It wouldn’t be quite fair to call online education a “phenomenon” – that makes it sound like a fad, or a trend. And it’s not exactly the “wave of the future” either. Online education is a reality, and one rooted in the real economic needs of millions of working adults, professionals, and young people from all demographics and backgrounds.
The American job market is more competitive than ever in just about every professional, technical, and skilled labor field. With increased competition comes an increased need to stand out on the job market, and the first barrier most working adults seek to overcome is their education level. Many fields now require a college degree just for entry-level positions, while promotion may often depend on a higher degree such as a master’s, or extra credentialing with a graduate certificate.
Working adults who entered their careers with only a high school diploma or an associate’s degree from a community college may find themselves stuck and unable to advance; others who do have a degree may see their field contracting around them and be ready to change careers. More and more often, they’re choosing to do it online.
Some career fields are better than others for online degrees: nursing, for instance, has boomed in recent years, and RNs can easily obtain their BSN, MSN, or NP degrees online from a wide selection of institutions. Computer-related fields such as software engineering, data analytics, and IT management are similarly available and obtainable for people already working in the field, or looking for a switch. Other key fields for online education include business, accounting, and marketing, all of which can help future managers, executives, and entrepreneurs make their way to success.
The benefits of online degrees are many and well-known. Online degree programs are more convenient for working adults, whether they are taught synchronously (so that students have to be online at a certain time for each class) or asynchronously (so that students can listen to lectures and do their coursework at any time). They are also more flexibly scheduled, such as evenings or weekends for synchronous classes. Many online programs use accelerated schedules, such as 8-week, 7-week, or 5-week terms, and by squeezing more terms into a year (as many as 6-8, compared to a traditional college schedule of three or four semesters), online programs can help students complete their degrees much faster than conventional on-campus programs.
All that means that working professionals and career-changing adults can use the options provided by online programs to their advantage, getting the credentials they need faster, keeping their regular jobs to help avoid racking up student-loan debt (a major source of financial trouble these days), and getting advancement in their present career, or launching themselves fresh onto the job market ready for the 21st century.
Where Can You Get an Online Degree?
What many prospective students don’t realize is that every state has current, market-ready online degree programs offered by their accredited public universities and colleges. In most states there are a host of online degree options, and from public institutions, in-state residents usually benefit from a low tuition rate which may often be much lower than private or for-profit online schools.
- Public Research Universities: These are the big guns – the UC Berkeleys, University of North Carolinas, and University of Texas at Austins. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education has been rating universities since 1973, and is generally considered the standard for categorizing research universities by their Moderate, Higher, and Highest Research Activity (formerly R3, R2, and R1 respectively). Such institutions have the money and resources to develop online degree programs, and make them affordable for all.
- Regional Public Teaching Universities, Colleges, and Junior Colleges: While the major research institutions are the most prominent and become household names, the regional institutions are usually the ones doing the grunt work of education. The mission of a regional institution is to provide educational opportunity for the most citizens possible, and many of them are finding that online degree programs is the most effective way to do that job. Regional publics have the benefit of state funding, and without the name value of the big research institutions, they can usually get by charging absurdly low tuition rates that make for a big savings for students.
Many students may think that private education is out of their budget, but you may be surprised: many private research universities and liberal arts colleges have created affordable, accessible online degree programs as well, seeking to compete with the numbers that public institutions can draw.
- Private Research Universities: From MIT and Stanford to Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt, the nationally-recognized private research universities tend to be elite, selective, and incredible opportunities for those who are able to get in. They are privately funded through an endowment and fundraising, and since most of them are smaller than the major public research institutions, students get crucial mentoring, access to hands-on research, and strong networks of partners and alumni when entering the job market.
- Private Liberal Arts Colleges: Small liberal arts colleges like Wellesley, Smith, or Davidson are known for providing their students with close personal attention, a nurturing atmosphere, and (for the best colleges) a loyal alumni network that can give graduates a leg up in life. But many of these institutions are also finding that online degrees help them keep the doors open and continue providing the kind of education that student’s can’t get when they’re a nameless, faceless body in the crowd.
With all of the talk in the last decade about online education, in much of the public’s mind online courses are still associated with the large, national for-profit online universities that dominate advertising – and the news, as many get caught up in hyped-up scandals. Media reports to the contrary, for-profit is not a bad word in higher education – it’s just one that requires a little more research and consideration than others.
- For-Profit Online and Technical Schools: Many for-profits, like Colorado Tech and Grand Canyon, are regionally-accredited, recognized by the Carnegie Classification, and ranked by trusted agencies like U.S. News & World Report. Many online for-profit schools use their status to experiment with education methods, provide unusual or highly-specific degree programs, or develop other innovations that public institutions can’t. Technical schools can give students a specialized, career-focused education that teaches them exactly what they need to know and may be able to focus more on job market-ready skills than universities and colleges that are more research-centric.
Which Degree Where for Whom?
Many demographic changes in the US economy are creating the drive for working adults to return to school, and the programs offered in different regions reflect these changes. Regional public universities and colleges have been some of the most enthusiastic institutions to develop online degree programs, because they have the responsibility of providing the education citizens need to get jobs and grow careers.
Colleges and universities must also tailor their programs to their region, developing online degrees that are appropriate to the needs of their areas. For instance, regions that have traditionally relied on agricultural or manufacturing-based economies are finding that changes in the economy are forcing citizens to move toward service and technical careers, so institutions in such areas may emphasize programs like hospitality management or information technology.
For example, according to research from the National Center for Education Statistics, states with large rural areas, such as West Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky, have very high proportions of online students. Such states have found online education a key way to prepare their citizens for the future of work in America, especially when changes in agriculture and manufacturing have left many healthy, capable workers without reliable employment.
Online education also appeals to students in areas with sparse or spread-out populations. The Dakotas, Minnesota, and Colorado, with their wide-open spaces and scattered people, have made online education a major part of how they educate people who may live too far from campus to easily commute. Arizona too has become a leader in online education, with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, and nearly half of Arizona students are earning online degrees.
On the other hand, in areas with dense urban populations, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, online education can provide a more convenient means for working adult students to earn their degrees without adding another commute to their day. Five miles in New York City or Los Angeles can be a longer trip than 50 miles in Nebraska, after all.
The same can go for suburban commuter universities, the kinds of institutions that are responsible for much professional and managerial education – close to urban centers for employment, but far enough away to attract students who don’t want to grind of city life. With online degree programs, busy adult students can save themselves the transportation and still get an accelerated MBA or Big Data degrees.
While public universities, especially smaller regional universities, can often offer the best cost-to-benefit ratio, don’t be too quick to count out private research universities and liberal arts colleges. Both types of schools have been building online programs in recent years, and the most prestigious private institutions combine their name recognition and respect with the convenience of online.
Admissions requirements may be more open for online programs, and many private colleges, even some of the most elite, have begun offering extremely attractive tuition rates for exclusively online students – often comparable to the conventionally more affordable public universities and colleges. Some smaller, but still well-respected, liberal arts colleges have shed their exclusive image and begun using online degree programs to attract students who otherwise would not consider them.
What Does Your State Have to Offer?
Most working adult students, for obvious reasons, want to stay close to home. It’s a real hassle to disrupt your family life for your education, or to give up your steady job and live on savings or student loans for two or more years. When you’re rooted, you’re rooted, and if you’ve spent years paying a mortgage, engaging with your community, and getting used to a home, you certainly don’t want to lose all you’ve invested, even for the chance at higher pay and promotion.
That’s why so many returning students are getting their degrees online. But it’s also why so many are choosing to get online degrees in their home state. After all, public universities and colleges still represent the most affordable option for most people, and the best deals in higher education are usually the in-state resident tuition at a public institution. Some regional universities and colleges may even charge less than $100 a credit, and most state-supported institutions don’t charge more than $500 per credit.
Many states in the US have a wealth of resources for students. California and New York, for example, each have two world-renowned public university systems (the University of California and the California State University systems, and the SUNY and CUNY systems, respectively). Other states, such a Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, have public universities that compete in every way with the most prestigious Ivy League and private research institutions. All of these states have spent years developing online education opportunities that provide a model for the form.
Figuring out your best financial decision can take a lot of research that busy professionals and workers may not have time for. That’s why Value Colleges has built the 50 States of Education, a thorough, exhaustively-investigated set of guides for each state in the union. The 50 States of Education does the research and runs the numbers on the most affordable, most reputable online degree program option for each state and breaks the results down into handy Top 10 rankings.
Value College’s rankings focus on reputable, accredited institutions offering a substantial number of online degrees at reasonable prices. Our target market is made up of students who need an education and value their time and money: working adults, first-generation students, minorities, and other students who need to know that their investment will not be wasted. Value Colleges people are people looking for a better life and a brighter future, and no matter what state you’re in, it’s the right state for a quality online education.
Value Colleges is here to show you where.
Finally, check out our Top 10’s in your state: