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Online degrees vs. In-person degrees: Is there a difference?

We are in the midst of a revolution in higher education. Online education had its first tentative experiments less than 30 years ago and has grown to occupy a major segment of the market.

The pandemic accelerated an already strong trend. In the fall of 2020, 75% of all undergraduate students took at least one online course — a dramatic increase from the year before. At this point, most colleges and universities offer online courses and online education is likely to continue growing.

For adults thinking about returning to school to finish their degree, online classes are especially attractive because of the flexibility they offer. 

But a natural question is, “How does taking online college classes compare to the more traditional model of on-campus education?” In this article, we’ll explain how online classes work and explore the differences between these two modes of learning.

How do online college classes work? 

All online classes are, of course, online — which means they are completed in front of your computer. But there are two distinctly different ways they can be structured: 

  • Synchronously: This type of class meets at scheduled times, when all students are expected to be in a virtual classroom together on a video conferencing platform like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. It can be very similar to a traditional classroom, with a teacher lecturing or leading a discussion.
  • Asynchronously: For these types of courses, students can work through course materials at their own pace and on their own schedule. There are no scheduled class meetings. Materials can include video lectures, interactive modules, and other ways of presenting materials.

Online courses also often add elements to enable peer interaction, like online discussion boards or small group virtual meetings. 

Other aspects of online courses will be virtually the same as traditional ones. You’ll have reading assignments, tests, papers to write, and possibly virtual meetings with your instructor. 

How do in-person and online college classes compare?

The most obvious difference between these two is the mode of presentation. One is in person and one is on the screen. But this difference has a number of implications we need to unpack. In this section, we’ll look at the advantages specific to each form of learning.

Advantages of Online College Classes


The biggest advantage that comes with online education is flexibility. A traditional college degree requires you to spend four or five years on or near a campus with many of your daytime hours in the classroom.

This means you are limited in where you can live and may need to move to attend college. It also means you won’t be able to work in a job with regular daytime hours.

Earning an online degree removes those limitations. You can study from anywhere and, especially with asynchronous courses, you can work a regular daytime job.

Cost Savings

Earning your degree online can save you a lot of money. Part of the reason is that tuition costs are often lower for online courses than for their traditional counterparts.

There are also indirect reasons online education can cost less. Relocating can be a significant expense, but there’s no need to do so with an online degree. You can stay in your present residence and keep your living expenses the same. Even if you live in the same town as the school you’re attending, online coursework can save you hundreds in transportation and meal costs.

The other reason your costs can be lower is that you can work a regular job much more easily while completing your studies. This doesn’t reduce what you pay for your education, but it can greatly increase what you earn while in school, making your net cost lower.


Asynchronous courses free you to move through the material according to your own schedule. This means it’s much easier to make earning your degree fit within a busy schedule. 

In addition, online degree programs often offer part-time options, accelerated courses, and other ways to find a pace that works for you.

Advantages of In-Person Classes

Enhanced Learning

Learning online is great, but it is difficult to reproduce the classroom experience. Research has shown that academic performance tends to be stronger for those taking in-person classes.

Enhanced Connection

Unsurprisingly, one of the advantages of in-person learning has to do with relationships. It is harder to forge connections online; thus, those in a traditional classroom report feeling more connected to their classmates and the professor.

Campus Opportunities

On a traditional campus, a lot happens outside the classroom. Students have opportunities for building community, exploring hobbies, and honing their talents through things like student organizations, athletics, and events.

Which is better: on-campus or online college classes?

As you can see, both options have advantages. There is no one answer to which is better; it depends upon what matters most to you. Some students will prioritize a traditional campus experience while others might be in a season of life where convenience is much more important. 

Fortunately, online education has grown to the point where both options are widely available. Either one can be an excellent way to earn your degree. We hope this article has given you some helpful information to consider as you decide the path that makes the most sense for you.

Online or in-person? Find both at Athens State.

At Athens State University, we know education isn’t one size fits all. Our goal is to provide you with maximum flexibility to earn your degree, whether that means online, on campus, or in one of our hybrid programs.

As one of the nation’s only upper-division universities, we have a particular focus on helping students who have begun their degrees elsewhere to finish well. We understand your need for an education that is accessible and affordable as you balance completing your degree with the other responsibilities of life.

If you’re ready to finish what you began, explore all of our academic programs or see our Adult Degree Program, which lets you leverage your experience to finish even faster.

Have questions? Let’s connect