How to Compare Online, On-Campus Graduate Programs

Devon Haynie

Maureen Johnson doesn't regret her decision to earn an online master's degree in management from Troy University.

But if she could go back in time, the 38-year-old says she would have asked the school more questions about resources provided to online students.

"I had to be self-sufficient," she says. "There was no hand-holding."

As online education continues to explode, graduate schools are adding virtual programs alongside their traditional on-campus offerings. As a result, students like Johnson have a choice to make: Should they earn a master's degree through a school's online program? Or should they complete that same degree on campus?

For many graduate students, and for working adults in particular, an online program can provide the flexibility needed to finish school. But on-campus programs also have a variety of benefits, experts say.

[Discover the basics of an online class.]

When graduate students are making the decision about whether to enroll in an online or face-to-face program, experts suggest they consider the following factors.

1. Cost: Before deciding between a school's online or on-campus graduate program, experts suggest comparing the prices of the two courses of study.

Many people make the mistake of assuming that online courses are cheaper than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. But that's not always the case, school officials say.

"Some online programs are more expensive and some are less expensive, but in general they are the same price," says Jeff Olson, associate provost for online learning and services at St. Johns University.

2. Difficulty: Students shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that their school's online graduate program will be easier than the in-person version.

"The online environment is not for everybody," says Ibrahim Helou, dean of the college of business and public management at the University of La Verne. "If you are not self-motivated and very disciplined you are not going to be successful in an online program. If your writing skills are not excellent, online programs are not for you."

[Learn how to make a good impression in online classes.]

3. Accessibility of student services: While many online programs are ramping up their support services for students, experts say many others have a long way to go before they rival the offerings of their on-campus counterparts.

Students considering an online graduate degree should explore whether the program offers tutoring, advising, library services and career counseling, says Susan Aldridge, a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Ideally, she says, those services would be available and accessible to students outside of traditional working hours.

"If the support systems for the online students are only 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., they aren't that useful to the online students," she says.

4. Quality of faculty: It's not uncommon for schools to use different instructors for their online and on-campus programs, experts say.

When it comes to online programs, some schools rely heavily on adjunct instructors - professionals in their field who have relevant experience but not necessarily a doctorate. Some students prefer working with adjuncts because they tend to be up-to-speed on workplace trends and have industry connections.

Regardless of their preference, Christine Shakespeare, assistant vice president of continuing and professional education at Pace University, says students should know the differences between faculty in the online and on-campus program.

"From a quality perspective you want to be taught by the best in the field," she says.

5. Degree designation: In most instances, schools that offer online and on-campus versions of the same program will not distinguish between the two in their diplomas, says Peter Stokes, vice president for global strategy and business development at Northeastern University.

As a result, he says, online students shouldn't feel compelled to disclose whether they earned their degree online or in the physical classroom.

Even if schools distinguish between an online and on-campus degree, it shouldn't matter to employers, Stokes says.

"The reality is employers are and have been more comfortable with online education and training than either institutions or students," he says.

[Explore these common mistakes online students make.]

6. Network strength: Students deciding between a school's online and face-to-face graduate program should carefully consider how both programs foster relationships among students and faculty, experts say.

Programs with active alumni groups can help students land a job. Furthermore, students who have strong ties to classmates and faculty tend to have higher graduation rates than their peers who don't, Pace's Shakespeare says.

"In our experience, students need to feel connected," she says.

Johnson, the graduate of Alabama's Troy University, said her school invited online students to a football game so they could meet each other face-to-face.

Still, the working mom says she sometimes felt like she was "off in Neverland" without a physical library or student union.

"But that doesn't really make sense," she says. "Because I wouldn't have had time for that anyway."

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.