4 Reasons to Consider a Local Online Degree Program

U.S. News & World Report | By Jordan Friedman | Editor

An ethnic woman sitting on the steps of her college doing research on her laptop

In one survey, three-quarters of respondents said they selected online programs based within 100 miles from where they live. (PEOPLEIMAGES.COM/GETTY IMAGES)

When Windy Hanson enrolled in Eastern Oregon University's liberal studies bachelor's program, she signed up mostly for online courses for the flexibility. But the Oregon resident also wanted some of the resources offered on campus nearby.

"I had to work, and I was a single mom at that time," says the 38-year-old, who graduated in 2013 and then earned her master's partially online last year at Oregon State University's Ecampus. "I needed to be able to have a campus close to me so that I could access my teachers and professors and things like that, but at the same time I also needed the freedom to be able to do coursework online to where I wasn't tied down to a class time."

Hanson isn't alone. As overall online course enrollment rises, more undergraduate and graduate online learners are choosing a program near their home, according to a 2016survey by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House, a company that helps colleges and universities develop quality online degree programs.


SURVEY: PERCENTAGE OF ONLINE STUDENTS LIVING WITHIN 50 MILES OF CAMPUS



The recent survey found three-quarters of online students enrolled in a program within 100 miles of where they live, and 55 percent chose one within 50 miles. Dave Clinefelter, chief academic officer for the Learning House and co-author of the study, says the trend isn't too surprising as more schools embrace online education.

"It's not uncommon for the community college down the road in the next town over or the state university 35 miles away to now have a fairly robust online program," says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, a group dedicated to advancing the quality of online learning.

Online students also visit campus more frequently than in the past, the study found. Fifty-seven percent of respondents visited one to five times in 2016 – a rise from 32 percent in 2014.

Experts say prospective online learners should consider many factors beyond proximity when picking an online program: reputation, programs of study, convenience and cost, to name just a few.

But for those considering an online program close to home, here are four reasons why doing so can be a good choice.

1. Access faculty and student services in person: Many online programs allow students to communicate with professors and support staff virtually, but some students prefer face-to-face to build stronger relationships, says Josie Miranda, an academic adviser at OSU's Ecampus for human development and family sciences students.

That was the case for Hanson, who says her online professors weren't always quick to respond to questions via email, for instance.

"It was just helpful to have access to the faculty without having a delay," the Eastern Oregon University grad says. She was able to foster connections with them by going to their offices.

Online students, experts say, may also want access to on-campus facilities, such as a library to do research.

2. Build a personal connection: Some online learners, says Pedersen from OLC, still want to feel like a member of the campus community but prefer to travel on their own time.

Attending events or joining on-site student clubs, for instance, makes that more feasible.

"They can be in Denver and they can come up for a football game, or they can come up for a homecoming parade, or they can be a part of the alumni events that we have, so that they can physically participate in the experience even though they're a distance student," says Trevor Eyden, manager of student engagement at Colorado State University Online.

3. Embrace a familiar environment: When students enroll in online programs near home, they're usually familiar with the school and trust its brand, Clinefelter says. Current or potential local employers might feel the same way, he says.

"You may have had friends or relatives that are alumni, or they work there; it's in the news, maybe they have a football team, and you see the scores in the paper and things like that," he says. "It's just the brand is strong and the reputation is strong in the area."

4. Take some classes on ground: While online programs can have in-person requirements, Miranda, from OSU, says some students simply appreciate the option to tackle more challenging classes face to face.

Experts caution online students, however, to determine whether enrolling in an on-campus course will impact tuition or financial aid in any way.

As an undergrad, Hanson says, she wanted in-person instruction for courses she found more difficult, including art and math.

"I felt like I would get more value out of them if I was actually in a classroom," she says.

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Tags: online education, colleges, graduate schools, students, education, college applications

Jordan Friedman is an online education editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at jfriedman@usnews.com.