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Online College Degrees: Are They Worth the Money?

June 22, 2017

ONCE CONSIDERED a poor substitute for the real thing, online higher-ed degrees are moving into the mainstream. These days they’re fully embraced by high-quality public and private not-for-profit institutions, which collectively serve 70% of all online students.1 

Even the Ivy League is in on the action. And an increasing number of students are turning to online courses for their undergrad and grad degrees. Online M.B.A., anyone?

Both federal aid and 529 accounts can be used to cover eligible expenses for online students. —Richard Polimeni, director of Education Savings Programs at Bank of America Merrill Lynch



While the cost per credit tends to be similar for both online and on-campus students, their other advantages may be hard to ignore. The flexibility of being able to study at night and work by day that online programs offer students, as well as the cost efficiency of learning remotely (no housing or travel expenses to consider) make them a tempting option, says Richard Polimeni, director of Education Savings Programs at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Both federal aid and 529 accounts can be used to cover eligible expenses for online students,” he explains.


As for how employers perceive these “virtual” degrees, “there’s a growing awareness that online or on-the-ground doesn’t matter. What matters is the institution,” says Dr. Joshua Kim, director of digital learning at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. If you’re looking to join the ranks of online degree seekers, Kim suggests that you consider the following.


Take a test run. One advantage of online education is that many courses are now offered à la carte. Taking an online course or enrolling in a multicourse certificate program can help you evaluate whether an online degree track is right for you.


Check out the reputation of the program—and opportunities for networking. Make sure the school you’re interested in is accredited by using this search tool from the Department of Education. “Keep in mind that it’s not just the degree that’s valuable—it’s the network,” says Kim. When researching programs, look for notices of group work and opportunities to meet in person. Pursuing an online degree at an in-state institution may also help build your network by making it easier to meet with classmates and professors in person. This might explain why more than half of online students attend programs in their state.2


Do your homework on the instructors. Online degrees may give you access to professors who are professionals working in your field. But a program run entirely by adjuncts should be a red flag, says Kim. “A good professor will be responsive and work hard to create a community among the online students, whether it be through discussions, a blog or group project work,” adds Debra Greenberg, director, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who teaches marketing as an adjunct professor at Rider University.


Extra Credit: Reading List

1,2WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, “Distance Education Enrollment Report,” 2016.

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