Online College vs. Traditional College

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Times are changing when it comes to choosing a college. While it used to be the norm for students to graduate high school and immediately enroll in a traditional public or private college, the trends are shifting to meet the needs of adult students. Here we will cover the pros and cons of online college vs. traditional college.

Online College vs. Traditional College

Now more than ever, high school graduates are immediately entering the workforce and adult students are returning to school in order to earn a degree to enhance their current job prospects or make a complete career change.

With a large section of a college’s student body now juggling obligations from career and family along with earning a degree, many schools are offering online degree programs that prepare students for a wide variety of occupational fields.

Why are more students deciding to earn their degree online?

A students who's now taking his college degree online

With top-notch schools, it’s easy to see why more students are opting for the convenience of an online degree.

Instead of taking 16 weeks to finish a semester, you can earn your college credits in about one-third of the time — from an accredited, well-known university with excellent faculty, student services, and a vibrant, active alumni community.

What is an online college?

The term online college may give the impression of a virtual university existing only in cyberspace – but this is rarely the case. While there are a select number of reputable universities that offer classes exclusively online, most of the online degree programs that you see are virtual extensions of high-quality, traditional campus colleges and universities.

Most popular online degrees:

With the changing trends of the student body population and new technology that makes online learning more effective, many of the nation’s top-ranked universities are offering online degree programs to supplement their traditional on-campus offerings.

With a variety of courses available and the flexibility of logging on to your classes anytime and anywhere, it’s no wonder that online degrees are becoming a popular choice for students across the country!

If you are one of the nearly 6 million students interested in taking online classes instead of commuting to campus, then chances are that you have a lot of questions about how to get started!

Below, we will answer some of the most common questions that we receive about the differences between online and traditional degree programs to help you get started in taking the next step in your educational journey.

Are there any traditional colleges with online degree programs?

Group of students in a traditional college setting

Yes! Online degree programs are offered through both online colleges and traditional colleges.

Many traditional colleges – that is, colleges that have an established, brick-and-mortar campus – offer online programs as an extension of their existing educational programs. For example, well-known traditional schools help you finish your online degree faster — and you get to do it without cutting any corners.

Are online colleges reputable?

A major concern for students looking into online education is determining whether their degree will be reputable. This is a valid concern, and doing your research beforehand will help ensure that the university you choose has recognized degree programs that hold the same esteem as traditional, on-campus universities.

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a reputable online college is the accreditation of the university.

What is the difference between traditional college vs. online learning?

Man taking an online college degree

The obvious answer is where the learning takes place, but there are many other important differences between traditional college and online learning.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Online College Advantages:

  • Flexible schedule
  • No need to commute
  • You do not have to sit in class
  • Work at your own pace
  • Convenient / Don’t have to worry about obstacles like illnesses, childcare, work schedule, etc.
  • Connect with students worldwide

Online College Disadvantages:

  • Must be self-motivated, self-disciplined, organized
  • Must have required technology and ability to use it
  • Not all majors are available online (medicine, registered nursing, etc.)
  • Interaction with professors and classmates is online, not in person (usually)

Traditional College Advantages:

  • Structured schedule
  • Face-to-face interaction with professors and classmates
  • Quick individual feedback
  • Reminders about assignments, exams, etc.
  • Access to facilities like libraries, health center, computer lab, fitness center, etc.

Traditional College Disadvantages:

  • Schedule is not flexible
  • Difficult to travel
  • Commute, Parking
  • Added costs: textbooks, facilities fees

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both. Neither is a one-size-fits-all option. You will have to figure out which format works best for you, fits within your lifestyle, and will help you achieve your goals.

What are the major differences between traditional colleges and online colleges?

professor & students in a traditional college classroom setting

There are dozens of notable differences between traditional colleges and online colleges, but the three that are most important are: flexibility, interaction, and motivation.


Students who attend traditional on-campus classes must commute to school, park, and get to class at a specific time. They have to be in town and on campus regularly. Their schedules are fairly strict.

Online students, on the other hand, have more flexibility. Though there are expectations and deadlines, students can generally complete their work at their own convenience, whenever and wherever they wish. They can work class time around family obligations, a job, or travel.


At a traditional college, you will have opportunities to interact with peers both academically and socially. You may get together to work on a group project or study for an exam, or to play racquetball on the weekend. In the classroom, you will have opportunities to speak directly with your professor by engaging in conversation or asking and answering questions.

In an online setting, the level of interaction varies. Most online courses involve the use of online forums, where you will interact with classmates – and sometimes professors, too – through virtual conversations. You may be required to contribute (post) regularly. For those who live near the campus, there may be additional opportunities to attend guest lecturers or social events for online students.


The structured schedule of traditional college keeps students on track. You have regular interaction with your professors and are often reminded about upcoming due dates or exams. All of this can be very helpful if you tend to forget or procrastinate.

Online learning requires a lot more self-discipline. You will be responsible for remembering to log-in, to read and contribute to discussion forums, and to complete assignments on time. You will need to make your education a priority and manage your time accordingly in order to be successful in online classes. Some students find this overwhelming.

There are many other differences between traditional college and online learning, but these three are the most significant. Be sure you understand these before making a decision about which learning format is best for you.

What is accreditation and why is it so important?

University offering both online and traditional college degrees

Accreditation refers to the voluntary review process that a university undergoes to ensure that their curriculum is up to high-quality standards. It is essential that you examine the accreditation of the online college degree program that you are considering before enrolling. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes several regional accreditation agencies, but there are many more national agencies that include:

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes several regional accreditation agencies (the most respected accreditation type), but there are other national agencies that include:

  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission

By choosing an accredited college, you have a much higher chance of avoiding degree mill schools that are not recognized in the professional world. Additionally, if you want to move on to graduate school or enter into a career that requires licensing, having a degree from an accredited college is often a necessity.

What degrees are offered online?

While there are many different degrees offered online, not all programs lend themselves to distance learning.

For example, if you are interested in the medical field, there are several online degree programs available for medical assisting, billing and coding, or transcription that can help you get a jump-start on a new career. However, if you are interested in becoming a nurse or doctor, that type of degree can only be achieved through in-person classes in order to learn the practical skills needed to be successful in the workplace.

Accredited degrees offered online:

If you are interested in a field of study that requires labs, residencies, or on-site practicums, you will likely need to attend a traditional college in order to fulfill the requirements of the degree program.

What about tuition and financing?

Financial Aid or scholarship options for online colleges

The cost of going to college can be a major concern for students, and in many areas of the country, tuition costs are on the rise. While online education may be an option for lowering these costs, in many cases an online degree program has similar tuition to a traditional degree.

However, this all depends on your university!

Some colleges offer in-state tuition prices for students taking online classes, while others have e-tuition programs that help cut your costs.

Even if your college of choice doesn’t have a price break for online students, there are many other options to obtain financing, including:

  • Scholarships
  • State and federal grants
  • Employer tuition benefits
  • Student loans

With online degrees becoming more commonplace, it is getting easier than ever to obtain financing for these degree programs. In general, taking out student loans or applying for financial aid with the FASFA involves the same process, regardless of whether you are taking classes online or on-campus.

What is the difference in the cost of online college vs traditional college?

Man in a café, attending his online college class

While most reputable, accredited colleges charge the same basic tuition rate to online and traditional students, the overall cost to online students is sometimes lower.

Here’s why:

  1. Often universities will waive the out-of-state fees for online students. So, for example, if you live in Texas but attend a school in another state via an online degree program, you won’t have to pay the high non-resident / out-of-state tuition rates you would as a traditional student attending an out-of-state school.
  2. Online students don’t have as many additional fees. They usually don’t have to pay student service fees for campus facilities and don’t have any commute or parking costs to factor in. They may have technology fees, but these sometimes apply to traditional students as well.

Overall, the cost of attending college online is likely to be the same or less than attending a traditional college.

Traditional Colleges vs. Online Schools – Which are Better?

When it comes to the education you will receive, traditional colleges and online schools are equal.

Online and on-campus degree programs have the same course requirements.

The classes online are often taught by the same professors who teach them on campus, using the same syllabus. Students complete the same or very similar coursework – papers, projects, presentations, quizzes, and exams. And the degrees conferred at graduation are the same for online students as for traditional, on-campus students.

The only way a future employer would know whether you attended a traditional college or an online program is if you selected a school that operates exclusively online, such as the University of Phoenix. It is far more common, though, to earn your degree online through a well-established, traditional school that offers online programs.

Students enrolled in these online programs receive the same high-quality education and earn the same respected degree as those who attended on campus.

Can you get the social experience of college in an online setting?

Student attending virtual lecture with her classmates

When people think of college, they often think of the lifestyle and atmosphere as much as the educational journey. There’s no doubt that attending traditional college classes gives you the opportunity to personally interact with and meet a variety of people, but that doesn’t mean that socialization is impossible if you take classes online!

Although online students won’t find themselves hanging out in the college lobby between classes, they will have access to a variety of high-tech software options that let them connect with faculty and classmates. Many universities utilize discussion boards, virtual lectures, and nline woorkshops to help students connect with each other and get the most out of their college years.

Will my degree be different if I earn it through an online college?

This is a common question for those interested in earning their degree online, and the short answer is – no, the degree you earn online will have the same distinctions as one earned on-campus.

However, we would like to reiterate the importance of researching your intended college’s reputation and accreditation!

While your degree and transcript will not say online student, carefully choosing the right university is just as vital as when choosing a traditional college. Once you graduate and enter the workforce, a degree from a reputable college will go much further than one from a virtual degree mill school that has no professional credentials or accreditations.

Additionally, a regionally accredited university allows you to transfer your college credits to any college’s similar degree plan to help you continue pursuing your education!

How do online classes work?

Two students taking synchronous online classes

Online classes typically come in one of two different forms – synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous classes feel much like traditional college courses in that you will be required to show up for class at specific times throughout the week. Once logged in to your online class, you will likely listen to live virtual lectures from your professor or participate in online group discussions with your classmates. This can be an excellent option for students that need a little more structure within their online program to help them stay accountable.

In asynchronous classes, you have the ultimate flexibility to work at a pace that suits your lifestyle. This option is popular for students who have family or work obligations and may only be available at odd hours to complete coursework. In this type of online setting, you will also communicate with your classmates and professor through email, online schedules, discussion boards, and recorded lectures. As long as you turn your course work in by the required due dates, you may have the option with asynchronous classes to work ahead and complete the course at a faster pace than traditional students.

What are the benefits of online education?

Student who takes an online degree, sitting relaxed at home

There is a reason that online degrees have become so popular in the last several years, and the flexibility that they offer is a big draw for many students.

With the changing economy, some students find that it is necessary for them to hold down full-time jobs while attending college, and online degree programs make higher education more feasible. For other students, they may already be working in the professional world and are ready to enhance their skills to gain a promotion or find that they want to change the entire direction of their career with a new degree.

Online College vs. Traditional College

When comparing online colleges vs. traditional colleges, there are several benefits to attending college online — beyond the scheduling flexibility it offers:

  1. Opportunity to connect with a nationwide, diverse network of students and faculty
  2. The chance to attend virtual workshops and lectures from top experts in the field
  3. No need to commute long distances to attend school
  4. Online libraries and research resources to assist with course work
  5. Virtual mentoring and tutoring programs
  6. Options to take accelerated classes or work through the summer to earn your degree faster
  7. Opportunity to participate in your college’s on-site graduation ceremony

While on-campus classes have definite benefits as well, attending college online is a viable, reputable option for adult students looking to continue their education from the comfort of their own home.

How do I know if an online degree program is right for me?

Student checking options for online college programs

Online learning isn’t for everyone, and you have to be willing to take your education into your own hands in order to be successful. For students that are highly organized, motivated, and enjoy learning at their own pace, it can be an excellent option.

Traditional college classes tend to work better for students that prefer hands-on learning, or need the extra motivation of having scheduled classes to help keep them on track. It also provides the opportunity for young adults to experience life away from home if they choose to enroll in a college that offers residency options.

When it comes down to it, both accredited online colleges and traditional on-campus schools offer reputable options for students to earn a degree to reach their long-term career goals. With either option, it is essential that you are diligent about doing your research into the schools you are interested in to determine if its a good fit for your needs.

With hard work and dedication, your degree can set the stage for a fulfilling, lasting career – regardless of whether you attended classes in a lecture hall or from your living room couch!

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.