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Can Online Higher Education Replace Traditional College?

Online education is becoming more easily accessible in our modern society. Given the widespread acceptance and access to the internet and the increasing use of computer-based learning in primary and secondary schools, it's not surprising that online learning is gaining acceptance. But will online higher education ever really replace traditional college?

Comparative Costs

In many ways, it seems less expensive to run an online college. After all, physical structures are expensive to maintain, and most college campuses contain not just educational structures but office buildings, and student living. Just keeping all those buildings heated, cooled, and properly maintained can cost a fortune, and these costs are difficult for a university to control. Traditional colleges must also pay appropriate salaries to both teachers and staff; they usually offer tuition grants and reductions for certain students.

And online university can operate very differently. Their infrastructure costs may still be high, but will be more intensely IT focused; they need reliable ways for staff and students to communicate, and they need to be able to appropriately protect student information according to federal laws. If they are a for-profit institution, they may not offer any kind of aid to students, allowing them to receive the full tuition paid by each student.

Accessibility Benefits

There are many reasons students may struggle to attend a traditional university. Learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and other medical conditions can make it difficult to attend a physical classroom. Scheduling conflicts, being a caregiver for a family member, and other jobs can make it hard for a potential student to make room for classes every week at a scheduled time. Traditional universities may be less tolerant of someone who can only take one or two classes a semester.

Online institutions are often a better choice for someone who is struggling to fit school into the rest of their life. Many adult students want to get a degree in order to improve their financial situation. For example, a registered nurse might want to get a Bachelor's of Science degree in nursing. This advanced online RN to BSN degree can greatly open up the job possibilities open to them. But fitting in classes around the hectic and often shifting work schedules for nurses can be very difficult.

Practical Skills

There are some skills which would be difficult or even impossible to learn entirely online. For a nursing degree, for example, clinical requirements are a crucial part of education; you can't learn nursing entirely from a book (or program). Many trade skills, such as plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry, require hands-on education.

But even in these areas, much of the theoretical work – how plumbing is assembled, what pipes might be best for which situations, and what certain issues look like – could be obtained from an online course before a practical apprenticeship took place. This would also help tradespeople have a better background when they go into on-the-job learning.

Perception Bias

Unfortunately, a series of for-profit online universities which tend to advertise on late night TV have biased many people against online education. Students do need to be careful which college they choose to attend, especially given the cost of higher education. They should look for accreditations that matter to federal agencies and to their own fields. When possible, they should speak to other students who have attended the program. Learn from their experiences and whether they felt the education they received was worth what they paid for it.

Many online programs are an offshoot of courses offered on the college's physical campus. In these situations, students should ask if there will be a differentiation offered on their degree, or if they will simply be considered a graduate of such-and-such university.

So will online colleges ever replace traditional institutions of higher learning? It seems likely, unless the perception of what a college looks like changes in the minds of Americans. Traditional universities must maintain several expensive buildings, housing for hundreds or thousands of students, and continually keep up with the difference between what college affords and what students can pay. We are already seeing those pressures starting to dramatically change how these schools work. More and more students are turning to online learning both because they are familiar with it and because it fits with a tight economy that requires them to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

It benefits traditional universities, online universities, and students themselves to work together to make sure the transitions into online learning environments are controlled and meet the needs of both students and schools. If the transition is inevitable, then making sure it happens in the most effective way possible is ideal.