new to professors, and not all of them are comfortable with it - Just because a professor is teaching an online class, it does not mean he or she appreciates the format, or understands the technology necessary to make it work.  Educators are often slow to embrace change, especially when the change can bring additional work for them along with it.  Many have very strong opinions about the importance of in class participation.
For us the pros seem to outweigh the cons.  I was not a "joiner" on campus in my college days.  I found my social interactions away from campus, and would have enjoyed my classes a good deal more at my own pace, and apart from distraction.  However, there is a difference between liking an idea, and living with the concept in reality.  I hope to review these pros and cons again after T has had a chance to try out a few classes, and has some feedback to offer.

Sources for pros and cons:
Grantham University Blog
Campus Explorer
Education Portal
Florida National University
Money Crashers
Western Governors University


Ticia said...

I've got a few years before this is relevant to me, but it's a lot of good information for me to think on.

I would agree there is a bit of a stigma left from the early years of online learning.

Hwee said...

Thank you for sharing your decision-making process. It is very helpful to read (even though I'm in the UK and our educational options here differ from yours in the US). We are pretty much considering the same (online) options so I'll be following your posts on this topic with interest. :-)

Anonymous said...

Here's another pro in my book...
There is nothing that says that he can't get his core subjects completed online and then enroll in a bricks and mortar college to complete his degree. This would allow him access to additional degrees while still gaining the benefits from online atmosphere. I say go for it!!!!

claireshomeeducation said...

I agree with Hwee. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough post. We have been thinking about the same for the girls (T has to go to a bricks and mortar uni because he wants to do something in science and that's harder to pursue online over here.
I too look forward to your follow up posts.

Die fantastischen 5 said...

Very interesting post! I think your choice is right. For me, I´m glad to have some time left, until we have to choose!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thank you for sharing. I wonder what it will be like when my kids' are ready to decide what to do with their education next (not for a few years).

Natalie PlanetSmarty said...

I learned a lot from reading this post. It looks like T and you really thought through the options. Good luck to him in starting college!

MaryAnne said...

The college I went to did an incredible job of getting freshmen involved, so I think being there in person made a big difference (I also had a full financial aid based scholarship - but had to work 20 hours/week AND take out loans to cover room and board). But for some of the other schools I was considering I think an online class would have been as effective, and possibly more effective.