Pros and Cons of an Online EducationUpdated: April 9, 2021
Over the past decade, the popularity of online education has increased dramatically. But, online degrees have also faced some significant – and, at times, justified – criticism. For veterans, this begs the question: should I pursue an online education? To answer this question, veterans need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of this degree path. As such, we’ll use this article to explain the pros and cons of an online education.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:
- An Overview of Online Education
- Pros of an Online Education
- Cons of an Online Education
- Questions to Ask Universities
- Final Thoughts
An Overview of Online Education
Prior to discussing the pros and cons, veterans should understand the basics of online education. This overview should help inform your decision about whether or not to consider this degree path.
Types of Online Education
Broadly speaking, two types of online education exist: full and hybrid. A fully online program, as the name suggests, means you do all of your work on the computer. Your assignments, student and professor interactions, and examinations are all completed on the computer.
Alternatively, some online programs offer a level of in-person instruction, as well. These hybrid programs may be primarily completed online, but students also complete some in-person seminars. This is a common set-up for many online MBA programs, where students must attend one or two seminars every semester in addition to their online coursework.
Dependence on Personal Initiative
At some level, all education depends on personal initiative. But, this reality becomes particularly relevant with online schooling. With in-person degrees, you have requirements to attend lectures at certain times, meet with professors during office hours, and organize meetings with fellow students for group products. If you miss any of these events, you’ll need to deal with the face-to-face shame of failing to meet a requirement.
With online education, you’ll have some level of time-sensitive collaboration, as well. But, lacking face-to-face interactions, human nature makes it far easier to blow off our responsibilities. As a result, high levels of personal initiative prove far more important with online education than in-person programs.
Online Education Just Isn’t as Good as In-Person
This is hard to hear for many people, but it’s the truth: all else being equal, an online education just isn’t as good as an in-person one. In other words, if you have the choice to complete the same college degree from the same school, you’ll take more away from the in-person, traditional degree than the online one.
Traditional classrooms simply provide a large amount of collaboration, discussion, and critical debate that online programs cannot fully replicate. Additionally, even the best online professors cannot provide an in-person level of support. If students struggle with a particular topic, this can make online education even more challenging.
NOTE: The article’s author has completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees in traditional classroom settings and fully online. The above assessment comes from both research and his personal experiences.
Despite this reality, online education can be an outstanding option in the right situation – particularly for active military members and veterans transitioning out of the service. But, before committing to this approach, consider the below pros and cons.
Pros of an Online Education
Without a doubt, flexibility serves as the largest advantage to online education. With in-person classes, you need to attend lectures on a set schedule. This can make balancing work, family, and school nearly impossible. When you study online, you can largely craft your own schedule. If you prefer doing your school work first thing in the morning, do it then. If you have a full-time job, you can do your work in the evenings or on weekends.
Yes, online programs may have some hard dates/times students must follow. But, generally speaking, online education offers students far more flexibility than in-person schooling.
Tackle Topics at Your Own Pace
If you’ve been out of the classroom for an extended period – like most veterans – in-person lectures can quickly overwhelm you. When a professor breezes through a particularly complex topic, you can feel completely overwhelmed. And, when surrounded by a bunch of younger students, the last thing you’ll want to do is stop the class to admit you don’t understand the material.
With online degrees, you absorb lectures and readings at your own pace. Many professors assign reading and pre-recorded lectures. This way, if you don’t understand a topic, you can press pause on the lecture, re-read the relevant material, and move forward when you have a better grasp. Alternatively, you can e-mail or call a professor for one-on-one assistance.
Though not always the case, many online degrees cost less than in-person ones. If a college only offers online education, it avoids many of the costs associated with running a traditional, brick-and-mortar university. Most online schools pass on these savings to students in the form of more inexpensive tuition.
Additionally, students indirectly save money by studying online. When you attend in-person classes, you need to pay for the regular class commutes and parking. You avoid these costs when you can “go to class” in your own home.
Responsive Instructional Technology
Another major advantage to online degrees – particularly in more technical fields – relates to instructional technology. Due to the fact that these students cannot receive instant feedback from professors, the instructional technology needs to provide that level of instant responsiveness. This reality means that many online programs offer incredible instructional technology to assist with remote learning.
For example, when you submit an accounting problem set in a traditional classroom, you need to wait for a professor (or TA) to grade it to find out whether you did it correctly. Conversely, when you do that same problem set online, you’ll get instant feedback on A) whether it’s correct, and more importantly, B) the appropriate solution. This system reinforces the learning process, as students know right away whether they’re on the right track – and how to improve if not.
Cons of an Online Education
Reputation in the Job Market
Once again, we need to provide some hard truth: generally speaking, online degrees are not held in the same esteem as traditional ones in the job market. As more and more people complete online education, this will likely change – but only to an extent. In some industries, online degrees unfortunately have worse reputations than in-person ones.
However, for some jobs, employers focus more on on-the-job training. In these situations, an online degree may meet the job requirements while not disadvantaging you in the application process. Bottom line, before considering an online education, you should think about what you want to do with that education. If employers in your desired field don’t care how you completed your degree, the online path may make sense.
Lack of Face-to-Face Interaction
As stated, pressing pause on pre-recorded online lectures has some benefits. But, these advantages typically don’t outweigh what students lose without face-to-face interaction. In a classroom, a tremendous educational value exists to spontaneous discussion and debate. These interactions just do a better job building critical thinking and helping absorb complicated material than online education can provide.
Unfortunately, some online professors don’t do a great job responding to student inquiries. If you have a question about a challenging topic or particular assignment, this lack of responsiveness can derail your work. Even the most responsive professors will have a lag in answering questions. And, if you need that question answered to move forward, you’re stuck until you get a response.
These lags can make learning complex topics feel particularly overwhelming, too. In a traditional classroom, you may not want to ask a question in front of the whole class. But, you can also visit the professor during office hours, getting one-on-one instruction until you feel comfortable with a topic. E-mail and online discussion boards cannot provide this same level of support.
Computer Familiarity Requirement
Lastly, online education inherently requires a familiarity with computers. For younger students, this is likely a non-issue. But, if you decide to return back to school following years out of the classroom, this requirement can pose a major obstacle. Fortunately, most online programs offer in-depth tutorials on their instructional software during student orientation periods.
Questions to Ask Universities
After considering the above general pros and cons of an online education, students still need to review individual schools. Before committing to a particular institution, we highly recommend asking the below questions. Unfortunately, with the amount of money the GI Bill pours into higher education, many less-than-reputable schools have sprung up just to make money – not truly educate veterans. Asking these questions can help you sort the good from the bad in online education programs.
What is your accreditation status?
According to the US Department of Education, college accreditation helps ensure “that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” When a school has been accredited, it has met the acceptable quality standards of an accrediting agency. As a result, the college reports that it has been accredited by that particular agency. On the other hand, a college that has not been accredited is known as an unaccredited college.
As a rule, do not attend an unaccredited college. But, even within accredited institutions, some accreditations are better than others. Two broad categories of accreditation exist: regional and national.
Most people assume something national must be better than something regional. But, this isn’t typically the case with accreditations. Rather, colleges and employers typically respect regional accreditation more than national. To achieve regional accreditation, colleges need to meet far stricter standards than national ones. These higher standards translate directly into higher quality education at regionally accredited schools. Regional accreditations include:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- WASC Senior College and University Commission
What are your veteran graduation rates?
More precisely, you should ask both A) how many veterans begin their degrees, and B) how many actually graduate? This will help you determine how much support these schools provide to their veteran students. A low graduation rate likely means one of two things. Either the school doesn’t care about its veterans’ academic success, or the quality of education proves so low that veterans choose not to finish their degrees.
What job placement support/counseling do you offer veterans?
Most veterans go to school to get a job after graduation. The best universities provide job placement support and counseling to help veterans with this process. Completing your degree online shouldn’t mean sacrificing these services. Accordingly, before enrolling in an online program, you should confirm that the school offers job placement support.
What are your job placement statistics for veteran graduates?
This question directly relates to the above one. While an online program may say it offers job placement counseling, hard statistics prove it. For example, an online program may promote its computer science degree. If this degree program is as good as the school claims, most graduates of the program should have jobs related to computer science.
If a school can’t back up its job placement claims with workplace statistics, proceed with caution.
Online degree programs can be a great option – particularly for veterans balancing school, work, and family. But, before committing to one of these programs, make sure to review the above pros and cons of an online education.
And, regardless of how you attend school, your ultimate success or failure depends on the work you put into the program. If you don’t work hard, it doesn’t matter whether you attend school online or in-person.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.