In the pivot to face COVID-19, colleges and universities made sweeping changes to existing online learning programs. What might the future of higher education look like, and how do students harness it to make the most of online instruction?

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Following high school graduation, Shonda Simmons had signed up for a handful of courses at a local community college. A first-generation college student, the Chicago native struggled to balance coursework with a full-time job and caring for a developmentally disabled older brother.

An image of a woman working on a computer.
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"It was a lot for a teenager," Simmons recalls. "I was excited by my studies and the prospect of what a degree would mean for my future, but I was also at a place in life where sacrifices had to be made. I needed to work, and my brother needed help. College was a dream I had to press pause on."

Just two semesters into her program, Simmons withdrew to take on full-time work as an inside sales representative for a cruise line. When COVID-19 swept the globe in early 2020, instantly grinding the $55.5-billion U.S. cruise industry to a halt, Simmons revisited her college aspirations and was admitted to an online business program at Western Illinois University.

"By summer of 2020, the school's all-virtual offerings were really well done," she said. "To be able to complete an entire degree like this isn't what I envisioned as my college experience, but it turns out it's perfect for me as a busy adult."

Combining reduced tuition with broad time flexibility, online universities are growing exponentially. But as with their physical campus-based counterparts, research is key in finding the right—and officially recognized—online university fit.

Advantages of Online Learning

Even pre-pandemic, virtual college programs were exploding—an industry that Research and Markets previously predicted to reach $350 billion by 2025.

Nimble institutions like the University of Illinois have used technology to disrupt the graduate degree market, reducing faculty labor to scale programs to thousands of students at a discounted cost of $22,000 for an entire M.B.A.—a move that led to retiring its traditional campus-based degree offering. At Georgia Tech, the $7,000 online master's in computer science program exceeded 10,000 enrollments for fall 2000. Numerous elite institutions—including Princeton University, American University, Williams College, and Spelman College—have substantially discounted tuition for their fully online coursework.

One factor in the online university boom is cost: with little physical space to maintain, virtual coursework offers a more affordable option than traditional classes. With no commuting costs and required course materials typically accessible online, students further shrink future student loan debt.

Even more attractive: Instead of the traditional model of meeting an institutional schedule, online higher education meets the schedule of the individual.

Jon Harbor was a faculty member at Purdue University in Ohio before taking over as provost of Purdue University Global, the school's accredited, fully-online presence. With a foot in both sides of the university experience—and having witnessed his own mother earn a university degree online later in life—Harbor appreciates the accessibility virtual learning offers adults with jobs, families, and external obligations.

"Often we think of higher education in terms of 18- to 24-year-olds, but we have huge numbers of people with limited college credits, who are geographically fixed, who would benefit enormously from completing a degree," Harbor says. "And increasingly, they're seeing online universities as their pathway to that success."

The Online University Experience

Today, most state—and even private, top-tier—universities are also democratizing the learning by making degree programs accessible via the web. Students can virtually matriculate at a regional school or Princeton or Stanford with degrees in computer science, engineering, mathematics, business, or art; degrees demanding more hands-on or lab experience (such as in the medical field) continue to require a substantial campus presence.

Harbor notes that while most people hold a fixed idea of the "residential campus experience"—one in which students are tied to both a location and a rigidly fixed course schedule—virtual learning takes pride in its flexibility.

"Much of the material is learned in students' own time," he notes, "but there are times we come together online, for which we can also make allowances. This allows the student to fit the learning into their own schedule—something that works especially well for parents, as things come up with children and you may need to step away for a bit. Online learning allows the flexibility that can accommodate for that much more successfully."

That said, prospective students should know the coursework remains as rigorous as any on-campus class and demands a similar time commitment. "As you think about the flexibility, it means the same amount of time, but time fit into your schedule instead of a professor's," Harbor said.

Do Your Research

Last March, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona canceled $1 billion in debt for about 72,000 students previously enrolled in for-profit online university programs. Institutions like the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and ITT Technical Institute had shuttered due to fraud claims—specifically, by falsely advertising the success of program graduates. The deception left tens of thousands of students struggling with debt from the non-accredited institutions, as well as degrees employers refused to recognize.

While the Department of Education has moved to curb for-profits, and despite a checkered track record, the institutions continue to proliferate, accepting any student with a high school diploma or GED—often, at tuition rates typically quadruple that of the average community college, according to a 2020 Brookings Institute analysis.

To ensure your best online college experience as well as a healthy return on your investment, keep in mind both what to look for, and what to look out for.

Accreditation

Check that a regional association has accredited your prospective school, ensuring that it meets academic requirements and that other institutions will accept the credits earned. Attending an unaccredited school will also play havoc with future employers.

Faculty

Most community college teachers hold at least a master's degree in their field, while university professors typically hold a Ph.D. A solid online institution should have comparable faculty.

Degree Programs

Does a school offer associate's, bachelor's, or master's degrees, or professional certification? If so, are they recognized by other institutions of higher education? This is vital, especially if you plan to continue to earn advanced degrees. In addition, check the catalog for required coursework in your program to ensure the classes are both interesting and challenging, and to compare the programs with requirements at other online schools.

Cost

If you've begun your search with one school in mind, expand it by looking at other schools with comparable tuition. Compare the quality and variety of degrees, faculty experience and feedback from former and current students. Generally, online college should cost modestly less than attending a physical college or university. If you're eyeing at a specific online school, do a cost comparison with other colleges in your area.

Class Size and Office Hours

What is the student/teacher ratio and average class size? While the class is online, success will still demand individual attention from the instructor beyond the classroom, as well as access to tutoring and mentorship opportunities. Check that instructors will maintain online "office hours," allowing students the same access to instructors as in traditional classes.

The Future of Online Universities

In a Niche survey taken in April 2020—the start of U.S. lockdown—more than half of American adults who were considering a college education said that they'd do it online. By the end of July, almost 50 percent of women and 33 percent of men agreed they would now choose an exclusively online learning option, with or without the threat of COVID-19.

"What we're seeing on traditional physical campuses is that many of the faculty and students have realized that there is enormous value to some aspects of online learning even for residential students," says Harbor. "We've had a good decade of study that shows that the content part of it, say, going to a lecture, can be done very effectively online. What they want to focus on on-campus is connection: small labs or groups working together. Traditional campuses will be changed dramatically by the experiences we've had in the past year or so, but in a very positive way.

"A lot of students have looked at this and said online learning, even full-time online learning, works very well for me and allows me to balance other roles in my life, whether as a parent or not being tied to a physical campus, allowing me to continue earning as I'm learning," says Harbor. "The future is very bright for higher education, and that will include physical institutions and online learning programs."