Are Online College Classes Right for You?

Universities and colleges have offered online courses for several years now as a way to offer students a more flexible schedule. 

A nice bonus is that online courses often cost less than courses in the traditional classroom, and you also save on transportation costs because you do not have to drive to campus.

In light of the financial benefits and the flexibility online courses offer, these types of courses seem like they should be a great fit for most students, but often they are not.

If you are considering taking an online course, there are several things you must know.

Reasons You Should Not Take an Online Course

For 10 years, I was an English instructor at a community college.  For the last five years before I quit, I taught online freshman writing courses.  I always started the semester by asking students to tell me a little bit about themselves.  Over time, I learned that if students gave these reasons for taking online courses, they would usually not be successful in the course:

  1. They heard that online classes were easier.
  2. They were already taking 18 credit hours in the classroom and couldn’t find time to fit another class in, so they decided to take an online class, or, in a similar vein, they were taking a full load of classes and also working full-time and didn’t have time to attend class.
  3. They were going to have a baby sometime during the semester.

As a former instructor, let me explain a few things about online courses.

They are not easier.

In fact, they are often harder.

If you are someone who learns by listening to the instructor explain concepts, you will likely struggle in an online class.  If, however, you are an independent learner who does well learning visually, an online class may be right for you.  Likewise, if you are a bright student and get frustrated in the classroom when the teacher has to repeatedly explain a concept, you will likely enjoy online classes better.

If you are too busy to fit another class in on campus, you probably shouldn’t be taking another class.

online college courses

Many benefit from from online college courses. But they aren’t a good fot for everyone.

I would guess 25 to 30% of my online students took the class online because their schedules were too full to take another class on campus.

Frankly, I don’t know what they were thinking.

There are only so many hours per week, and if you are already working full-time and taking a full load, when will you have time to attend to all of your work and school obligations?  Some of these students actually got angry when they lost points for not completing homework or not taking exams.

An online class is still a college level class, and you will have work you must complete.

It takes time to recover from having a baby.

In my experience, those who took an online course because they were having a baby during the semester were able to complete the course about 50% of the time.  The ones who were most successful were the ones who had their babies late in the semester, such as in November or December for a fall semester.

Yes, it was very hard juggling a newborn who often does not sleep with the responsibilities of completing class work, but if there was only 3 or 4 weeks left in the semester and they had already done the bulk of the class work, they were more likely to succeed.  I loved watching these students because I knew they had the drive and dedication to continue to work on their education after having a child.  It also helped if they let me know about their situation early in the semester so I could let them work ahead if they wanted to.

Benefits of Taking an Online Course

As I mentioned, one benefit is getting a lower tuition rate.

I don’t know if all schools do this, but at the college I taught at, online courses were charged at the in-district rate, regardless of the student’s residence, which was a nice benefit for those who would typically be charged out-of-district tuition.

Another benefit is flexibility.

Many students have the misconception that an online course is self-paced, which is usually not true.  However, many online courses do have a period of 4 to 7 days that you have to complete the next group of assignments, and you can work on those whenever you would like within the appropriate window.

I routinely had students taking online quizzes and turning in assignments in the middle of the night.  I didn’t care when the work came in as long as it came in before the deadline.

Lastly, if you are a parent, you can save on childcare.

Especially for returning students, online classes are a wonderful addition to the college experience.  Many parents would take my class and just sit down to begin their work at 8 or 9 at night after their children went to bed.  They wouldn’t have to pay a sitter to watch their children while they attended class.

[Related: See What We Think Are Some of the Best Student Credit Cards]

A Few Other Drawbacks

Many students underestimate how much they will miss the socialization of the classroom.

Some students think it will be great to take an online class in their pajamas, but they underestimate how much they miss the camaraderie of the classroom.  A few of my students independently tried to arrange their online classmates for study groups, and when their efforts were successful, they enjoyed the online environment as much as the classroom, but for others, they were just miserable without the social aspect of the class.  These students often dropped the online class so they could take a traditional class.

Be wary of taking an entire program online.  While most employers won’t mind if some of your classes were taken online, many are suspicious of an entire degree program that can be taken online.  For your future employability, I only recommend taking some classes, not all, online.


In an ever changing college landscape, online classes can offer students financial savings and flexibility.  Many students thrive in an online environment, but just as many flounder.

Before signing up for an online class, make sure you know yourself and your learning style.  Also make sure you have realistic expectations.

Have you taken online courses before?  Would you recommend them?


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Published or updated September 6, 2012.


  1. I had a class in graduate school that met half the time in the classroom and the other half of the time on-line. I loved it and subsequently took one more class with the same professor exclusively online. I think a huge factor (in any class, but especially alternative classes like online) is the instructor. This professor was excellent and had a class meeting time where he was available to answer questions or clarify information. I found it easiest to be “in” class then. I took another class that required meeting online and the professor didn’t seem to Have a handle on how long things would take with 25 people all trying to get information into a chat room at once. It just didn’t work so well and it wasted time. A lot of time. We could have accomplished so much more in a classroom.

    I agree that you can miss being with other people. That can’t be replaced.

    • Interesting point – as with any class, a great instructor can really make or break a class.

      I took a series of online courses with one professor who really had everything together and had a great syllabus set up. This included meeting up via Skype.

  2. Nice analysis, never really considered the pros and cons. Your caution of being wary of taking an entire program online made me laugh as it reminded me of a college friend who took 15 hours of self-directed classes (read the assignments and take tests, no class time) one semester so his partying would not be crimped by having to get up for class. This was probably the online class equivalent back in the late 70s.

  3. I’ve taken about dozen courses online. I found all, but statistics were easier than going to class. The real misunderstood aspect was the belief that it would take less time. They all definitely took more time. You needed to teach yourself so you needed to read more, study more and finish more classwork.

    What I loved about them, was that I could work on them whenever I had time.

    • What I found was that some classes were actually harder. Since you didn’t have in-class participation, professors really have to make sure you are getting the material so the at-home work is more in-depth.

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