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Online learning has become an integral component of higher education, as is evident by the steady emergence and growth of online course offerings and online academic and professional degree programs. In most fields and disciplines, students can take advantage of a broad range of online learning opportunities, from individual online courses to fully online undergraduate, certificate, and graduate programs. However, choosing from among the many options for advancing one’s academic and career goals through an online program can be a challenge.

OnlineEducation.com researches and classifies online programs, tracks technological and pedagogical innovations in online instruction, interviews experts in the field, and publishes comprehensive, up-to-date information on various types of online degrees and programs. The site is designed to provide students with a definitive and expansive guide to online learning, to function as a practical resource for those who may be considering online educational opportunities, and to reduce the challenges inherent in choosing from among the growing number and types of online programs.

Note: All programs listed on the site are offered by accredited, non-profit colleges and universities. Programs offered by schools that lack proper accreditation and programs offered by for-profit colleges and universities are not included. In addition, programs on the site must offer all or most of their instruction online. See below to learn more about online vs. hybrid programs.

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The Evolution of Online Learning and Online Academic Programs

Online education is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots in distance education and the emergence of digital technologies that facilitate the efficient and reliable delivery of lectures, virtual classroom sessions, and other instructional materials and activities via the Internet. Advances in online learning management systems (LMSs) and instructional platforms, combined with persistent demand for affordable, high-quality education that is accessible to students who cannot or would prefer not to relocate or commute to a college campus, have positioned online instruction as a thriving and viable alternative to traditional campus-based instruction.

As a result, online learning, online courses, and online degree programs are an increasingly common feature in the realm of higher education. Most large public and private universities now offer online courses and many have fully or partially online undergraduate and/or graduate programs. In addition, a growing number of smaller colleges and universities have incorporated online learning options and are developing online courses and degree programs to enhance existing academic programs and to extend their reach to non-traditional students.

Tracking the Growth of Online Courses and Degree Programs

Recent findings, including a 2017 Brookings Institution report on the state of online education, suggest that a third of all students in the US will take at least one online course while in college. Data collected by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics for its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) indicates that enrollment in online courses and degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels has been increasing steadily since 2013, when the overall number of students engaged in some type of online learning was roughly 5.3 million. As of the most recent available data, that number had risen to over 6.7 million, an increase from roughly one quarter to almost one third of all students.

The table below further illustrates the growth of online learning and the steady increase in online course and degree program enrollment over a five-year period, from 2013-2017. While the total number of students enrolled in college and university programs has remained relatively stable at roughly 20.5 million, an analysis of IPEDS data indicates that the number of students enrolled in online courses and in fully online programs grew by more than 1.4 million, from nearly 26 percent to almost 33 percent of all students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Enrollment in Online Courses and Programs by Year (Undergraduate and Graduate)

Data Set20132014201520162017
Total student enrollment20,537,90720,721,42720,618,79920,529,08820,414,705
Students enrolled exclusive or partially in online courses5,283,4965,728,9706,004,8846,376,0916,725,139
Percent of students enrolled exclusively or partially in online courses25.73%27.65%29.12%31.06%32.94%

In practical terms, the data suggest that students currently enrolled in a college or university program and those who are considering a bachelor’s or graduate degree program are likely to have opportunities to take online courses, as well as options for pursuing a degree through a fully or partially online program. At the undergraduate level, for example, an analysis of the IPEDS data reveals that the proportion of undergraduates enrolled exclusively in online courses had reached 12.98 percent by 2017 (up from 10.19 percent in 2013). Over that same period of time, the percentage of students enrolled in at least one online course rose from 12.57 percent to over 27 percent or more than one in four students.

Similarly, professionals with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree who are considering going back to school to add new skills, advance in their current field, and/or switch careers can typically do so from their home or office through online courses and degree programs in many if not most areas of study. As an indication of that trend, the number of graduate students who completed some or all of their courses online grew from just under 30 percent to 37.95 percent from 2013 to 2017. Within that data, the segment of graduate students who completed their degree exclusively online went from 22% to nearly 29% over that same period.

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Choosing an Online Degree Program

OnlineEducation.com aims to equip current and aspiring students with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions about online degree programs. Appling to and potentially enrolling in an online or a campus-based undergraduate or graduate program involves making important and consequential decisions that can have short- and long-term implications financially, personally, and professionally. There are many factors to consider, some of which may be unique to online learning while others are not. Addressing these factors in order to simplify the decision-making process for those interested in pursing an online degree program is one of the primary goals of this site.

Among the relevant variables and differentiating factors that are important to consider when choosing an online program are issues related to instructional methods, enrollment options, and program structure. Understanding the importance of accreditation and state authorizations can also be helpful for reasons detailed in the sections below.

Online Instructional Methods and Technological Requirements

Online programs use digital platforms to stream lectures and deliver course materials via the Internet, which means that students must have the proper technology to engage in online learning and complete online coursework. Technology requirements vary by program, but a secure Internet connection and a functional laptop or desktop computer is generally adequate. Some programs may also utilize mobile apps, which can be advantageous for students who commute to work and like to study on the go.

However, students should be aware that there are two different modes of delivery of online courses: synchronous and asynchronous instruction. The instructional method determines whether or not students must be logged on to a program’s LMS at specific times for lectures and other class activities. Synchronous instruction takes place in real-time, so programs and courses that utilize this mode of instruction have scheduled meeting times for classes. In contrast, asynchronous instruction does not have a real-time component and allows students to access pre-recorded lectures and presentations at their convenience, 24-7.

Synchronous instruction provides more structure as it more closely resembles traditional classroom instruction, but also provides less scheduling flexibility. In contrast, asynchronous instruction offers more scheduling flexibility, but requires more self-discipline and self-motivation to keep up with lectures and assignments. Students should choose a program that offers the type of instruction method they think will best fit their own personal learning style.

Enrollment Options

Online programs are generally designed to accommodate students who have work or other commitments outside of school. However, enrollment policies vary by program, which can be an important consideration when choosing an online program. For example, some programs have fixed full-time and/or part-time tracks and course sequences, which determine the number of courses students are expected to complete per term and the order in which all or most of those courses must be completed. Other programs have flexible enrollment policies, allowing students the freedom to select the number of courses they take per term within certain limits.

Full-time enrollment allows students to complete their degree in less time, but requires taking more courses per term. Part-time enrollment allows students to take fewer courses per term, but students take longer to earn their degree. Students should carefully review their personal and professional obligations to determine if they have the time to pursue a program full-time or if part-time would be a better option.

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Academic Calendar

The traditional academic calendar begins in the fall and encompasses two 15-week semesters (fall and spring) and, in some cases, a shorter summer session. Some online programs adhere to this schedule, offering courses two or three time per year and giving students the option of several annual start dates. There are also programs that operate on a quarterly system, offering four ten-week terms per year.

However, there a many online degree programs that utilize alternative academic calendars, offering courses five, six, or more times per year during shorter terms that last four, five, six, or eight weeks. These programs may have more start dates and they typically allow students to take just one or two courses per term without significantly extending the time it takes to earn a degree.

While the overall time to completion is typically the same for programs that use traditional versus alternative academic calendars, the student experience can be different. In a master’s program that uses a traditional calendar, full-time students often take three courses over a 15-week semester, which means they must complete readings and assignments for three courses concurrently. Programs that use five-week terms compress 15-weeks of learning into five weeks, allowing students to focus on one course at a time while completing three courses sequentially in the span of a traditional 15-week semester.

While the overall completion time does not change, the number of hours a student should expect to devote to classes and coursework per week also does not change based on the format, as it is more dependent on full-time versus part-time enrollment. For example, students who are working full-time may prefer part-time enrollment where they take one or two courses per 15-week period, which can reduce the number of hours required for schoolwork per week. Whereas programs that use 5-week terms, where students take one course per term, do not really have full-time versus part-time enrollment options. Students should expect a full-time course load every term. For students who enroll full-time, the difference is probably not as significant.

Institution and Programmatic Accreditation

Institutional accreditation, which is administered by seven regional boards, is a relevant consideration for any type of degree program. It serves as an assurance that the school offering the program meets or exceeds general standards for quality and integrity in the field of higher education.

Selecting an online program offered by a regionally accredited college or university is a reliable way to ensure that the school offering the program has undergone formal institutional assessment and has demonstrated that it possesses the resources deemed necessary to properly administer undergraduate and/or graduate degree programs. Institutional accreditation can also be helpful for students who need to transfer credits from one program to another, as schools are generally more likely to accept credits earned in programs offered by accredited institutions. Finally, the federal government and some state agencies may require schools to be accredited in order for students to receive certain types financial aid and loans.

In addition to institutional accreditation, some types of degree programs may receive programmatic accreditation. Programmatic accreditation is administered and granted by national organizations in fields such as business, counseling, nursing, psychology, and social work. Selecting an online program that has programmatic accreditation can be advantageous in several ways. In fields that require licensure, programmatic accreditation may serve to assure students that a program’s curriculum provides adequate training for eventual licensure. It can also provide potential employers with assurance that graduates from that program are prepared for work in a particular field, and assure students that a program offers coursework and other types of training (clinical practicums, professional residencies, field education, and/or labs) designed to properly prepare graduates for a professional career in that field.

Learn More About Online Master's Programs by State

A series of state-by-state reports that provide an overview of accredited public and non-profit private colleges and universities offering online master’s degree programs in many of the most common fields and areas of graduate study, including business, computer science, education, engineering, healthcare, nursing, and social work.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Online Programs

One of the inherent advantages of online learning is that it allows students who do not live near a college or university to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree without having to relocate or commute to classes. It also gives applicants a broader range of potential options to explore for earning a degree in a particular field, which can be particularly helpful in cases where there are no local school offering a particular type of degree program. Many but not all online degree programs accept qualified applicants regardless of where they reside, and some programs charge the same tuition for in-state and out-of-state online students.

Note: While many programs charge the same tuition for in-state and out-of-state online students, there are programs that charge higher rates for students who are not residents of the state. Tuition differentials for in-state and out-of-state online students are more commonly found at public universities than at private schools, although this is not always the case. Students interested in out-of-state programs should research tuition costs to make sure they have the most up-to-date information before applying.

However, colleges and universities offering online degree programs typically must receive formal authorization from a state’s board of education in order to enroll students who live in that state. In other words, a school must be authorized by the state in order to enroll students from that state.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) is attempting to address problems related to online programs receiving authorization in all 50 states and other US territories. However, some online programs may choose not to accept applicants from certain states for a number of reasons, including the complexities of the state authorization process. Certain types of online degree programs, particularly programs that require field placements, supervised internships, and clinical residencies, may also restrict admissions eligibility to students who reside in some but not all states.

Potential applicants to online programs offered by out-of-state schools should research state authorizations carefully prior to submitting applications. For programs that require on-site, in-person field placements, internships, and/or residencies it is also advisable to contact a program administrator regarding these requirements prior to applying. Finally, because licensure requirements in many professions vary by state, potential applicants to out-of-state online programs in fields that require state licensure should make sure that a program’s curriculum provides adequate training for eventual licensure in their state.

Campus Residencies and Hybrid Programs

There are many online degree programs that do not require students to attend any on-campus sessions. However, some programs incorporate a limited number of campus visits and/or other in-person instructional sessions. There are also hybrid programs that offer some courses online and others on campus or have courses that utilize a mix of online and on-campus instruction. While there are no universal standards for what constitutes an online program versus a hybrid program, programs that require students to take entire courses on campus for one or more terms are generally considered to be hybrid programs. OnlineEducation.com researches program formats and classifies programs accordingly; programs that require student attendance at more than two or three campus sessions per year are not currently listed on the site.

In-person orientations, workshops, labs, networking sessions, and other campus-based activities can enhance the online learning experience. They provide opportunities to meet face-to-face with instructors and classmates and may help students forge a connection with the college or university offering the program. Additionally, hands-on training may be necessary or preferable in some fields. By utilizing a limited number of campus visits or a hybrid format, schools can offer students the convenience and flexibility associated with online instruction, while providing complementary and/or necessary in-person instruction.

However, campus visits, which can last from two or three days to a week to ten days, require travel, which may be inconvenient and/or burdensome for some students. In addition, attending campus-based sessions and short-term residencies can add travel and lodging expenses to the cost of earning an online degree. Potential applicants should factor these additional costs into the overall expense of an online program prior to submitting an application.

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