What are the differences between an online and on-campus degree?

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When it debuted decades ago, online education was greeted with some skepticism by educators and students. Early doubts about its efficacy included concerns about the physical distance between instructor and their pupils, along with the capacities of students to stay motivated outside of the strict structures of assigned classroom time and teacher supervision. With fully online degree programs now ubiquitous, have these previous anxieties been addressed, resulting in worthwhile options for today’s student?

A student works on a class exercise remotely.

Are online degrees worth it? An overview of the recent research

Over time, the initial misgivings about online learning have somewhat dissipated as its enrollment has increased and internet-based resources have also become essential components of even on-campus courses. According to federal data analyzed by the Babson Survey Research Group, more than 6 million individuals took at least one online class in the fall of 2016, a 5.6 percent year-over-year jump. Babson has documented annual increases every year since 2002.

Plus, a 2015 comprehensive review of literature on learning formats found that the outcomes of online and face-to-face designs were broadly similar. That means that well-designed programs, such as a master’s in public relations online from The George Washington University (GWU) can deliver similar results to one hosted on campuses.

Common misconceptions about online learning

Determining whether an online or on-campus setup is right for your learning style first requires dispelling some misconceptions about online education. After doing so, we can better compare the two options in terms of their structures and outcomes.

Misconception #1: Online programs are of lower quality than traditional ones

Top-notch online degrees such as the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) from GWU consistently match the quality of on-campus equivalents. In fact, they have many of the same instructors and cover the same breadth and depth of topics in their curricula.

Misconception #2: Learning online requires advanced technical savvy

Even though you need a reliable internet connection and a suitable device to access course materials, being a full-time online student doesn’t require being a wizard of technology. Modern learning software like Blackboard is intuitive enough that anyone can get used to it.

Misconception #3: Employers don’t look favorably upon online degrees

Many of the country’s most prominent universities now offer online programs. In a lot of cases, the credential that a student receives – a master’s in public relations online, a healthcare-specific Master of Business Administration, etc. – is functionally identical to what he or she would have gotten via the on-campus route, as it looks the same on a resume.

Why internet-based instruction might be right for you

Now let’s turn to the question of whether you should take classes online or on-campus. Everyone’s situation is unique, but there are a few questions to ask that can help determine an acceptable course of study:

Do I have any significant time commitments outside of class?

Many students elect to pursue graduate degrees in their 30s or later. For decades, the average age of a graduate student has been between 32 and 33 years, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Online learning is optimal for these individuals and for younger professionals, too, who both often have major commitments related to their careers and families.

The flexibility of the online format makes it easier to balance your education with the rest of your life since you don’t have to spend so much time traveling to and from campus and walking to class. For example, pursuing a master’s degree online should be much more convenient than a traditional route if you already work and can’t afford to make multiple trips to your job and to school.

What type of learning structure do I enjoy the most?

Learning online puts you in the driver’s seat. Even though there are still deadlines for assignments and exams, you can plan your day around your classes, instead of being constrained by set times for each session.

Since there’s no physical classroom, students also don’t have to worry about where they sit or how they look and sound when they participate in classroom discussions. These are important advantages for students who may have previously chosen not to engage with classmates or instructors, but now have the freedom to do so via online messages and conferences.

Do I need financial aid?

Financial aid is critical in making decisions about where to enroll. The annual Freshman Survey from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program has found that a majority of undergraduates pick their schools based on the level of financial support.

For public relations master’s students, the similar costs of attendance mean that having aid options is frequently important. The good news is that today’s online programs typically offer comparable packages, meaning that whether you decide to study over the internet or in a classroom, you will usually have options for financing your education.

A student studying in an on-campus facility.

Can I learn everything I need in my field through an online program?

In some fields, an all-online approach may not be sufficient. For example, in medicine, at least some on-site instruction is required to ensure degree candidates are proficient in specific procedures and safety precautions.

Within SPR, master’s degree students can acquire everything required to excel across a wide variety of potential contexts. Whether graduates seek to work in the public or private sector, for nonprofits or in adjacent fields such as advertising and marketing, an online public relations degree can provide comprehensive preparation, from an academic background in modern PR strategies to an extensive professional network for finding the best opportunities.

The SPR track at GWU is a unique blend of a modern online format with the rigor expected from a traditional on-campus degree program. Take a look at the main program page for more info and answer a few quick questions there to download our free brochure.

Recommended Readings:

Classes you can take in the GW Online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program

Online Student Experience


Data Sources: Non-Traditional Students in Graduate Education

Study: More Students Are Enrolling in Online Courses 

Report: One in Four Students Enrolled in Online Courses

Online Learning in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Empirical Literature (2013–2014)

Babson Study: Distance Education Enrollment Growth Continues, But at Slowest Rate Ever

What Employers Really Think About Your Online Bachelor’s Degree