The Education Battle: Online or Traditional University?

Online education, also called e-learning or distance education, continues to grow as more universities worldwide add online courses and degree programs to their offerings. Credentialed online universities, many based at physical traditional universities, are equally as credible as their traditional counterparts. In addition, degrees earned through online programs are gaining acceptance more widely and are considered as equally valuable and respected as those earned at traditional universities.

One of the primary differences for students in online degree programs is that they don’t have to attend classes in brick-and-mortar schools, nor attend on specific days or at designated times. Instead, students typically have access to their learner portals, learning materials, and other necessities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition, many online programs have multiple start dates throughout the year, so learners can begin their studies whenever it’s convenient for them, rather than waiting for a new semester to begin.

Asian female student is working on laptop under lit bulb outdoor

Online students do enjoy a great amount of flexibility and convenience, but they must still submit assignments at designated times and complete courses and degree programs as dictated by the online university. Online students must have the discipline and time management skills to work at their own pace while also meeting the prescribed deadlines.

Because online students do not attend classes or live on campus, they have no commuting expenses nor room and board fees. These facts alone decrease the overall cost of an online degree program. Additionally, many online programs allow students to work at an accelerated pace, which decreases the amount of time it takes students to complete the programs and in turn, decreases the expense of their overall education.

Typical timelines for earning online degrees are as follows:

2-3 years for bachelor’s degrees
1 year/under 2 years for master’s degrees
5-8 years for doctoral degrees (varies widely depending on the type of degree)
Online university expenses vary somewhat depending on the institution’s geographical base in the world, but in general, expenses are typically lower than traditional school expenses, primarily due to the fact there are no room and board fees, or commuting or travel expenses. In general, one year for an online school could cost under USD$20,000, or a third to nearly half the cost of traditional private institutions.

One specific example to review for expenses is Northcentral University (NCU), with a primary campus in Arizona, USA. NCU offers fully online degree programs–from bachelor’s to doctorate degrees–with no residency requirements, and accepts international students. Their 2013 tuition costs per course for different degree levels are as follows (between 10 to 20 courses per degree program, from bachelor’s to doctorate degrees, with variations for specialty areas):

Bachelor’s degree: USD$1,250 per course.
Master’s degree: between about USD$1,630 to $3,000 per course, depending on specialty area (such as business, education, psychology).
Doctorate degree: between about USD$2,460 to $2,570 per course, depending on specialty area (such as business, education, psychology) and degree designation (PhD, EdD, EdS, DBA).

Traditional University – Expectations and Expenses

A debate exists about the survival of traditional schooling, with proponents of online education proclaiming a death knell to traditional universities within another decade or two. Whether or not that’s true is impossible to ascertain right now, so at this time, traditional universities around the world continue to offer high quality educational opportunities for residents and international students alike.

Traditional university degree programs typically operate on a semester basis, with structured start times, such as fall and spring semesters each year. Likewise, courses are available only at specific times on designated days, at designated times, in designated classrooms.

These timelines may be fine for some students who accept it as part of the normal process of obtaining a higher education. Other students may find it disruptive to their lifestyles and difficult to maintain all their varied responsibilities to school, work, and family.

Some students live locally near a university or commute within a reasonable distance from a university, while others from outside the region or international students must be residential students and live on campus. This drives up the cost of their education, because they must pay either transportation expenses or room and board.