Should I Take College Courses Online?

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College Courses Online

By: Dr. John D. Moore

So you are thinking of taking college courses online, earning that degree that you have been thinking about for many years now.  That is great! Let me be the first to applaud you for taking the initial steps to earn an important life credential. The decision to earn a college degree is probably one of the most important investments you will make in your lifetime. The question of earning a credential online comes up frequently among clients seeking career counseling and coaching services

At the time of this post, it is estimated that somewhere around 7 million students are taking some type of course via distance learning. That’s a lot of people! Most schools now-a-days offer classes and/or degrees online. Local brick and mortar examples include the University of Illinois, DePaul University and Northwestern University. These programs are in addition to the cadre of universities and colleges that are exclusively online.

Earning that degree can help you reach important life goals. Examples including moving from a job to a career, earning more money and having a marketable credential. But here is the thing you need to know – the process of earning college credit online is a LOT of work and is not easy.

I am not saying this to scare you or get all negative. Instead, I want to help you gain greater insight into what it really takes to earn a degree online.

The inspiration for this article came to me after watching more than a few students fail college in both the online format and hybrid settings. In most all cases, these well intentioned learners failed because they made rosy colored assumptions about taking a college class through the Internet.  I recently spoke about adult learners and distance education in an article appearing in the Chicago Tribune.

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Online College and the 5 Questions

Be warned now – the questions I want you to think about are not ones that most colleges or universities will likely ask. Why? Simply because they are not exactly designed to get you to sign on the dotted line.

As an aside, I am going to make the assumption you have already thought about the college’s accreditation status. If you haven’t, be sure to read this article from U.S. News and World Report.

Think of what follows as mental guideposts, designed to help you self-reflect and arrive at honest answers about how successful you may be in a given online degree program. Hopefully, you will find what follows practical in nature, placing you, the education consumer, in the right mental framework to make smart, informed choices about the investment you are contemplating.

Let’s jump right in!

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1) Do I have the time to take college courses online?

This particular question is perhaps the most difficult one that you as a potential online learner should ask yourself before you sign any documentation to take a college online course or enroll in a college degree program via distance learning. Here I am specifically talking about online college admissions documents and online forms for student loans (aka: Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FASA]).

Do I have the time to take college courses online?  I cannot emphasize this question enough. Having a realistic understanding of your ability to dedicate time to a college course is critical to your success.

Knowing how much time that you will need to put aside for studying will largely depend upon the course you are enrolled in, the specific degree program you are thinking about and the general rigor of the coursework. Most schools will tell you the average time to put aside is anywhere between 10-15 hours per week. I am here to tell you that may not be completely accurate!

Schools like to use averages when they get the proverbial “How much time will it take me” question from prospective students. These cookie cutter answers that well intentioned admissions specialists share don’t do you a lick of good if, for example, you are enrolled in a doctoral program with 10 page papers due each week! On the flip-side, an undergraduate course in business ethics may only take you 5 hours of study time per week, depending upon the dynamics.

Tip: If you really want to know how much time a given course at a school takes to complete, ask the admissions counselor or the professor of that class for the syllabus. If you are not able to get your hands on this information, find out what kind of assignments are involved in the class, particularly any information you can discover about essays and quizzes.

This approach is truly the only way you are going to know how much time you need to set aside each week to successfully complete a class or degree program online.

Final point here – remember online classes does not mean independent learning! There are usually very strict time tables involved regarding when assignments are due, including classroom discussion forum assignments

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2) Is my home life stable?

This second question you need to ask yourself before you commit to taking an online class. You may be wondering: What does a stable home life mean?

Essentially, a stable home life in the context of online learning means being in an environment that is emotionally nurturing and free of as many distractions as possible. I recognize that everyone has some amount of turbulence going on at any one point in time however – some bumps are more problematic than others when it comes to online college courses.

So what “bumps” (aka life events) am I talking about here? A few examples that come to mind include relationship problems, mental health challenges, divorce procedures or family drama. While some of these situations may be temporary in nature (or at least seem that way) you need to really be honest with yourself and assess if these issues are such that they will derail your education investment.

Sometimes waiting for a life storm to pass can be very helpful with launching a new direction. Just a practical tip here from someone who has seen too many students blow a wad of money on a degree program that they were unable to focus on because of instability at home.

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3) Do I have the financial resources for online college?

You may be thinking, “Why on earth would this be mentioned?” The answer is very simple – there are sometimes “hidden” costs connected to online learning that you may have not have thought about or budgeted for.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you decide to enroll in an online degree program for Business Management. The school tells you the cost of tuition is “X” amount of dollars. You decide that cost fits into your budget and sign the papers to begin enrollment.

Once you get through your “Orientation Course” you then sign up for one of the required classes (aka core courses) that are required for your degree. Then it happens – wham! You find out that you have to pay hundreds of extra dollars in fees and costs that you never knew about.

What am I talking about here?

Hidden, expensive fees for things like books, guides, labs and technology fees. Some of these schools have jacked up the fees so high that it should be a crime. Have you ever gone to the ATM and noticed the machine (bank) wants to charge you an extra $3.00 or $4.00 to use the box? It’s not that much different with some colleges and schools (online or ground based).

Think of it this way. When you fly a major airline from point A to point B, you already know to expect to pay extra money in addition to the ticket price for things like checked bags or food. Think of education in much the same way.

There are sometimes fees that are “extra” that are not always clearly identified. FYI: They are supposed to be transparent per various laws and accrediting rules however, I am going to be straight forward with you here – the the fees can be hard to find because they are often hidden in the fine print!

I need to say here not every college that offers online courses charges these extra fees and not all of them try to hide the costs. It’s up to you as an education consumer to do your homework and read everything all the same. So here is my practical tip – don’t you dare sign anything until you know the total cost of the online college class you want to take and most importantly, if you can afford it!

The main point here is simple – make sure you have the resources to pay for school. In many cases, tuition is not cheap! Folks, bear in mind that a lot of colleges are all too quick to get you to sign up for classes and “help” you with tuition assistance and loan paperwork at the beginning of the process. Once they have you however, you are usually locked in. Get the whole picture before you sign up for that class and see if you can afford it.

4) Can I work full-time and/or run a household and be in school?

Yep, yep – I went there and asked the question that many schools won’t ask you. This point relates to question #1 about time management but with a twist. If you have the type of job that requires you to work overtime, irregular work hours or in a way that is unpredictable, think twice before committing to a degree program via distance learning.

As mentioned earlier, colleges offering online courses have fairly strict rules about when assignments must be turned in. Not to be nasty but your professor will dock you points for late assignment submissions. If you run a busy household or work a job with crazy work hours, don’t expect the instructor you have in your college course to make exceptions for you. Just keeping it real.

While the admissions rep at the school may tell you “our professors try to work with students”, you need to know they may not be giving you the entire story. Most online faculty members have high teaching loads and are not able to make exceptions for you because you have “special” circumstances like work. The only exception to these rules are special situations, such as a military deployment or medical emergency – and both most likely need to have documentation.

At the very least, think carefully about the type of college course you enroll in when balanced with your household/work responsibilities. A lot of schools have very structured degree programs with rigid course schedules.

An example might be an undergraduate biology class crammed into five weeks. In this course (for example) it would not be uncommon to see a writing assignment due each week in APA format, weekly quizzes and discussion assignments. These types of assignment deliverables carry penalties if they are not turned in on time.

Again, find out the facts and then weigh this information with your current responsibility obligations to your household or employer (or both).

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5) Are my time management goals realistic?

This particular point may seem obvious but worth mentioning all the same. What do realistic time management goals mean in the context of online learning? Simply put, it means looking at your schedule in a way that is free of distortions, commonly referred to as magical thinking.

For example, a realistic goal may be to take 1 college course per tem for the first year and then gradually work your way up to 2 courses at a time. An unrealistic goal however would be trying to take 3 courses at one time while also working full time and heading up a household.

A good way to check and see if your goals are realistic is to list out what is currently on your plate in the here and now. Sometimes when we see things on paper, it helps to create clarity. If you have traditionally struggled with time management issues, be sure to read some of these time management tips!


The decision to attend college is a big one. I absolutely encourage you to pursue your higher education dreams but do it in a way that sets yourself up for success rather than failure. You have too much riding on the line not to take a careful, considered approach!

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and best wishes to you in the future!