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For years now, online learning has been touted as the inevitable future of higher education. Where most students only had the choice of attending a brick-and-mortar school just decades ago, modern colleges, universities, and even trade schools now offer innovative online education options in addition to, or in place of, traditional, on-campus learning models.

Data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NES) underscores this trend. In the fall of 2013, more than 5.5 million students were enrolled in at least one distance learning course at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. The flexibility of online degree programs allows these students to pursue their academic passions while maintaining their responsibilities at home, to continue working full-time or part-time while they study, and most importantly, to earn a degree without putting the rest of their lives on hold.

The fact that online degrees have finally become mainstream may be perfect timing. A recent study from Georgetown Public Policy Institute notes that, out of the 55 million jobs available through 2020, 35 percent will require at least a bachelor's degree, while another 30 percent will require some college or an associate degree.

Anyone considering furthering their education would be wise to pay attention to the distance-based learning opportunities available. Thanks to online degrees, a world of new options is just a click of a mouse away.

The range of academic programs available online continues to expand along with student demands. As more and more students opt into learning online, more courses and online degrees have been created to accommodate them.

Today, online degree programs are available in almost every field of study, from fashion merchandising to mechanical engineering. To learn more about individual majors, check out the links below:

According to the NCES, 13.1 percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in postsecondary education in 2013 were enrolled exclusively in distance learning courses. That includes 1,982,442 undergraduate students and 676,761 graduate students.

While professional fields (e.g. information technology, business, criminal justice, nursing) tend to offer the most online degree programs, modern technology has made it possible for nearly any subject to be taught online. Through the use of online message boards, recorded lectures, chat rooms, and interactive learning modules, students can learn the same skills and information at home as they can in the classroom.

Just like the subjects you can learn, you can also achieve various levels of education through distance learning. The most popular programs offered online are:

  • Associate Degree -- These programs typically take two years to complete, and can help students gain entry into a wide range of technical and professional careers.
  • Bachelor's Degree -- Bachelor's degrees tend to take four years of full-time study to complete whether pursued on-campus or online. Leading to a variety of professional careers, the bachelor's is considered a terminal degree for most professions.
  • Master's Degree -- A master's degree takes an additional 1-2 years to earn after completion of a bachelor's degree. This degree type is geared towards professionals who want to work in management or reach the next level of designation in their current profession.
  • Doctoral Degree -- Doctoral degrees can take up to eight years to earn, and commonly include both classroom instruction and clinical or hands-on training. These degrees are usually aimed at those who want to work in academia, medicine, or research.

A 2015 survey conducted by LearningHouse found that online college students pursue degrees to access new career opportunities, advance in their current careers, develop new and enhance existing skill sets, or change careers completely. Of those surveyed, 76 percent stated their online learning experience was better than, or equal to, on-campus learning experiences they have had in the past.

Here are three central benefits of completing a college degree:

  1. Career mobility. With 35 percent of the 55 million jobs available through 2020 going to college graduates with a bachelor's degree, earning this designation can help you move on or move up.
  2. Improve earning potential. Indeed, education pays. For each move up the degree ladder, graduates take home better salaries. In 2015, individuals with a doctoral degree earned a median wage of $1,623 per week, while those with a master's earned $1,341, and individuals with a bachelor's earned $1,137.
  3. Increased job security. Unemployment rates coincide with educational attainment. For example, 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows unemployment rates dropped at each degree level: High School (5.4 percent), Associate (3.8 percent), Bachelor's (2.8 percent), Master's (2.4 percent), and Doctoral (1.7 percent).

Because of the growing demand for specialized education, online learning has been embraced by both two- and four-year institutions. Thanks to advancements in communication technology and e-learning, colleges are finding it easier to implement online courses.

For the prospective student, how education is delivered and consumed is slightly different in online versus campus settings. Online programs can be delivered in either real-time (synchronous) or self-paced (asynchronous) formats. Synchronous classes allow students to use technologies such as online chat, learning management systems, video conferencing, and message boards to collaborate with peers, meet with instructors, and participate in real-time lectures and class sessions. In these programs, classes typically occur at set times throughout the week. Asynchronous classes, on the other hand, give students more control of their learning process, accessing and completing their homework and assignments on their own schedule. Lectures are usually prerecorded, so students can watch them whenever it is convenient.

Fully online programs offer distance-based learning in a completely remote setting. Students can access and work with professors virtually, and communicate and interact with their peers through different online technologies. While some programs require a hands-on training component, the majority of students in fully online programs may never set foot in a classroom. Hybrid degree programs, on the other hand, combine both traditional and distance learning. Students who participate in these programs take some of their courses online, but also visit campus for certain aspects of their program. These programs offer a thoughtful alternative for students who need some flexibility when it comes to their coursework, but also enjoy the anchoring a traditional classroom provides.

Before deciding on any degree program, whether online or on-campus, students should have a firm understanding of the overall investment required. While tuition and fees are a primary factor, online learning offers several key benefits to consider, including:

  • Convenience. With online education, geographic location is no longer a factor. Thanks to the flexibility of distance-based learning, students can often set their own schedules and avoid commuting to a central campus.
  • Student-centered learning. Students are active participants in the learning process as they control their schedules and study time. With the use of online message boards, videoconferencing, and interactive learning modules, online learning can easily mimic a classroom environment.
  • Flexibility. Students and working professional alike can complete a degree on their own time and customize coursework around their busy schedules. Students who take online asynchronous courses can typically view lectures at any time, day or night.

When deciding whether to earn a degree online or in a classroom, students should take special care to compare programs and schools while also taking stock of their individual dreams and goals. The jobs of the future will largely go to those who have invested in themselves through higher education, but that doesn't mean traditional brick-and-mortar schools are the only way to go.

With online degrees and online degree programs, students can gain entry-level employment in jobs that require a degree, move up the career ladder in their current profession, or simply explore a new passion. The options are limitless, and the best time to get started is now.


Sources:
Earnings and Unemployment Rate by Educational Attainment 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
Fast Facts, National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80
Online College Students 2015, LearningHouse, http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/OnlineCollegeStudents2015.pdf
Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, Georgetown Public Policy Institute, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.ES_.Web_.pdf



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