Does an Online Degree Provide a Better Return on Investment than One from a Brick and Mortar School?

If you’re considering higher education, you may have some concerns about what it’s going to cost you. With most students graduating with nearly $30,000 in student loan debt, it’s natural to consider whether or not your investment of tuition dollars will pay off in the future. And with distance education options becoming more accessible and more popular than ever before, the question of whether the return on investment (ROI) from an online degree is greater than the ROI from a more traditional program at an offline university may be top of mind as well.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question surrounding college ROI isn’t as clear-cut as you might hope. For one thing, there are many considerations to take into account when assessing the overall cost of a college program, whether online or offline, including housing costs, textbook costs, and miscellaneous fees charged to both online and offline learners. These expenses often change from year to year and can vary based on where you attend school, your enrollment status, and how much financial aid you receive, if any.

That’s not to mention the other part of the ROI equation—the return. Trying to predict precisely what you’ll make after you graduate from a traditional or online college degree program is guesswork at best. That’s because your exact salary will depend on numerous different factors, including the nature of your degree, your employment terms, where you live, and whether or not you have any prior experience in your field, just to name a few. Of course, there are some steps you can take to make an educated guess about your future earnings, including researching the average ROI for the college you’re planning to attend and looking at mean annual wages for the career path you intend to pursue.

If you’re interested in what distance education has to offer, however, there is good news. An online degree program can certainly have a higher ROI than its offline counterparts if students make sound financial decisions during their time of enrollment. That’s because there are many areas of great opportunity for savings within an online undergraduate or graduate degree program. Below, we’ll discuss some of the cost-saving strategies a distance learner can utilize in order to decrease the amount of their required investment, thus elevating their return. We’ll also point out some of the other contributing factors that can impact college ROI beyond simple costs and returns.

Further Reading: Top 10 Best Accredited Online Colleges

Consider Living at Home During the Program

One of the biggest added expenses that students face while enrolled in a more traditional college program is room and board, which means that they have on-campus housing and a costly meal plan during all four years of study. While this is certainly a great luxury that comes with opportunities for socializing and studying that might be harder to achieve while living at home, it’s an expense that often reduces a program’s ROI while increasing a student’s federal loan debt.

The good news is that an online degree program does not require proximity to a traditional campus for students to master the coursework and earn good grades. In fact, students can study from any location they choose, as long as they have access to the Internet and a connected device. Most online learners, therefore, live at home, escaping the high cost of room and board while enhancing the ROI of their chosen distance learning program. Living and studying at home can also help you save money by avoiding other expenses related to traveling to campus such as fuel, car maintenance, and fast food, for example. As an online student, living off-campus is a great way to begin saving money, so that you can keep the salary you earn after graduation instead of using it to pay back your student loans.

A word of warning, though. If you’re looking to increase your college ROI by studying exclusively from home, you’ll want to be on the lookout for hybrid degree programs masquerading as fully online options. These blended learning programs—which combine in-person and online instruction—have their merit but they’re not ideal for online students who want to avoid expenses related to commuting to campus. Even minimal campus visits can prove costly, especially if your online school is located across the country. Hybrid degree programs are not always clearly labeled as such, so cost-minded students should check with a program’s website and confirm with an admissions counselor that all program requirements can be fulfilled online prior to official enrollment.

Look for a Public, In-State Online Degree Program

As we mentioned, the ROI of your college education will depend on a lot of different factors, including where you attend school. In the early days of distance education, school choice was limited when it came to learning online. Fortunately, in recent years, distance education has become much more accessible. That means that online degree programs aren’t just the domain of expensive, for-profit programs anymore. In fact, a majority of state-funded flagship schools now offer at least one online program in areas like business, education, and the liberal arts. These in-state programs have many benefits, all of which lead to a higher return on investment for an online degree. First and foremost, they provide students with in-state tuition, often at a significant discount when compared to out-of-state tuition or the rates charged by private online schools. Second, the name recognition of a large, state-funded college or university will actually make a student’s diploma more powerful as they begin looking for jobs. Third, a program of this size and scope will give graduates access to a larger alumni network. This makes it easier to find jobs and promotions over the long term. The takeaway? When considering online colleges, don’t discount the more economical options for your degree program. These programs are often just as high-quality, and taking advantage of tuition savings can actually help increase your college ROI in the long run.

Less Opportunity Cost With Online College

One of the often overlooked factors of calculating the investment required to attend college is the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is basically what students are missing out on when they choose to spend their time and energy in class as opposed to doing other things, like working a part-time or even full-time job, for instance. In this case, the money these students don’t earn from working while in class is part of the opportunity cost of attending college.

There is an argument to be made that students attending college online have less opportunity than those who enroll in traditional face-to-face courses. These distance learners are more equipped to juggle work and school simultaneously since they can squeeze study time in between shifts, for example. This is particularly true for students who elect asynchronous online programs versus the more structured synchronous variety. Asynchronous distance education offerings allow students to access course material at their convenience and complete assignments whenever they have the time as opposed to on a prescribed schedule.

Online programs are also more likely to cater to nontraditional students who need flexible schedules so that they can keep their day jobs while studying toward an advanced credential. These schools will often allow students to take as few or as many courses at once as they wish. The odds that online colleges and universities will offer part-time and accelerated tracks are much higher when compared to traditional brick and mortar schools. The bottom line? Lessening the opportunity cost of pursuing higher education by choosing flexible online degree programs can, in turn, maximize the ROI of these distance learning options.

The Time Factor

Usually, when someone calculates the ROI of a college education, they factor in the monetary cost of tuition and fees. They may even include costs like housing and meals. What is often ignored when it comes to the investment required of college students is their time. Aside from money, time is an individual’s greatest asset. Like money, time is something we “spend,” and it’s in limited supply. While online classes are just as academically rigorous as on-campus courses, they may be less time-consuming when you factor in the time it takes to travel back and forth to campus and to meet classmates and professors outside of class for tutoring, group work sessions, and advising. In online programs, the commute to an instructor’s office or the library is instantaneous.

Many distance learners also report being able to focus more on their studies when enrolled in an online college degree program, too. Perhaps that’s because, in an online program, study time is often an independent and isolated activity; students are left alone to get their assignments done as opposed to working in a crowded classroom or packed dorm room, for example.

Students enrolled in distance learning classes often work more efficiently when they can progress through coursework at their own pace. In a traditional classroom environment, the instructor typically sets the pace for the lessons. This is done out of necessity, of course, to keep the students together as the class is introduced to new material. In virtual environments, on the other hand, students can learn at a pace that suits their individual learning styles and prior knowledge in the subject area. For students who are ahead of the curve, so to speak, this feature of distance learning can be a huge time saver. And of course, any time saved reduces the investment required of college students and heightens the return. It’s a win-win!

The Growing Legitimacy of Online Degrees

Prior to the year 2019, online degrees were already widely respected by the general public as well as by employers. As early as 2010, the large majority of business executives accepted distance learning credentials as just as legitimate as those earned on campus. In the years since, distance education technology has advanced at a breakneck pace, enabling students to learn in virtual learning environments that rival those on some of the best college campuses in the country. Online degree programs became more plentiful, popular, and revered than ever before.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the physical doors of America’s colleges and universities closed for months at a time, distance learning had its moment in the sun. Suddenly, on-campus students were learning remotely—many of them for the first time—and the lines between online and traditional instruction became blurred. Even when in-person students were given the go-ahead to attend classes on campus once again, many opted to continue their studies as distance learners.

Today, fears over the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of online colleges and programs are almost completely unwarranted. Though it’s still a good practice to check an online school’s accreditation status prior to enrollment, students no longer need to worry about whether their online credentials will hold up in a job interview. In fact, your diploma won’t specify whether you attended classes online or face-to-face, and it’s rare for a hiring manager to ask. It’s safe to say that attending classes online will have zero negative effects on your potential college ROI. If you’re truly concerned about your higher education return-on-investment, you’d be better served by worrying about the academic discipline or vocational field you’re planning to study rather than how you earn your credentials.

With the Right Choices, ROI Can Be Higher for Online Programs

ROI in higher education is always a combination of college costs and student choices. When it comes to learning online, making the right choices will certainly help student minimize their costs, take on fewer student loans, and complete their degree ahead of their peers. For these reasons, the opportunity exists for a dramatically better return on investment from an online degree. Keep in mind, though, that online learning requires a high level of dedication and commitment on the part of students. While your classes may be more convenient to access in a distance learning program, they won’t be easier. Moreover, learning online requires more self-discipline and drive than on-campus alternatives. Be sure to consider your personal learning needs before enrolling in any college program.

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Maxim Sorokopud
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