Virtual vs. In-Person: Which College Experience is Right for You?

Online learning at the university level has come a long way in the last two decades. Today, most universities offer at least some virtual courses, and it may be possible to get a degree from a traditional brick-and-mortar university entirely or almost entirely through online classes. If you are trying to decide between the two types of education, there are a few things you should consider.


College isn’t cheap no matter how you do it. However, there are several different ways to pay for school, including both federal and private loans. If you are concerned about what your debt will look like, a student loan repayment calculator can help you determine what your monthly payments will be with a private lender. Keep in mind that a college degree generally means a higher income to balance these repayments. Virtual attendance might allow you to go to a more expensive college since you will not also have to pay for room and board in a new town. However, be sure to compare all costs since a brick-and-mortar college might still be cheaper, particularly if it is a community college.

College Experience

Virtual courses will not give you the full university experience that living on campus will, but if you are older and not seeking that or if you have other barriers, this might not be a factor. There is no reason to assume that online classes will be inferior. They will simply be different. In some cases, you may get a great deal more experience in expressing yourself through writing since your courses may include a lot of online discussion. This can be valuable. On the other hand, in-person courses may allow you to make more contacts with professors and fellow students. In certain programs, such as MBAs, these contacts are an important benefit, and in-person classes might be best. However, in other classes, there may still be opportunities to connect with people online, and your professor will probably have virtual office hours that you can take advantage of. Finally, you should consider how important it is for you to be involved in school-related extracurricular activities, most of which will require you to be on campus at least some of the time.

Your Temperament

Some people simply do not thrive in online courses. Doing well in this type of program can require a great deal of self-discipline. If you struggle to stay on top of assignments without the structure of a course that you must attend several times per week, online might not be right for you. You may feel less accountable in a virtual course. You may also find online classes somewhat lacking if you are energized by the presence of others. However, if you are an introvert, particularly one who already has a job that involves working around other people, virtual courses could be ideal, allowing you to thrive in a way you would not in a traditional classroom. Shy or less confident students might also be more comfortable expressing themselves in a chatroom or on a forum than in person.

Pace and Atmosphere

Virtual learning is arguably more efficient. You can move through the material as quickly as is comfortable for you. However, you will not experience the energy of being in a classroom and the discoveries that may come as your fellow students and your professor discuss a topic in real time. There is an intangible benefit that comes from sitting in a room with others where knowledge is occurring in leaps and bounds. Being a virtual student also reduces the likelihood of chance incidents or encounters that turn into something significant, such as running into someone on campus who becomes a longtime friend or contact. You may also find it more difficult to focus while you are at home on your computer versus being in a classroom. It may help if you can go to a coffee shop, a library or another public place to work.

Other Commitments

Virtual study can be excellent if you work full time and are trying to fit work around that. Some colleges do offer evening courses, so this could be an option if you want to attend some traditional classes. Keep in mind as well that many or perhaps even most colleges offer both types of classes, and a hybrid program may be the best one for you.

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