A typical college student will likely roll out of bed, grab coffee and head to class in pajamas. With the world at their fingertips, though, they don’t even need to worry about waking a roommate in the process or hauling a bag full of books across campus. Nearly 6 million people in the U.S. are enrolled in online programs, up from 3 million in 2012. The online classroom has been expanding rapidly across the country, especially in North Carolina.
Seated classes can provide comprehensive learning in a group setting that is hard to replicate online. But with the influx of technology, the necessity to travel to a campus is becoming outdated. New methods of connection and learning are expanding daily and enrollments in online courses for certifications, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees will continue to grow as well.
In a national 2015 survey from Learning House, about 66 percent of students enrolled virtually were less than 100 miles away from their campus. However, North Carolina is beating those statistics: Of the 6.1 percent of students exclusively taking online classes, 91 percent lived in state. Despite the convenience of logging into school online, most students appreciate having a main campus or branch nearby. North Carolina has 127 schools that offer online programs, including all 16 of the colleges in the University of North Carolina system and 58 community colleges across the state. Thirty-nine private schools and 14 for-profit institutions comprise the rest of the list.
Though recent high school grads aren’t overwhelming online universities, the shift to younger enrollment is growing. Millennials are drawn to virtual courses, in part because some high schools are requiring collegiate classes before graduation. The format and pacing is why enrollment for undergraduate online courses for students under the age of 25 increased from 25 percent in 2012 to 34 percent in 2015. The interest in alternative classrooms is likely to continue to increase as accessibility to technology improves.
Sarah Beth Short, a 20-year-old undergrad at Liberty University, is majoring in history and divides her time between Raleigh and Lumberton. She also is pursuing a career in acting and the flexibility of an online program offers her the opportunity to follow her dream simultaneously while continuing her education. She also has another reason it appealed to her.
“I wanted to avoid what people call the ‘college experience,’” adds Short. “While some kids attend college specifically to enjoy this experience, my desire was to acquire my education without those distractions. Studying online has definitely given me the ability to focus completely on my assignments.”
Though enrollment for younger online students (under 25) has increased, the average virtual learner is a 33-year-old white woman who is already employed with a full-time job, according to Learning House. With hectic work and family schedules, the ease of logging in at your own convenience in your own home is an attractive option. Women are dominating online courses, making up 70 percent of the student body to the 30 percent of their male counterparts.
“Most of the students are full-time workers, most have children, so the opportunity to take online classes works better with their schedules,” says Andrea Herrmann, a professor who teaches seated and online courses at East Carolina University and Coastal Carolina Community College.
As a professor, Herrmann finds many benefits to the non-traditional classroom. “You have the ability to think more and form a more personal answer. The questions and responses are more individualized for each student,” she says.
As a student, Kenneth Walton, studying for a Masters in Biomedical Science, also with Liberty University, finds similar advantages to distance learning. “Times have changed and online degrees are a reflection of Millennials’ on-the-go lifestyle,” says Walton, “The current American university suffers from overcrowded classrooms where students lack that traditional teacher and student dynamic. Because of that, most students suffer. Online classes are a solution for that lost dynamic.”
Online education does have some drawbacks.
“The inability to collect references because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. Many professors are reluctant to write professional school references because they have never physically met the student,” Walton says.
Plus, convenient location doesn’t always equate to convenient price. The cost is nearly the same. For institutions that aren’t exclusively online, the biggest cost saver will be room and board expenses, or fees from commuting and parking.