Chapter 3: A Guide to Online Bachelor’s Degrees Post Pandemic

Online Education vs. Traditional Education

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt higher ed, online degree programs shine as a more suitable alternative.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, prospective and current undergraduate students have shifting priorities. Some universal considerations rise to the top: safety, stability, and affordability.

So how does online education meet those critical needs? Exceptionally well. 

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The safety advantages of online learning

To begin with the obvious: it’s not possible to spread COVID-19 or any other physical illness online. The traditional college campus has students packed into lecture halls and people coming and going from campus 24 hours a day. Dormitories often mean shared living spaces, entryways, and bathrooms, making controlling one’s physical space challenging. This is an environment where diseases can spread quickly.

Online degree programs, of course, eliminate those risks entirely. Perhaps even more important than the inherent safety advantage of the online model is the freedom it gives students to take control of their safety.

The online learning model, with its portable and time-flexible elements, empowers students to determine their schedules and study environment—which means, in particular, that they can make individual decisions about acceptable risks and appropriate safety precautions.

Many of the safety precautions individuals and businesses are taking during COVID-19 involve tradeoffs. The power of traditional online learning, programs with content and assignment that are optimized for the online modality, is that there is no tradeoff in terms of academic quality.

Online degree programs deliver the same curriculum, often taught by the same faculty, as on-campus programs. Online students have access to the same resources (such as career services) and are able to visit campus if needed. The modality of day-to-day study is different, but online degree programs are built from the ground up to utilize the advantages of the modality and deliver an academic experience that matches or exceeds the quality of education in the classroom.

Online degree programs deliver stability

College has always been a refuge for young adults to find stability and opportunities for growth during difficult times. As we enter a post-pandemic world, online degree programs bring college students the chance to control their destiny.

Overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the operational continuity within universities and academic institutions. The arrival of the pandemic brought confusion to students and administrators alike, resulting in extreme disruption.  Students lost their sense of stability. It’s hard to overstate the impact this had on students’ views of and trust in their institutions.

6 in 10

current college students are “Very Dissatisfied” or “Dissatisfied” by how their institution has handled COVID-19 so far. Many told us this could impact whether they continue at a particular college or university.

Plexuss Survey
March 2020

Meanwhile, online degree programs exhibited high operational resilience and experienced little — if any — disruption. For an online degree program, content is already developed, and lectures are scheduled to launch right at the beginning of the semester. During a crisis, professors may need to alter due dates, modify or augment some content, and adjust expectations, but otherwise, online courses continue as planned.

Online degree programs address affordability concerns

Even before COVID-19, cost was a top priority for prospective college students. Indeed, the 2019 Wiley Education Online College Students survey found that affordability was the top factor for students considering an undergraduate program. Now, as students and families face unemployment, furloughs, salary reduction, and overall economic uncertainty, finding ways to pay for college has become more complicated — but online students have substantially more options.

As a rule, the tuition cost per credit tends to be the same regardless of modality; however, tuition is only one of the costs (and sometimes not even the highest cost) involved in pursuing an on-campus college education. Going to college on campus means paying for housing, meal plans, transportation, and more. Another hidden expense is the opportunity cost of losing the flexibility to work and earn income.

Because online classes allow students to customize their schedules, they have flexibility to work part-time or full-time to earn additional income, or take on responsibilities at home, such as childcare, in order to help the family’s overall finances. Online degree programs open the door for college students to become net revenue producers and reduce the total debt they and their families incur while furthering their education. This also means it’s quicker and easier to reach the break-even point on an educational investment.

Some students may be (understandably) concerned that taking on those additional responsibilities, while helpful financially, may put them at a disadvantage academically compared to their peers. But juggling school, work, and family responsibilities is the rule, not the exception, for online students. A U.S. News survey of students in ranked online undergraduate programs, for example, found that 84% of those online students were employed.

College students have the chance to control their destiny

Online degree programs have delivered a safer, more stable, and more affordable experience for a long time, and the pandemic has shone a spotlight on those advantages. College students need programs that can adapt to changing circumstances, and for many, the solution is online.

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