Four-year universities are the gold standard for higher education in the U.S., but for many students , the cost and commitment is unbearable.
Community college is another popular path for high school graduates, but with the growth of distance education programs, earning a four-year degree online is also a viable option.
Less than 10 percent of the undergraduates at Pennsylvania State University–World Campus, ranked the No. 1 online bachelor’s program, are traditional students who enrolled after graduating from high school, says Karen Pollack, director of undergraduate programs for the school.
High school counselors don’t have the same relationship with and training on online degree programs as they do with community colleges and universities, says Sylvia Womack, a college and career specialist at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California. As a result, high school counselors are less likely to know enough about degree programs to confidently suggest them to students who are looking for college options outside of the traditional structure. Teens are also less likely to ask about the programs, she says.
Most online education degree programs are advertised to older students. But even if information about online programs was more accessible, online education isn’t the ideal solution for most teens, experts say.
Learn how to [decipher the true cost of your online degree. ]
“In general, I think most students want to get the full college experience. It’s not just a matter of going and getting a degree and starting a job, or starting their career in that major,” Womack says.
“They want to get away from home, they want to be able to get away from their parents and experience something new out of their neighborhood, out of their area,” she says.
Many online programs try to bridge the gap but it’s not the same as the campus experience.
“The best online schools allow for a lot of interaction with other students through online forums, emails and sometimes if you’re working collaboratively on projects over the phone, but it doesn’t allow you to get to know other students and really share ideas informally whether it’s going out to lunch or just hanging out on different parts of the college,” says Lavie Margolin, a career coach based in New York City. “That can be harder to allow the student to fully develop if they’re not partaking in that.”
Still, some teens may excel in an online environment. An online degree can be a great option for disciplined students who can’t physically attend an institution because of location, family commitments or work. It can also be a good option for teens who want to continue their education but don’t want to spend more time in a classroom, experts say.
“More so than a particular age or demographic, we’re geared toward a learner who is disciplined and who is highly self motivated, a learner who is maybe juggling multiple responsibilities, which could include job and family,” says Penn State’s Pollack. “I think for any student in those circumstances online is an excellent option because of the flexibility that it affords the student.”
Since discipline is a major factor for success, a full online degree program probably isn’t the best option for teens who struggled academically in high school, she says.
Avoid these [time management mistakes as an online student.]
Students should also consider their career aspirations as they think about degree programs. Employers have mixed opinions about the value of online degrees. Some job recruiters say candidates with an online degree wouldn’t make it in the door. Others say certain career fields, like technology, may be more open to someone with an online degree. However, experts recommend pursing an online degree at an accredited program that also has a traditional campus.
“Colleges and universities that have been around a long time , they’ve had a chance to build up their reputation, their trust in the job market,” Margolin says.
Job recruiters are more comfortable hiring from schools with good reputations, he says.
“If somebody asked, they can always say they did the online program but when you’re producing your degree, or listing it on your resume or filling out a job application, there’s never a portion that asks, ‘Did you do this online or in person?'” says Margolin. “You’re benefiting from the whole college community.”
Find out [if your online program is legit. ]
Blended education programs, where students take both online and traditional classes, could be an option for teens who need the flexibility of an online program, but also want to get some of the experience of being on campus, experts say.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for which type of institution a student should attend. But students who do choose to do an online degree program need to spend adequate time researching degree programs, accreditation, employment and school reputation to make sure they find the right fit, experts say.
“For most traditional-aged students, an online degree is not going to be their first choice, but it may be their best choice given their circumstances,” Penn State’s Pollack says.
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