Why Online College? Flexibility

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For many students — especially working adults — online college is not just the best option for a high quality education. It's the only option.

But why is online college better for some students? And what are the benefits of online education?

We posed these questions to the 2019 applicants for TheBestSchools.org's $1,000 Online College Scholarship. Among the common themes mentioned by our applicants, flexibility ranked particularly high. In one testimonial after another, respondents explained that flexibility made online education both the best option and the only option for earning a college or graduate degree.

If you're seeking a flexible, high-quality online education, start with a look at our list of the Best Online Colleges.

Otherwise, read on to find out how online students make the most of the educational flexibility offered by online education.

Nontraditional Students Must Balance Work and Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Nearly 3 million students in the U.S. are currently taking at least one online course. A significant percentage of these students are nontraditional students, meaning they are age 25 or older. This population of adult learners typically must balance work and life with their educational objectives. For them, flexibility is an absolute must.

Russell, who is studying for a bachelor's degree in criminal justice case management from American Intercontinental University, told TBS that

"The flexibility of an online college is its greatest perk. Being a nontraditional student automatically entails that I am working for a living. That being the case, it would have been impossible for me to further my education at a traditional campus college."

Russell's case is not unusual. Many working adults would truly have no way of pursuing a college education without the flexibility of online programs. If you are a working adult and you're considering online education, you can even capitalize on your professional experience when enrolling. Find out how you can get College Credit for Work Experience.

Online Education Allows You to Focus on Professional Development

For many working adults, online college is not simply a path to degree completion: It's also a stepping stone toward promotion in a career that is already well underway. For working professionals, online courses are a great way to gain credentials and advance within an organization or field without disrupting their careers.

Jessica — a student at Arizona State University — said,

"I chose to pursue my electrical engineering degree online so that I may have the flexibility in my schedule necessary to simultaneously focus on my professional development. Traditional universities rarely offer evening classes for 100% of the courses required for a degree, which makes maintaining a consistent work schedule very difficult for students. The expectation for all students to prioritize education above professional development is not a realistic model. My program allows me to earn the money I need to support myself and my education needs, while also garnering valuable experience in my field. Although more challenging at times, online education is my most viable option as an undergraduate in my late twenties.”

Online college offers developing professionals the scheduling flexibility they need to pursue critical, sometimes even necessary degree credentials without sidetracking their career progress.

If career development is your top priority, find out which online degrees offer the best job growth potential.

Busy Parents Benefit from Online Course Scheduling

Work and career aren't the only things that nontraditional students must manage. Nearly 2 million college students must also balance the responsibilities of parenting with the pursuit of an education. This presents an array of challenges, some of which can derail degree completion entirely if not addressed. The flexibility afforded by online courses offers one way of addressing — or at least reducing — these challenges.

Sabrina, a student of applied behavioral analysis at the Florida Institute of Technology, told TBS,

"I am a single mother to a child with special needs. I also am an exceptional student education teacher at a local community high school, working with students who have developmental disabilities, autism, emotional behavioral disturbances, and so on. My son's therapies after school leave me very few hours to drive to a campus and attend regular classes. I was able to obtain my bachelor's degree through an online, accredited program from Western Governors University, and I was very happy with the curriculum and quality of education that I received. I felt that it prepared me extensively for my current career. The online program allowed me the flexibility that I need to be the mother that my son needs me to be and the teacher my students need."

If you need strategies and support to help you balance the challenges of education and parenting, check out our article, Online College Resources for the Single Mom.

Asynchronous Learning Models Create Access

Compared to traditional education, online education is inherently more flexible, but some strategies are more adaptable than others. Broadly speaking, online education can be broken into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous learning is online or distance education that happens in real time, with set login times for students. Asynchronous programs don't require real-time interaction, instead posting course materials online and allowing students to access them and complete assignments on their own schedules, so long as they meet predetermined deadlines.

There are pros and cons to each model. Asynchronous learning is inherently more flexible because it allows you to schedule your educational responsibilities — lectures, studying, exams, etc. — around other, less flexible commitments, like work and family. However, it also means less real-time support and peer interaction than a synchronous model offers.

Rhianna, a master of social work student at Indiana State University, explained that

"As an older student, I have already started a life of working and supporting myself. I am at an entry-level position in my field and am wanting to continue gaining experience while completing my graduate degree. I am from a working-class family and do not have the luxury of not working full time while being a student. An online degree course allows me the freedom to participate in class and assignments outside of the normal school hours.”

To learn more about the difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning in online education, check out our resource, Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning in Online Education.

Opportunities for Accelerated Completion

Flexibility doesn't just mean that online education can be built around your schedule. It also means you can get it done at the speed that makes sense for you. For example, if you're a working professional or a busy parent, your top priority might be to get your degree fast and get on with your life. For you, a short, intensive, accelerated program might make the most sense.

Adriana is working toward an MS in communications at the Purdue Global University. She told TBS that she chose to pursue an online degree program because of its flexibility.

"Being a full-time working mother and wife, an online degree program makes sense because it would allow me the opportunity to be there for my family when I need to, while still enabling me to continue my education and enhance my skills. That's why Purdue University's online master of science in communications is perfect for me. Not only is it exclusively online, but I can finish the course in as little as 20 months, allowing me to earn a graduate degree, become more of an asset at the company I am employed with, and provide a more financially stable future for my loved ones.”

To explore other ways to speed up your online education so that you can move on with your life and career, check out:

If you're looking for other ways to take advantage of the flexibility of an online education, consider searching for an online college or university in your state. In-state programs often offer more affordable rates for locals. You should also consider hybrid degree programs, which allow students to earn multiple degrees simultaneously.

Best Colleges and Universities by State in 2020