Key Differences Between Online Learning and Traditional Campus-Based Classes

Choosing a college is never easy, but before you pick the specific school you want to attend, you must first decide whether you want to pursue an education at an online university or a brick-and-mortar college. The end result is the same — a diploma that will help you find a job in your field — but the learning environment is very different between the two platforms. It is important to understand some of the key differences between online learning and traditional campus-based classes before deciding on the right educational path for you.


Every online class is run differently, but in most cases, it is much easier to schedule your classes around the rest of your day when you go to school virtually. Campus-based courses require that you attend class a certain number of times every week, at specific times. That might mean changing your work schedule or having to hire a babysitter. Online classes sometimes require that you attend scheduled meetings in chat rooms, but in many cases, you can work the virtual classes into your schedule whenever you want. This provides flexibility for you to be able to work toward your degree on your own time, at your own pace.

Another important factor to consider is how quickly you are hoping to finish your degree. An associate’s degree typically takes about two years to complete, while a bachelor’s degree takes about four. Keep in mind that these time-frames are based on attending courses full time, which usually means taking at least 12 credit hours per semester. For students who work full time or who have other obligations, an online forum allows the flexibility of being able to take on more coursework each semester without the burden of sitting through classes at set times every day.


You do get to interact with other students at both online and offline universities. It’s a common misconception that students who go to school online never talk with other students or their professors. Your social interactions with students and professors depend on your own habits. If you want to have social relationships with others in your program, you’ll have to reach out in the same way as you would if you had just met someone in a classroom. You’ll interact with other students through VoIP, chat rooms, and email, and your professors are available to help you through the material, just as you’d find at a typical campus college.

With many online degree programs, you will find that they offer multiple campus locations as well as student centers in order to provide students with access to professors and advisers if they need face-to-face communication. These programs are designed to help set students up for success by ensuring they have access to any people or resources they may need throughout their education.


At an online college, the resources you get will be slightly different than the resources that will be available to you at a traditional campus college. Online schools are less expensive, partly because you don’t have to pay for facilities such as gyms, libraries, dining halls, and residence halls. If you want these to be part of your college experience, you may want to consider attending a brick-and-mortar school. Although, attending an online school does not necessarily mean you won’t have access to these amenities; many brick-and-mortar institutions offer online programs and allow those students access to the same resources as traditional students. And many online programs also have campus locations that can offer you similar amenities. Most online colleges also provide access to virtual libraries, and some even have partnerships with local facilities, so you still have access to the tools you need to be a successful student.

Both an accredited online college and a traditional campus college will provide you with the education you need to excel in your field. One style of learning is not necessarily better than the other; the key is to pick the type of program that works best for you, your lifestyle, and your schedule.

Factors to Consider With an Online Education

  • Accreditation: Accreditation means that the college or university has met all of the necessary requirements to prove academic excellence through their curriculum, faculty, facilities, and overall competency. Accreditation is what makes your degree valid; any learning institution that is not properly accredited is not credible or recognized as a reputable school. When you are researching online programs, this is the most important factor to look into if you want your degree to be accepted by future employers.
  • Cost: Getting the most value for your dollar is important, so shopping around for a program that fits your budget is essential. The upside to online programs, aside from the flexibility they offer, is that generally speaking, they are more affordable than brick-and-mortar institutions. Many even offer convenient payment plans in order to help break up the cost.
  • Available Financial Aid: Even at a lower cost, it can be difficult for some students to afford to pay for college; looking into various forms of financial aid can help alleviate some of that burden. You should check with potential schools to find out if they offer grants, scholarships, loans, work-study programs, or any other forms of aid. A great place to start if you are interested in applying for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • Courses Offered: Not all online schools are created equal; newer programs may not offer the courses or degree plan you need. Before committing to an online school, you want to make sure that they offer what you are looking for. For brick-and-mortar institutions that offer online programs, another option is taking part of your coursework online and part on-campus if the courses are not all offered in a virtual setting.
  • Graduation Rate: This is another important factor that should weigh into your decision. Knowing what percentage of students who graduate from a particular school can tell you many things. This number calculates the total number of degree-seeking students compared to the percentage of those students who graduate. Low graduation and retention rates could be caused by the lack of support a school provides. Be sure to thoroughly research any potential schools to ensure that they have the proper tools, support, and faculty in place in order to help you succeed.

What Does it Take to be a Successful Online Student?

Online education offers a great alternative for working or busy students, parents, and returning students; it enables you to fit your coursework into your schedule when it is convenient for you. But it is important to ensure that you are prepared for the educational journey ahead. Some important things to keep in mind as an online student include:

  1. You should be self-motivated, as it will require routine and discipline in order to keep up with your program and finish coursework in a timely manner.
  2. You should feel comfortable working independently without the constant supervision of a professor.
  3. Organization is an important quality of an online student; be sure to plan and keep up with your study schedule. Set up a routine that works for you, and stick with it.
  4. Make sure you have the required equipment, such as computer, internet, books, and access to your online classes before they begin. Proper understanding of computers and the virtual setup of your classes is also essential.
  5. Ensure that you can commit enough time to your courses. If you are a new or returning student, starting with a smaller course load might be wise in the beginning as you adjust.
  6. Be comfortable communicating through email, as most communication is done over the internet with little in-person interaction with the professor and other students. But also be willing to ask questions if there is something you don’t understand or that you have a problem with.

Online learning can be a very rewarding experience. Not only does it allow students to continue their education without sacrificing their career, it also allows you to interact with students all over the country. Weigh the pros and cons of an online degree vs. a brick-and-mortar college, and decide which style of learning best suits your needs as a student. Be prepared and take the necessary steps in order to ensure your academic success.

What are the Best Online Universities?

We used the CollegeNavigator tool from the National Center for Education and Statistics (NCES) to help us to find some of the best universities in the country offering online programs. In this section you’ll find excellent, accredited schools with a variety of online and hybrid certificate, undergraduate, and graduate degree programs to choose from (source: CollegeNavigator, data 2018).

Purdue University - Purdue University is one of the largest accredited online colleges, with degree programs available in a wide range of subject fields. Purdue University is committed to general education, a student-centered service and support approach, and applied scholarship in a practical environment.

Liberty University - Liberty University is a Christian research university with both campus and online classes available. Join over 100,000 students across the globe, and earn an accelerated, accredited degree online through an efficient and flexible format that helps students achieve their academic and professional goals.

Rasmussen College - Presenting an array of bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in such varied fields as accounting, healthcare management, justice studies, nursing, and technology and digital design, Rasmussen College’s online programs also offer students full career development training ”” including resume and cover letter guidance, mock interview prep, and efficient job search.

Antioch University - "Every passionate learner deserves the opportunity to advance their career and personal accomplishments. At Antioch University, our online degree options ensure you have the best opportunity to continue your education without putting your life on hold. Find an inspiring degree today, and begin your pursuit of a successful career and meaningful life.".

Colorado State University - Global Campus - "CSU-Global has met and exceeded its goal to create a digital learning environment that rivals the best traditional degree programs. At CSU-Global, your virtual classroom is designed to offer the same learning opportunities you’ll find at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities — and more — on a schedule that fits your life.".

Florida Institute of Technology - "Florida Institute of Technology (commonly called "Florida Tech" or "FIT") is a national, private, not-for-profit, technological, coeducational, doctoral-granting, research-intensive university. It is primarily residential, though it offers select degrees online and at off-campus learning locations throughout Florida, as well as in Alabama, Maryland, New Jersey, Missouri and Virginia.".

Grantham University - "Grantham University has an extraordinary purpose: We serve those who serve, and those who want to make a difference. We help those who need a second chance, and all those who never had a first chance, build successful lives through our unique curriculum and personal mentoring approach. Our graduates will have the most impact in strengthening our nation, and in turn, our world.".

Johnson and Wales University - "At Johnson & Wales University, we’ve developed a range of student services designed to make sure you have the tools and support you need to succeed. Our accredited online degrees place career-relevant curriculum at the core of the educational experience. All of our programs provide experience-based learning and plenty of practical opportunities to build your skills.".

Northcentral University - "Northcentral University educates professionals throughout the world and provides an accessible opportunity to earn a U.S. regionally accredited degree. Our highly credentialed faculty provides students one-on-one mentorship via advanced delivery modalities. At NCU, we are commited to helping students achieve academically and become valuable contributors to their communities and within their professions.".

University of Wisconsin Colleges - "As a student in a UW Flexible Option program, you will make progress by demonstrating what you know, whether that knowledge was gained through prior coursework, military training, on-the-job training, or other learning experiences. By emphasizing what you know rather than how much time you spend learning, this flexible format lets you advance toward a UW degree or certificate at a pace you set.".

See more online universities...

Find Your Degree is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.