How Online Degree Programs Work
Online degree programs at the college level give you a variety of flexible learning options from which to choose. This includes fully online, partially online, hybrid, blended, asynchronous, synchronous, and more. If you’re ready to start your online higher education journey, use our college matching tool to identify the schools and programs that fit your needs. If you’re not, read through the key terms below and then navigate to our collection of student-focused resources designed to get you moving in the right direction.
Key Online Learning Terms
A program or course where all communication, interaction, and assignments take place online, usually on a shared learning platform. This includes meetings with cohorts or professors, discussion groups, and taking or turning in exams and papers.
A catch-all term often used to describe various programs and courses with some portions online and some in-person. Depending on the type of partially online program, e.g. blended or hybrid, you may communicate with professors and peers via chat boards and other means, but attend labs or lectures face-to-face. See our descriptions of blended and hybrid below to see the difference.
While often used interchangeably with hybrid learning, blended programs and hybrid programs are slightly different. Instructors in blended programs combine face-to-face lessons and lectures with online activities. Lectures often happen in real-time and in-person, with instructors requiring follow-ups or other supplementary lessons to be completed online.
In hybrid programs and courses, instructors teach a combination of in-person and online students at the same time, with online participants engaging through video conferencing and other virtual means. In some circumstances, students have a choice of whether they want to attend class or join via video.
Asynchronous programs — whether fully online or partially online — allow you to move at your own pace. This means you can take as many or as few courses in a semester as you’d like. Some schools may have minimums or maximums in place, but, in general, this mode offers maximum flexibility and makes higher education accessible to a wider range of students. However, you may have less contact with instructors and cohorts, fostering more individual study.
While not as flexible as its counterpart, synchronous learning gives you the chance to interact with professors and peers in real-time. Information can be exchanged faster, and there may be a richer sense of community around the material. That said, scheduling can be tight if you’re juggling school, work, and family, and if you’re taking the class online, technical difficulties can pop up.
To be considered full-time at most schools, you need to take at least 12 credits per term. Full-time students often take between 12 and 18 credits per quarter or semester.
Part-time students take fewer than 12 credits per term but stay above their school’s minimum threshold.
Choosing an Online College
When researching online colleges and universities, you may have a lot of questions. How many of their degree programs are fully online? Partially online? Are they accredited? Do I need to visit campus for any labs or clinicals?
With so many unknowns, you need to know what to look for prior to putting your name and info on an application, and especially before you take your first steps financially. Ask yourself these basic questions before getting started with an online college.
What type of accreditation should I look for?
When it comes to accreditation, the gold standard is regional accreditation. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes seven regional accrediting bodies operating within six distinct higher education regions. These include:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC)
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission (WSCUC)
In addition, many schools may seek additional accreditation specific to online learning, and from accrediting bodies tied to multiple academic subjects. For more detailed information, check out our in-depth guide to accreditation for online colleges.
How much does an online program cost?
Similar to campus programs, the cost of online programs vary. Some colleges have a special tuition rate for their online programs and courses, while others give online students the in-state tuition rate for their credits. Online programs also can be more affordable if you factor in the lack of commuting and parking fees.
Do online programs have any hands-on elements?
Some online programs, especially those in the sciences, may require you to perform hands-on activities. In these cases, you have the option to visit an associated campus if you live within a reasonable distance, or you can use an approved third-party location. For example, many veterinary clinics allow their vet assistants to use their equipment when pursuing an online vet technician degree.
What is a learning management system?
A learning management system (LMS) is a software system or online portal that colleges use for learning and learning-related communication. Three of the most popular LMSs include Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. Each allows instructors to build and share higher education content. Learning management systems should not be confused with learning destination sites (LDS) such as Khan Academy or Coursera, which offer virtual courses or bootcamps online.
When it comes to online learning, what should I look for in a faculty?
Start by looking for instructors with a history of teaching online. How many years have they taught their subject fully or partially online? Are they responsive to emails and messages through platforms such as Blackboard? If you’re unsure, ask past students about their experience with the online instructor. How were their communication skills? Did they convey the material well? Look for online reviews, too.
Do online students receive the same support as campus students?
Absolutely. Online learning is the new normal. In fall 2020, an estimated 75 percent of undergraduate students enrolled in at least one online course. Academically and financially, there should be no difference in resources and support for online students. If you’re taking online classes, you may find it tougher to access resources typically considered “campus-based”. However, many colleges now offer online versions of things such as counseling and career placement that should be equally as helpful.
Today’s Best Online Colleges
Thousands of colleges and universities across the U.S. offer regionally accredited partially and fully online programs in hundreds of different subjects. Many of these schools go above and beyond to make sure you get the education you need at an affordable price. Many also help you find rewarding career opportunities, build networks, and even pay off your debt (if you have any) when you leave. But which of these online colleges and universities stand out above their peers? Which excel when it comes to academics, affordability, and student support?
Read OnlineColleges.me’s list of this year’s Best Online Colleges & Universities.Best Online Colleges & Universities
Find Online Colleges Near You
As an online student, you can enroll in just about any college or university you want, regardless of location. However, you have blended programs, college communities, and on-campus resources you need to consider, as well. That’s why many online students choose online programs and courses at schools with a campus nearby. Yes, they can learn online, but they also have the option to visit a physical office or classroom if needed.
Paying for Your Online Degree
Paying for college may feel stressful, especially if you have bills outside of higher education. The good news is, you have a wide range of traditional and non-traditional means to pay that online program tuition, most of which are as easy as applying. To learn more about funding your online degree, check out our expert guide on financial aid for online colleges, as well as our detailed scholarship resources and support page.
Key Resources for Online Students
If you’re an online student — or thinking about becoming an online student — you might need a hand. It could be right now, later today, tomorrow, or next year as you’re applying for a new online grad program. To help online students of all types, we’ve built dozens of no-cost resources and made them available to anyone who needs them. Our resources cover everything from financial aid and scholarships to finding free tech tools and beating back stress.
Get all the help and online resources you need from OnlineColleges.me.