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An Introduction to Online Higher Education

Suzanne Shaffer


According to a 2018 study, the growth of online enrollments in the United States has increased for the fourteenth consecutive year. At the same time, the number of students exclusively taking face-to-face classes at a physical campus has been dropping.

In 2016, there were over six million students in the U.S. who enrolled in at least one online course, and the proportion of students enrolled in at least one online course has risen by over 30 percent. It’s estimated that over 50 percent of American four-year colleges and universities offer one or more fully online degree programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.

Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, said, “A high quality degree earned in an online format should not fundamentally differ from a campus-based degree. The only significant difference should be the way that the classes are delivered.”

Types of Online Programs

Online education can be delivered in a number of ways. Colleges will offer distance learning using one of these methods, or a combination of them:

  • 100% Online Education – These degrees are earned completely online and do not require any time spent in physical classrooms at a college or university campus.
  • Hybrid Education – Students learn using a combination of online instruction and traditional on-campus courses.
  • Online courses – These may be part of a degree program, but can also be taken on their own to master a subject or specific skill or to earn a certification.
  • MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses are usually delivered in lecture form to online classrooms with as many as 10,000 people.

It’s clear that colleges have recognized the need  to provide education for a growing demographic of students: online learners.

Southern New Hampshire University, for instance, is a private, non-profit university with an 80-year history of providing a quality education. In 1995, they launched their internet-based distance learning program (SNHU Online). Their online degree programs now enroll more than 135,000 students. A 300-acre campus in New Hampshire offers a traditional education to 3,000+ students.

The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976 with the goal of providing working adults with an opportunity to pursue higher education, was for a long time the best known 100% online education program (in no small part thanks to a massive and ongoing marketing campaign). Enrollment has declined sharply in recent years as UoPx navigated legal troubles that resulted in a $191 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. UoPx is still in business, though, offering associate, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees along with a variety of certificate programs.

Today's top-ranked online programs tend to be located at public and private institutions renowned for their in-person learning and research like Ohio State, University of Southern California, Clemson, Indiana University and others.

To find out more about the best online programs and degrees by subject area, including rankings by state, explore the resources on Study.com.

For-Profit vs. Non-Profit

Online programs are also available from many different types of institutions of higher learning. Colleges and universities can be public (run by the states) or private. They also are categorized as either for-profit or not-for-profit/non-profit.

For-profit institutions

For-profit universities are privately operated. Their purpose is to make a profit for their shareholders; however, their business is to provide a flexible, quality education while maintaining a positive ranking to attract new students.

In the past, for-profit institutions have been criticized for using questionable recruitment practices and for saddling their students with disproportionately high amounts of student debt (most financial aid from for-profit colleges comes in the form of student loans).

Many non-profit institutions won't accept credits earned at for-profit colleges, so students planning to transfer from one to the other should double check the policies.

Non-profit institutions

A non-profit college or university’s purpose is to provide a quality education that leads to career success. Most schools that we think of as offering a "traditional" residential, four-year college experience are non-profits. They can be public or private and, like other non-profit organizations, are managed by a board of trustees or regents.

Non-profit institutions receive funding from tuition and fees, state and federal governments, and contributions from alumni and other donors. They offer a range of need-based financial aid and merit aid, including college grants and scholarships, federal work study, and student loans.

Comparing tuition and fees: For-profit programs charged full-time students an average of $14,600 for the 2018–2019 school year, according to data from the College Board. That's compared with $3,630 at two-year public colleges for full-time in-state students and $10,210 at four-year public colleges for in-state residents.

The Importance of Accreditation

Accreditation is important because it holds a college or university (online or otherwise) to a measurable standard. When a school is accredited, it is granted credit or recognition by a supervisory body that makes sure the school maintains a suitable standard of education. Accreditation is granted at the regional or national level by both non-governmental and governmental agencies. These agencies are private educational associations, which develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations.

Accreditation is not mandatory, and all institutions with accreditation have volunteered to be evaluated. Hundreds of colleges offer online degrees, but not all are accredited. The U.S. Department of Education oversees accreditation agencies and authorizes them to enforce national standards on its behalf.

If you are concerned about receiving a quality education and want the security of being monitored by the Department of Education, you should choose an accredited online university.

Years ago, an online degree was seen as a “lesser” accomplishment. That's no longer the case. In many cases, employers don't differentiate between the traditional degree or the degree awarded online. Graduates of accredited online universities are eligible for the same opportunities and salaries as those who chose a traditional residential program.

“There is a tsunami coming,” says Stanford University president John Hennessey, discussing the future of online education. “The ground is shifting under us in higher education,” echoes Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin system.

The public health crisis of 2020's disruptive impact on higher education is just one more reason that online education will continue to increase its reach, diversify its offerings and attract more and more students.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.
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