Are you a fan of online learning and the flexibility of taking class at any time of the day? If so, earning a degree online may be the best decision you've ever made. More students are choosing online degrees over traditional degrees than ever before. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 3.2 million students enrolled in online courses in 2018. That was more than 16% of the total number of degree-seeking students in the United States. Those numbers will continue to rise as more people embrace distance learning as a part of everyday life. In fact, in the fall of 2020, only 17% of returning higher-education students wanted to attend full-time, in-person classes. 

The rest of the students preferred either a hybrid learning program that consisted of both in-person and online classes, or an entirely online curriculum. As the preferences of students continue to shift, so will course catalogs. This means that more and more online options will become available to students. Many students are wondering, however, if an online degree will have the same impact as a degree earned through in-person classes. Will a future employer frown on an online degree? And, will that online degree negatively impact one’s earning potential? 

The heart of these concerns boils down to one important question. How do online degrees compare to conventionally earned ones? We've done the research and found the answers. Below is a complete guide to online and traditional degrees to help you make the right decision. In this article we discuss the differences between the two degrees and what factors you should consider before making a decision.

Is an Online Degree the Same as a Traditional Degree?

The answer to this question will largely depend on the type of degree program you choose. As long as you choose a reputable program, there will hardly be a difference. You will take the required courses and end up with the same diploma as someone who attended in-person classes. However, there are big differences between online and traditional degrees. If you choose an online program, your experience will be different from that of a classroom student.

Online Degrees Give Students More Flexibility

To some students, online learning is the perfect way to earn a degree. Online programs offer students flexibility to take class from any location, and some online programs even let you take class at whatever time of day. This convenience makes online programs a good option for parents, students who work during the day, and those who prefer to take class at home. These are some of the benefits of online learning that you can expect.

  • You can fit class time around work duties or childcare arrangements.
  • You may be able to save money, as online programs are typically less expensive than traditional programs.
  • Some programs allow you to take class at any time of day.
  • Some online classes may have interactive elements, giving you a chance to engage with the material.
  • For introverts, online discussions eliminate the need for public speaking and erase the fears of peer judgment.
  • Online learning allows you to learn at your own pace.
  • There’s no need for long commutes, as long as you have internet access at home.

On the other hand, online degrees also present challenges. Before deciding on an online program, you should consider whether these obstacles will cause too many problems for you. These are some of the cons of online learning that you should be aware of.

  • Not all courses or majors will be available online.
  • Some institutions only offer certain resources to students who attend in-person classes.
  • Online classes provide limited hands-on learning; class time may consist of watching instructional videos.
  • You must have resources like a laptop, printer, and printing supplies on hand.
  • Because some online programs are self-paced, you'll have to keep yourself on target to complete assignments.
  • You may not have access to the same professors for both online and in-person classes.
  • Social interaction is limited to online discussions and occasional live study groups.

Traditional Degrees Offer Hands-On Experiences

Typically, traditional degrees allow you to have richer learning experiences. By attending class in person, you have the opportunity to connect with your professors and your classmates. You will have the chance to develop important professional skills, including public speaking. You will also have access to computers, libraries, and printers. Additionally, there is a greater social aspect to traditional learning. This type of program allows you to make friends, join clubs, and build relationships with professors and mentors. These are some of the benefits of traditional learning programs.

  • You’ll have access to the university's wide range of resources, including computer labs and student centers.
  • Hands-on learning can take place in labs and learning centers, lending immediacy to the learning experience.
  • A wide variety of courses and majors are available.
  • Many universities employ world-renowned professors for in-person classes.
  • Student life is a big part of the in-person experience.

Traditional learning is not for everybody. If these challenges to traditional learning seem like they will take away from your learning experience, online learning may be a better fit for you.

  • Lectures and note-taking can dominate in-person classes with little variation.
  • Traditional programs are typically more expensive than online programs.
  • You’ll need to drive to campus, taking up more of your time and increasing your travel expenses.
  • The boldest and loudest people in the room may dominate in-person discussions.
  • Professors decide the pace of classroom learning.
  • You must attend classes on-campus during the day.

What You Should Know Before You Enroll in an Online Program

There are many online schools to choose from, but it's important to choose a reputable program. Online degrees may end up being worthless if you don’t earn them from recognized or accredited institutions. Fortunately, there are many reputable online degree programs offered by some of the best colleges in the world. 

This means you can earn an online degree similar to a traditional one. If you’re interested in earning an online degree, research the programs offered and make sure you know: 

  • Which school is granting the degree and if it’s accredited
  • The structure of the online classes and how much work you'll need to do to pass the classes
  • If the same professors teach the online as well as the in-person classes
  • What degrees and courses the university offers online
  • What support and resources are available for online students
  • If you'll have access to on-campus resources like science labs and libraries

One other major consideration is the cost. Some online degree programs may cost less than a traditional degree. However, some universities charge the same for both. Make sure you know how much you can expect to pay for your degree by the time you graduate. If college debt is a concern (and it is for most students), check out 10 of the most affordable accredited online colleges. Some institutions, like Strayer University, cater to working adults and veterans.

Are Online Degrees Respected by Employers?

Most employers are going to care more about where your degree came from as opposed to how you earned it. Employers will view any degree from an accredited school with a good reputation favorably. 

That's especially true when compared to a degree from schools they consider to be "diploma mills." These are schools that essentially hand out diplomas to anyone who pays the tuition fees. They are strictly for-profit schools.

If you earned your degree from an accredited university, then employers are unlikely to care whether you attended a 100% online school. So, accreditation and the school's reputation is something you'll want to research when looking for an online degree program. 

Remember, too, that it will be difficult for an employer to know if you got your degree online unless they ask the question directly. It may not even be apparent if they ask to see your transcripts to verify your course work and attendance. 

If it does come up during the interview process, remember that honesty is the best policy. You can also point out the additional skills you learned through online education, such as self-motivation and good time-management. 

Online Degree vs Traditional Degree: Salary Differences After Graduation

It's unlikely that an employer would offer you a lower salary because you earned an online rather than a traditional degree. Most employers aren’t particular about how you earned the degree as long as you can provide proof that you graduated from an accredited institution. 

This means the salary differences between the two degrees will be negligible. You can rest assured that an online degree from an accredited university will garner the same job opportunities and salary benefits as any traditional degree. 

In fact, studies show that 83% of employers view online degrees favorably, particularly if they are earned from well-known accredited institutions and traditional colleges that offer both in-person and online learning.

Do Online Degrees Say “Online” on the Diploma?

The short answer is no. Most schools will not write "online" on their diplomas. In fact, many schools give out the same diplomas for online degrees as they do for traditional degrees.

  • If you attend an online-only school, your degree will have the name of the school on it, so it may say that you got your degree from “XYZ University," for example. If the school doesn't have the word "online" in its name, it's unlikely to appear on your diploma. Also, many online-only schools like Pennsylvania’s Peirce College don’t use the word “online” in their names.
  • If you attend online courses from a school with a physical presence: If your university has a campus that also offers in-person learning, then your diploma is unlikely to have any mention of being online. Your degree will look like everyone else's.

If you have concerns about the wording on your diploma, ask your enrollment officer to let you see what actual diplomas from the school look like. In general, however, remember that it's unlikely any employer will ask to see your physical diploma. They are more likely to want to verify your attendance through transcripts or a quick phone call to the school. You can request a copy of your transcripts, as well, to see how they’ll look to any future employer.

Is an Online Degree Worth My Time?

The Department of Education seems to think so. In a review of online learning studies, the Department of Education found that older students performed better than those who learned the same material in a traditional classroom setting, on average.

The Department of Education also found that online learning appeared to be effective for those seeking undergraduate as well as post-graduate degrees. It didn't matter what the learners studied, either. That's a pretty big endorsement for online degrees.

In general, online degrees are becoming more common and accepted among educational institutions and employers. As more of our lives move to the digital sphere, the stigma once associated with online degrees is fast disappearing. 

Online programs offer those who can't commit to full-time in-person learning an opportunity to earn a degree. That can open doors to new opportunities and career advancement while also potentially reducing the cost of the degree. 

If traditional degree programs don't appeal to you or don't fit into your current lifestyle, then pursuing an online degree may be a worthwhile opportunity. 


Online programs can level the playing field for learners who may not have the time or resources for conventional classroom learning. Online learning is also ideal for those who live in rural areas and may not be able to attend in-person classes. In addition, because online programs are less expensive than traditional degrees, they are more accessible to a wider student demographic.

Even after external factors preventing in-person learning disappear, online education will continue to increase in popularity. That's because more students will need to balance their educational, personal, and professional goals, in light of shifting market economies.

Online degree programs continue to improve, so take the time to research all your options. Find a program that fulfills your need for flexibility while still offering the learning opportunities that are important to you. 

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