How Does Online College Work? Your Ultimate Guide

Updated on October 21, 2019
By Trish Sammer

These days, many students are opting to earn their degrees online. There’s good reason to. With a host of online-only institutions and an increasing number of brick-and-mortar schools getting into the online space, there are options to suit just about every interest, budget, and schedule.

But going to college online isn’t for everyone. Many people still have lots of questions about how online college works, if the degrees are equivalent to those issued by traditional schools, and how to pay for their online education.

At Nitro, we’re always looking for ways to help students find the highest-quality education at the most-affordable rate. We’ve been watching the online college phenomenon bloom over the past few years and we’re pretty optimistic about what online education can offer our readers.

Here, we’re going to answer all your questions about online college and then some.  Let’s dig in.

Is online college just as good as traditional?

In many cases, yes. In fact, in some instances, it might even be better. Why? There are few reasons:

  • It may be better-suited to different learning styles. People learn in different ways. Some students absorb information more effectively by reading rather than listening. Online, multimedia presentations may be more engaging to some than sitting in a classroom.  Depending on your learning style, online education may help boost comprehension and retention of the course material.
  • It's more flexible. Online learning is a great option if you aren’t able to attend school in the “traditional” way due to work, childcare issues, or other factors.
  • It can be cheaper. No transportation costs. No room and board. You don’t even have to quit your job if you don’t want to. Designing your education with lower overall costs means you’ll have less (or no) student loan debt later. That’s a smart way to launch your future.

See also: 8 Reasons Why Online Education is Better than Traditional

What is online college like?

While every program is different, there are some general things you can expect if you decide to go to college online.

The application process:

If you’re applying to a traditional college that offers online programs, expect to go through the same application process as the on-campus students.

Some non-traditional, online-only schools may have more relaxed requirements. For example, you may not be required to take the SATs for undergraduate studies, or the GRE or similar tests for graduate work.

The school year:

Many online programs operate on a semester-style schedule that mirrors traditional schools. However, others operate on trimesters or terms of different lengths.

The upshot for you is that for the large majority of programs, there will be a defined start- and end-date for each class.

What online learning looks like:

Online degree programs are often based on a partnership between a school and a technology provider called an online program manager (OPM). Some examples of OPMs are edX, HotChalk, and 2U.

OPMs enable the backend technology that schools use to deliver their courses. OPMs are largely invisible to students, although they may provide tech support as part of their contract with the school.

Through OPMs, colleges can do things like:

  • Simulcast lectures
  • Have live video chats between multiple people in different locations
  • Post and track assignments
  • Produce tests and other assessments with immediate scoring capabilities
  • Enter grades
  • Foster communication between a professor and students within a private virtual classroom, and
  • Maintain group discussion forums among classmates.

Depending on your school and program of study, courses may be asynchronous, meaning you can work entirely on your own whenever you’d like, or courses may be scheduled at specific times during which you’re required to be online.

No matter where you go, it’s wise to expect that a certain amount of study will be completed on your own time, in addition to the online class time. The good news is that since most of these programs were created with the part-time student in mind, you should generally have enough time to complete all course requirements.

If your course of study requires any practical instruction, e.g., a nursing program that includes lab training, your school is likely to have a list of participating facilities you can go to. However, not at all schools provide assistance with this, so it’s important to find out what to expect before you enroll.

Equipment and supplies:

Obviously, a computer and a reliable Internet connection will be required to complete any online degree program. Schools will provide you with the technical requirements you’ll need to meet in order to use their online learning systems.

Many schools have computer-purchasing programs that can provide assurance that you’re getting the right equipment. They also sometimes offer a discount, but it’s worth doing some comparison shopping.

See also: 5 Ways to Get a Free Laptop for Online College

You may be required to purchase physical text books or ebooks, just like you would for a traditional class

How do I pick an online school? 4 questions to consider

When selecting an online college option, there are several things to consider. Here are four questions to ask:

1. Will this program lead to a degree or certification that will help me advance in my career?

When answering this question, it’s important to check into the school’s accreditation to ensure that your degree will be seen as legitimate after you graduate.

It’s important to know that not all accreditations hold the same weight. So even if a school claims to be “accredited” or even “fully accredited,” that might not be enough.

See our blog post on accreditation to learn more: Are Online Colleges Legit? How to Avoid Scams and Find Reputable Online Schools

2. How will this program gel with my other responsibilities?

Keeping an eye on the future is important, but it’s the day-to-day details that often present the most difficult challenges. In order to set yourself up for success, it’s critical to find a program that will fit with your weekly schedule.

If you’re planning to work while going to school, think about whether the program’s structure will conflict with your work hours. Thankfully, most online programs were created with the idea that students will be employed while going to college, so many offer a fair bit of flexibility.

However, if you have to be online for a class every Wednesday at 8 PM, but you have an unpredictable schedule, you may want to find a school with a more self-directed program.

3. How much will this program cost?

You will also want to carefully investigate the financial aspects of attending your school of choice. With so many reputable online degree options available, including quite a few from traditional brick-and-mortar schools, it’s definitely wise to take the time to shop around a bit and find the program that fits best with your life and your budget.

Note that some online colleges do not accept federal financial aid, such as the Pell Grant or other assistance distributed through FAFSA. Often, these schools will claim that their tuition is already so low that financial aid isn’t necessary.

Keep in mind that Pell Grants can provide up to $6,195 in gift aid per year—and that’s free money you won’t have to pay back. Before enrolling at school that doesn’t accept financial aid, we strongly advise you fill out the FAFSA first to find out what kind of aid you may be eligible for.

Use our handy question-by-question guide to get through the FAFSA application as quickly and easily as possible.

4. What are other students saying?

Take 10 minutes to investigate student reviews for the schools and degree programs you’re considering. Any info from current or past students can give you powerful insight into what you can expect.
Just type in your preferred college name followed by “review” and a number of sites will come up. If you’re looking for an online program at a brick-and-mortar school, be sure to include the term “online.”

With any online review, remember that people are generally more likely to leave reviews after having a negative experience, so be sure to take complaints with a grain of salt. Also, remember that with any college program, you’ll only get out of it what you put into it.

However, if you see repeated complaints about the same issue, remember to take that into account when making your school decision.

Is online college cheaper?

Yes, online college can be cheaper than traditional college options for obvious reasons. For starters, going to school online allows you to avoid costs associated with transportation and room board. That’s a savings of thousands of dollars per year right out of the gate.

Online-only schools may offer an even better value, since they don't have the costs of maintaining campuses, and they can have larger class sizes without increasing staffing levels.

But some brick-and-mortar schools are experimenting with extremely low-cost models as well. Check out our recent blog post on Georgia Tech’s online master’s in computer science program.

Do employers view online degrees as legit?

More and more, the answer to this question is yes.

If you earn your degree from an online program through an established brick-and-mortar school, employers are extremely like to respect your credential and, in fact, they may not even realize that you earned your degree online.

But online-only schools are starting to garner more credibility as well, according to a recent article in U.S. News and World Report. According to recruiters interviewed for the article, it seems that employers are more interested in whether you've earned a degree, rather than focusing on where the degree came from.

And, to echo our point above, recruiters say that there's a good chance they won't know that a degree was earned online.

See also: FAQ: Are Online Degrees Respected?

What kind of degrees can I get online?

The short answer: just about all kinds.

Even programs that typically require in-person instruction or practical training can often be completely mostly online through “hybrid” programs. These programs allow you to complete the bulk of your coursework online, and then fulfill the in-person requirements at approved locations near you, or during concentrated on-campus residencies.

Residencies generally take place during predetermined times during each semester and last from several days to a week.

Can I use financial aid?

That depends on the school. Some online colleges accept all the same forms of federal and private financial aid used at traditional colleges, while others do not.

Most schools have financial aid sections on their websites. If a school accepts federal financial aid distributed through FAFSA, it will often be noted there, along with a link to fill out the application.
If schools don't accept FAFSA, they will often note that on the financial aid page as well.

FAFSA, otherwise known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the main way to get federal student education aid. Your FAFSA application will qualify you for federal grants, such as the Pell Grant (which can be worth up to $6,195 per year), and federal student loans.

FAFSA is also often used to determine state- or school-based aid, such as scholarships, so you should fill it out even if you think you won't qualify for federal aid.

See also: Online Colleges That Accept FAFSA

You can also apply for scholarships and grants for many online colleges. Be sure to speak to the financial aid department to find out about all of your options. Tip: The Scholly app is great way to find scholarships that may not have been on your radar.

If you find that you need student loans, it's wise to max out your federal student loans before taking out private loans.

Can I use student loans?

In most cases, the answer is yes. However, where you get those loans — through the government or through a private lender — depends on the school.

Many accredited online colleges and universities accept the same federal financial aid as brick-and-mortar schools. That means you can apply for FAFSA to get Pell Grants, federal student loans, and other types of state- and school-based aid that are based on the FAFSA.

However, some online schools, such as Penn Foster, have a different type of accreditation and do not accept federal financial aid of any kind. In those cases, the institutions usually offer a payment plan directly to students. But, as we noted above, it's important to consider if you're eligible for financial aid through FAFSA before deciding on a school that does not accept financial aid. The aid you receive may offset the total cost of you tuition and other expenses. 

Learn more about how and when to take out student loans for online college.

Is online college worth it?

Online college can be a great option, especially if your schedule doesn't have space for you to attend traditional, in-person classes. As traditional colleges seek to meet students' needs, they are offering more online options than ever before. Many online-only colleges are offering high-quality instruction that feature extremely flexible schedules to appeal to people who are already in the working world.

But remember, college is an investment, so make sure to do your homework on the school before you make a decision. Do some research on the institution and program of study that you're considering. Make sure that the school is accredited. Read online reviews.

Whatever you decide, be sure to investigate all of your financial aid options so you can reduce student loan debt. Use our step-by-step guide to filling out the FAFSA to get started.

What is the future of online college?

Online college options are going to continue to increase in popularity as costs get lower (thanks to better technology) and quality of instruction continues to evolve and improve.

Our prediction: Within the next generation, online learning will become more of a norm as people redefine the college experience in their quest for more affordable education options.

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