What adult learners should consider about online degrees

Close up of adult learner hands typing on laptop keyboard

September 15 is National Online Learning Day, which celebrates how technology has changed the way we learn and gain new skills. According to a 2023 article by Forbes, about 30 percent of all postsecondary U.S. degree seekers studied exclusively online in 2021. More colleges across the country have online degree programs that allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree without stepping foot on campus.

This is great news for busy adult learners. As a returning adult student myself, I’ve earned degrees both in person and online. Here are three things to think about if you’re considering an online degree.

How do online classes work? 

Typically, online courses come in one of two formats: synchronous or asynchronous.

Synchronous courses meet at a regular, scheduled time. In a synchronous class, you may have live online lectures with opportunities to ask questions and interact with classmates. These courses are a good option for students who prefer routine and want to connect with other students and instructors in real time.

Asynchronous courses have no live elements or set meeting times. You don’t have to attend class at a regular time every week. Asynchronous courses can be a convenient option for adult learners going back to school while juggling other responsibilities. Staying on top of deadlines is crucial in these self-paced courses.

As you’re comparing programs, it’s helpful to know how you learn best. Do you need a regular class schedule to stay on track or can you complete coursework independently? Ask questions to make sure the program is a good fit for you.

How do I pay for it? 

Many adult learners are unaware of the options they have for funding online degree programs.

Contrary to popular belief, adult students qualify for federal financial aid, which can include grants, scholarships, work-study programs and low-interest student loans. To learn more about federal aid, visit studentaid.gov.

Even if you don’t qualify for federal aid, don’t be discouraged. Universities, companies and local organizations can be another source of scholarships and grants. Your employer may even offer an employee tuition assistance program.

To maximize your chances of securing funds, do your research, ask questions and be mindful of scholarship deadlines.

How hard is it?

headshot of Anne Niendorf
Anne Niendorf

A typical misconception is that earning an online degree is easier than completing an in-person program. This is not true. Accredited online programs usually require the same number of credits to graduate as in-person programs. For example, students pursuing a bachelor’s degree through UW–Madison Online have to complete an average of 120 credits.

A reputable online program will be just as rigorous as an in-person program. To set yourself up for success, you should expect to work just as hard as any other college student.

Earning a degree online is a big undertaking but knowing your learning style, researching funding options and having realistic expectations will help you achieve your dream. Reach out to support staff early on and get your questions answered. We’re here to help!

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Anne Niendorf, a student services coordinator, can be reached at anne.niendorf@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on September 10, 2023.