online college or regular college

Online education is more popular than ever. However, prospective college students may find themselves torn between online colleges and traditional colleges. They may wonder what the differences are between these two types of institutions. Though online education and traditional education have many similarities, there are also a number of differences that could heavily influence the choice being made. Prospective students and their parents should read on to learn the precise differences between online and traditional learning.

Physical Presence vs. Virtual Learning

The primary difference between online colleges and traditional colleges is the setting. Traditional colleges are face-to-face environments. Students enter a physical classroom that is led by an instructor. They have peers with whom they can develop real-world relationships. Most traditional colleges have on-campus housing so undergraduates can grow more independent while still living in a safe environment. These traditional campuses almost always offer sports, clubs and other student activities that provide a sense of community.

Students who choose education through an online college access material and lectures through an internet website. They may live anywhere they wish because the classes are all virtual. All communication with professors takes place through video conferences, chat and email. Students might meet classmates through message boards or online study groups, but they have no real-world interaction. Enrolling in an online college gives student the opportunity to study from the comfort and privacy of their own home, which makes it a good learning format for older students who may already have families. It is also a good option for students who cannot afford on-campus living or who prefer to continue living in their parents’ homes.

Some colleges and universities combine the online learning format with traditional classes. These schools give students the option of mixing some in-person classes with online college courses. This provides students with the best of both worlds. They might be able to take classes from familiar locations while also having access to physical libraries, study sessions and counselors. They might be able to meet professors in person to discuss classwork while also being able to have the flexibility afforded through an online college class.

Scheduling Classes with Flexibility

online college or regular college
Some students prefer online college over traditional college due to the flexibility in scheduling. Students do not have to be in physical classrooms at particular times. In most instances, online classes can be taken around a student’s busy schedule.

It should be noted that there are some online universities that have course offerings at particular times. Attendance is kept and may even be part of the final grade. However, this is more the exception than the rule.

Because online classes offer such a high degree of flexibility, students may be able to finish their degrees more quickly or only take the classes that they need to finish an incomplete degree. This is yet another reason that students who have families or full-time jobs tend to prefer online college to traditional education. Busy parents can take classes, do homework and complete tests around their children’s schedules. Those with full-time jobs can take classes during downtime or on breaks.

Businesses may offer tuition assistance to students who take online classes. They might even allow their employees to use a portion of the work day to complete their classes if they apply to the job at hand. This type of flexibility is rarely found on traditional campuses.

Types of Curriculum

Online colleges and traditional colleges generally have the same or similar curriculum. Most degrees that are found through traditional learning are available online and vice versa. The difference sometimes is found within each course.

Institutions that solely focus on online learning may not have the same rigorous academic requirements as traditional universities. Online classes must balance the ability to reach students through a non-traditional format with the information that must be conveyed. Conversely, it can be argued that some online institutions have even more content than in-person classes because the online format allows for as much information as is desired. A student who is considering online learning should note these factors and look into the different institutions and their course content.

A college or university that offers both online and in-seat classes will generally use the same syllabus for classes regardless of their format. This can be ideal for students who want to insure that are receiving the best education.

Location, Location, Location

online college or regular college
First-time students may have a desire to get away from home and experience some independence. A traditional university gives these students the opportunity to live in a safe area with peers. They can easily justify the move across state or across country when it is part of the college experience.

Some might argue that online learning offers even more ability to travel to a given location. The online model allows students to live anywhere they choose. However, they may encounter some difficulty moving away from home without a residence hall as their ultimate destination. Most, if not all, apartment complexes require a significant down payment from younger renters. They often require a parent to sign any lease agreements. They may even choose not to rent if the renter is very young, has no credit history and can’t display an adequate income.

Another issue with moving into an apartment rather than a residence hall is the adult me responsibilities that come with a first-time home. Dorm-dwellers can rely upon maintenance staff to fix any issues that might arise. They have a cafeteria nearby and a meal plan that guarantees food is always accessible. They also have built-in caretakers in the form of upperclassmen who serve as residence hall advisors. Those who live in apartments must manage all issues as they arise, do their own grocery shopping and ensure their own safety. While these are necessary life skills, it may be too much for a freshman who has previously only known life living under their parents’ roof.

Resources and Supplemental Learning

A traditional college campus has a library, study center, counselors and computer labs that are useful for those people who want to gain the most knowledge from their classes. The physical environment allows students to find the help they need from peers and professionals who are dedicated to helping students. These physical support tools are not available through online colleges.

Online universities supplement learning in different ways. Most offer message board systems and social media groups that students can use to study together. They may even provide the ability for students in the same location to meet face-to-face. Most online universities have their own digital libraries that have all of the materials that can be found in a physical library and then some. Many even have counselors and tutors who can be accessed through text and emails.

Tuition and Financial Aid

It is a sad but true fact: Cost is often the deciding factor in college selection. Online colleges are generally less expensive because there are fewer fees, no travel costs and no room and board. Younger students can continue to live with their parents rent-free. They will not be expected to pay for meal plans or activities passes. There are also fewer supplemental expenses. With no class to go to, students will spend less on trips through Starbucks and new clothes.

Traditional college is almost always more expensive than online college. The tuition rate per credit hour might be the same or even less, but adding the many fees and housing costs, if applicable, can make a traditional college cost twice as much as online.

Another factor to consider is aid. Few online colleges offer institutional scholarships. Many will accept outside scholarships, but without a merit- or need-based institutional scholarship, students will be paying for the majority of their education out of pocket.

Traditional colleges, both public and private, generally offer some sort of institutional scholarship. Public universities may have automatic scholarships that are offered based off of need, merit or a combination of the two. In addition, public and private traditional schools offer athletic scholarships and awards based on other extra-curricular activities like band, theatre or choir. These types of scholarships are not available through online-only campuses.

Whether choosing online college or regular college, both should have dedicated staff to help with financial aid. Any accredited institution should accept federal and state grants. They should also accept any type of student loan, but these need to be a last resort. Students loans, unlike grants and scholarships, must be paid back with interest. The accrual of tens of thousands of dollars in debt is not an ideal way to start adulthood.

High-Flex Learning

online college or regular college
Schools have begun to offer a high-flex model to give students the utmost choice in their educational goals. The idea behind high-flex (something referred to as HyFlex) is a simple one. Each course is offered through the traditional, in-seat classroom. While the class is in session, it is broadcast through the web and recorded for access at a later time. Professors hold office hours that can be accessed either in-person or virtually to answer questions. Students can decide on a daily basis whether they prefer to be in seat or attend class from their home.

High-Flex offers the best of both traditional and online learning. Students have the benefit of a brick-and-mortar classroom with the ease of virtual education. However, this model is still in its infancy. Students who choose to go this route are sometimes frustrated by poor technology or the awkwardness of being the only student to physically attend class that day.

A benefit of high-flex is that students can use traditional scholarships while still attending classes on a virtual basis. It also allows students to get together with their peers with ease.

The College Experience

Part of the college experience takes place outside of the classroom. Sporting events, school spirit, on-campus concerts, Greek life and parties are all possible with online colleges, but they are also unlikely. Students who want to have this experience should turn toward a traditional campus.

On the contrary, there are many students who would happily forego the parties and football games in exchange for a top-notch education that works around their schedule. For these students, online college is the way to go.

Considering Reputation

A college education is about expanding one’s mind. The growth that a student experiences is far more important than any financial gain that can come from future careers. Still, a student needs to know that they are attractive to future employers once they complete their education.

Some employers are only concerned that prospective employees have degrees and put little weight into where that degree was obtained. Other employers, especially those in high-profile areas or who have a large number of applicants, may closely eye the college or university.

Whether it is fair or not, online learning does not always have the best reputation. This is because there have historically been far too many for-profit institutions that have sold degrees with no concern about the quality of the education.

Studies have shown that employers pay close attention to online degrees. First, they need to know that the online campus is accredited. An accreditation proves that the school has gone through a rigorous process to prove that they education they supply upholds the standards set forth by an accrediting board. Any online campus that is not accredited should be reconsidered even if the student is not planning to use that education to improve career options.

Employers also consider whether the online institution is an established brand. New colleges and universities may not have the academic standards that are needed for a quality employee. Last, they want to know if the online college has a physical location. Virtual universities that also have physical campuses are known to be more reputable than those that are based completely online.

Reputation is also important for traditional campuses. Some physical campuses are known to be non-accredited and/or for-profit. Just because a college or university has a physical location doesn’t mean it is automatically better than an online campus.


Are you still trying to determine whether to attend a traditional or online college? Make note of all of these differences, but also consider your own needs. You might want to attend an online campus for its flexibility but also have difficulty finding the program you want. You may prefer a traditional college but need the convenience of online learning.

You should keep in mind that not every learning method is right for every person. While an online campus might be the ideal fit for one person, another might need the in-person guidance provided through a traditional college.

Now that you have an answer to the question “What is the difference between an online and traditional college?,” you can make the decision about whether online college or regular college is right for you.

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