The Rise of Online Higher Education

Bird's eye view of someone taking online classes on a laptop

In any industry, one-third is a big number. If a popular television show lost one-third of its viewers, it might introduce a new character to spark some interest. If one-third of drivers purchased electric cars, we’d see more gas stations put in electric power stations. And if one-third of college students were taking classes online, colleges would adapt. This is precisely what has been happening in higher education, even before the pandemic. Over 30% of all college students are taking classes online, representing more than 6 million students (Babson, 2017). The majority of these students do not fit the traditional model of a college student; under 25, living on campus, and attending school full time.

The rise of online higher education and adult learners has resulted in a “chicken or the egg” scenario. As technology in higher education evolves, it allows more open access for busy adults who want to start or continue their post-secondary education. And, as more adult learners enter college, the more colleges evolve to offer online learning opportunities. It is easy to see that online education is quickly becoming the standard mode for adult learners. However, since the change has been quick, there remains a lot of uncertainly. At Bright Horizons EdAssist Solutions we work with adult learners to help them fulfill their higher education goals. For the majority, these goals include earning a degree or credential online. Based on these experiences, there are several myths we can dispel and tips we can offer to be successful in an online learning environment. 

The Benefits of Online Education

The obvious benefit of online learning is the convenience. For busy adults, who may be balancing work and family commitments, the ability to avoid another commute or being on someone else’s schedule is invaluable. While there are some “live” online courses, most online degree programs are asynchronous. Students can log on and complete coursework on their own time. Usually there are assignments to complete or lectures to review on a week-to-week basis, but exactly when to log on is up to the student. Some programs are completely at your own pace where students can move through a degree program as quickly or slowly as they want. This way they can complete more coursework when they aren’t as busy and feel comfortable slowing down when they can’t make college a top priority. 

A less obvious benefit is wider access to schools. While distance education has existed in some form for decades, for the most part students were limited to schools in their area. This meant less access for students in rural areas or smaller cities. It also meant limiting students to the programs offered at those schools. Specialized programs or new trending areas of study were out of reach if a local college did not offer them. Most large universities and many smaller colleges offer at least some courses online, so the options are virtually limitless. 

Wider access also benefits adult learners in terms of competition among colleges. Since students have options outside their immediate area, colleges must continue to innovate to attract this wider range of students. Institutions will offer more intuitive learning platforms, more specific degree programs or specializations, and sometimes they may offer additional tuition benefits.

Even as online higher education has become ubiquitous, there is still a lot of uncertainty for adult learners looking to take an online course for the first time. There are valid reasons for not pursing a degree online. Earning a degree is an investment of time and resources, so it’s important to consider all options, including local colleges. But adult learners should not discount online education based on some of these persistent myths.

Dispelling Myths About Online Learning

There is no support.

To be accredited, colleges need qualified faculty putting courses together and grading the work with the same rigor as on-campus classes. Online students still have access to academic advisers, tutors, and other traditional support services. 

It’s easy.

Again, if a school is accredited, the courses must be rigorous and require students to demonstrate competency in the subject area. Programs that lead to licensures like education or nursing, are required to meet industry standards. You may be able to go to school in your pajamas, but you are still going to school. 

Online programs are less reputable.

With few exceptions, a degree earned online from a college holds the same reputation as if were earned on campus. Your diploma won’t have any indication that it was earned online. With so many students earning degrees online, it has become commonplace. There is a good chance when you interview for a job or a promotion that the person sitting across from you has taken online courses. 

Online options will continue to grow. While access and convenience are a positive development for adult learners, researching the right program can be an intimidating process. Always ask your employer if they provide continued learning benefits or tuition assistance and reach out to a team like ours at EdAssist Solutions to understand the changing higher education landscape.

On-Demand Webinar: What You Need to Know About Earning an Online Degree

Online education is becoming essential for personal and professional growth, especially for working adults. Join us as we debunk the myths surrounding the virtual classroom, explain the benefits of the online format, and offer strategies for remote learning success.

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Written by: Brendan Nelson

May 25, 2021

About the Author

Brendan Nelson head shot

Brendan joined Bright Horizons EdAssist Solutions in 2015, bringing with him 8 years of higher education experience in admissions and enrollment management at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He holds a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership.