Online vs. Traditional Degree: Similarities and Differences

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published September 29, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When you begin researching colleges to earn your academic accreditation, it's important to consider the format for the programs they offer. Generally, you can choose between an online program or a traditional program. Learning about each path can help you identify the one that best fits your learning style and lifestyle. In this article, we discuss online vs. traditional degrees and explore the similarities and differences between them.

Related: Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes: Which Type Is Best For You?

What is an online degree?

An online degree is an accreditation you can earn from a college or university by participating in one of their digital degree programs. These degree programs operate completely online, meaning you don't physically attend any of your courses on campus. Because there's no in-person interaction between you and your classmates or professors, communication can occur through various other digital mediums, like video calls, email or online student boards. Sometimes, you might use more than one communication medium, though that is completely up to the professor's preferences and discretion.

Online degrees require students to manage their own schedules and workflow more diligently because they don't have a professor to hold them accountable at every class period. Generally, you can earn an online degree in any field that doesn't require hands-on physical labor, so professions like writers and programmers can often benefit from this type of program. Despite being online-based, you typically won't see the word "online" on the diploma you earn. Getting an online degree doesn't discredit the legitimacy of the degree, so long as it's from an accredited school.

Related: 30 of the Highest Paying Online Degrees

What is a traditional degree?

A traditional degree is an accreditation you earn from an academic institution by participating and completing one of their programs. Unlike the online degree, a traditional degree is one that you obtain by attending physical classes on campus. While some programs may incorporate elements of online study and work, most of the lectures, assignment reviews and exams occur in person. Taking the traditional route allows you to address your professor and peers directly, which can be more socially fulfilling.

Traditional degrees are the most common types of higher-learning education you can earn. Schools offer traditional degrees for most subjects, though there are some which function through a hybrid system. Hybrid traditional degrees provide part of the course in-person and the other half online. This dual-learning system can be beneficial for students because it allows them to experience the in-person sessions, while still having the independence of online academics.

Related: 25 Most Useful Majors To Get Your Degree In

Online vs. traditional degree

Here are the similarities and differences between an online vs. traditional degree:

Similarities

Here are some of the similarities between an online and traditional degree:

Coursework

The coursework between the degree paths is likely to be very similar. As long as you can complete the assignments online, then both paths generally offer projects that function nearly identical to one another. While there may be slight differences depending on the specific work, variations in the material are usually minimal.

Grading system

Whether you complete a project online or in class, the broader grading system is usually going to be the same. Teachers can still grade assignments based on your participation and individual contributions. The mode that you engage with the assignments and homework may be different, but the grading system itself may only feature minor variations.

Social interaction

Online students get to talk and interact with their classmates via discussion boards and other means of online communication. While in-person students interact with their peers and professors in the classroom, an online student does so through video calls and synchronized classroom meetings. While each uses a different medium, both get to experience working and socially interacting with classmates.

Available degrees

The courses and degrees that are available with each one ultimately depend on the type of degree and the school's priorities. Many degrees you can obtain online are also available through the traditional academic path. However, there are some schools that offer online-exclusive and in-person-only degrees.

Completion time

Most college programs operate on a four to six-month semester schedule. Whether you choose an online or traditional degree path, this system is likely to remain the same. As such, the time it takes to complete either is also going to be the same unless you expedite your progress, such as by enrolling in summer classes.

Job opportunities

A person who earns an online degree is typically going to have the same job opportunities available as one who earns a traditional degree. For example, if you earn a social work degree online or in person, you can access and apply to all the same social work job openings. This means that you can pursue the same career path regardless of the format in which you completed your degree.

Salary potential

Employers usually base a person's salary on several factors, such as their work experience, academic accreditations, geographical location, certifications and expertise. Getting a degree online or traditionally typically doesn't factor into this assessment. Most employers usually focus on whether you possess most of the qualifications to meet their job requirements.

Differences

Here are a few essential differences between an online and traditional degree:

Skills

Here are the necessary skills to complete an online degree program:

  • Self-discipline: When a student enrolls in an online program, it can be helpful for them to have self-discipline to help keep themselves on task and fulfill their work diligently. Online students manage their own workload and create a schedule to ensure they complete their assignments in a timely manner, holding themselves accountable throughout the entire process.

  • Time management: Because online students can work at their own speed, they generally benefit from the ability to manage their time and ensure they're able to meet all of their assignment deadlines. Using a planner is one way in which students can track their work and allocate time for each project.

  • Focus: With access to the internet at any time during an online program, more distractions may be present. It can be important for a student obtaining an online degree to focus on getting their work done and removing distractions.

  • Computer competency: Because the program takes place completely online, it's helpful for a student to have familiarity and competency using a computer and the internet.

  • Writing: Without any in-person interactions or communications, online degree students primarily communicate through writing. Therefore, this skill is crucial for them so they can relay their thoughts and concerns to the professor and discuss projects and assignments with their other classmates.

Here are the required skills to complete a traditional degree program:

  • Teamwork: Because students often review their assignments and complete projects in person during the class period, teamwork is a necessary skill for this purpose. With this capability, a student can collaborate more efficiently with their peers and team members and fulfill their portion of the group project.

  • Interpersonal skills: Interpersonal skills describe a person's ability to connect with others and form meaningful relationships with them. With this skill, a student can become more familiar with their classmates and potentially build long-lasting friendships and professional relationships with them.

  • Routine-oriented: Unlike online students who can work within their own schedule and workflow, traditional students generally follow a strict routine to ensure they meet all the requirements of the program. This could mean having to wake up at a specific time every day so they can make it to their class on time.

  • Participation: Participation refers to a student's ability to take part in the discussions and activities that go on during the class period. This skill may be important to certain professors, especially those who designate a portion of the student's overall grade based on how well and diligently they participate in the class.

Related: 18 Student Skills for Effective Learning

Costs and tuition

Typically, the cost and tuition for an online program are cheaper than that of a traditional degree. This is because there are often fewer overhead expenses necessary for online programs to operate. Also, students don't have to pay any transportation expenses or housing costs, and they may need fewer course materials.

Instruction format

One of the primary differences between an online and traditional degree is the instruction format. A professor teaching an online course may give instruction through video chats or posting lectures within the course modules. A traditional professor teaches directly to their students, allowing them to provide immediate feedback and assistance.

Commute

Commute refers to the amount of time it takes for a person to travel from one location to another. Because the online degree is completely remote, a student doesn't have to travel and can start classes within minutes. A traditional student has to factor in their commute time when they prepare for class and leave campus.

Exam format

The exam format may have some significant differences depending on degree path. For online courses, you can use your book and other resources to answer questions. For traditional courses, you take an exam at the discretion of the professor. Some of them may not allow you to use any online or book resources to complete an exam.

Pace

Online degree students benefit from being able to set their own pace. This means they can create their own schedule and start class whenever they want. In comparison, a traditional degree student has to follow by the pace and flow of the professor, somewhat limiting how much autonomy they have.

Flexibility

Online degree programs are much more flexible for students. This allows them to take intermittent breaks or work part time. Traditional students generally stay within the classroom for the entire period.

Academic resources

Traditional students have access to more academic resources than online students. Because they're on campus, they can access student success centers and counselors. Facilities like gyms, pools, stadiums and student unions are also available to them.

Networking opportunities

Traditional students generally have an easier time building meaningful network connections with their peers, professors and mentors. Because they see them in person, they can interact with these people more frequently. Online students are more isolated and may not have access to the same networking opportunities.

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