13 Scary Facts about Online College

Is there anything more terrifying than the first day at a new school?

Yes. Zombies. Zombies are way scarier . . . and tornadoes . . . and flesh-eating bacteria . . . and the idea of getting lost in the ancient catacombs beneath Paris and wandering aimlessly until meeting a cold, dark, solitary end.

Honestly, there are about a million things that are way scarier than school. But in the spirit of Halloween, we celebrate the distinctly shudder-inducing dimensions of everyday life. So even if school isn’t one of your phobias, surely you can recall a panic-stricken night of sleep before an exam; the cold sweat the first time you had to speak before an entire lecture hall; that oddball science teacher from when you were a kid, who one day, in the middle of the school year, suddenly abandoned his wife, family, and classroom to hunt for UFOs in New Mexico, never to be heard from again.


School can be scary. And I’m not just talking about old, cob-webby schoolhouses with creaky furnaces groaning in the basement. I’m talking about online college too. Sure, online college is convenient, it’s flexible, and the distance between you and your own refrigerator is never too far. On the surface, that doesn’t sound scary. But when you dig into the facts, there are a lot of dangers lurking around hidden corners. Virtual hidden corners, but hidden nonetheless.

Of course, we’re not trying to frighten you away from online education. If anything, Halloween is about facing your fears. It’s also about panhandling free candy from strangers. But let’s try to stay on topic.

What’s the best way to get over your fear? You must begin by achieving a better understanding of that which frightens you. Only then can you confront, overcome, and laugh in the face of your fear. The added benefit here is that you can laugh in the face of online education from the privacy of your home, so your classmates won’t see you and think you’re crazy.

With that, let’s visit the statistical house of horrors, shall we?

  1. Shady for-profit schools haunt the online sector. According to the Brookings Institute, between 2011 and 2012, eighteen percent of all associate degrees were conferred by for-profit institutions. While not all for-profit schools are inherently disreputable, a great many are. The for-profit sector’s recent history is a rap sheet of charges including recruitment scandals, academic fraud, and dispensation of worthless degrees. Be absolutely certain that you are getting your online education from a reputable institution.
  1. At-risk students are most vulnerable to for-profit exploitation. Of course it’s easy to advise that you only get your online education from a reputable institution. But many for-profit institutions have used the anonymity provided by the Web to rope in low-income students who might not have a lot of other educational options. According to an article in Salon, “More than sixty percent of students at for-profits receive need-based Pell Grants. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says that ninety-six percent took out student loans — twice as often as was the case with students in traditional four-year public institutions and more than seven times the rate of students at community colleges.” In other words, these schools need low-income students in order to make money. If you fall into this category, consider instead obtaining a degree from a tuition-free online college or attending a local community college, where legitimate online courses are becoming increasingly commonplace.
  2. Sixteen percent of all students from shady for-profit schools are behind on loan repayment, says a survey in USA Today. This compares to six percent of students attending public institutions. As an online student, you should know that the quality of the school you choose will have a direct bearing on your future ability to pay back your loans.
  • This is because non-graduation rates at shady for-profit schools are frighteningly high. According to college debt expert and senior vice president of Edvisors, Mark Kantrowitz, students who drop out of college are four times more likely to default on their loans than students who graduate. The population of non-graduates represents sixty-three percent of all defaults on loan repayment. Before you commit to an online college, check out the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, where you can learn about graduation rates, job prospects and more. If these rates are comparatively low at a college of your choice, that’s a pretty bad sign. Stay away.
  • Online students tend to get worse grades than traditional classroom students. A study by the Brookings Institute found that “taking a course online reduces student grades by 0.44 points on the traditional four-point grading scale, approximately a 0.33 standard deviation decline relative to taking a course in-person.” This amounted to an average grade of “C” for online students, relative to a “B−” for traditional students. But this is an issue that has nothing to do with shady for-profit schools. This is more about your ability to adapt to studying, learning, and managing your schedule as an online student. The numbers above suggest that this can be a truly challenging adjustment for many students.
  • The effects of struggling in an online setting can actually be cumulative. The study by the Brookings Institute also found that students who took an online course tended to earn a GPA roughly 0.15 points lower in the following semester than did their traditional classroom counterparts. This suggest that students who were unable to make the adjustment failed to absorb or retain enough foundational knowledge from their online courses to compete with traditional classroom students.
  • This explains why online students are more likely to flunk, or fail to complete, a given course than are their traditional classroom counterparts. A study from the University of California, Davis, found that community college students throughout the state were eleven percent less likely to complete an online course than were students taking this exact course in person.
  • This failure to complete can also have a cumulative impact, leading to overall higher dropout rates among online students. The Brookings study found that students who take at least one online course were about nine percent more likely to drop out in the following semester.
  • This is important because, as an online student, you may already be inherently at risk of non-graduation based on personal factors. A 2013 study by Babson Survey Research Group found that forty-one percent of chief academic officers reported that ‘retaining students was a greater problem for online courses than for face-to-face courses.” This may have as much to do with the various work, family, and economic challenges that many online students bring with them into higher education as it does academic difficulty. Before you proceed with your online education, make sure you are fully prepared to balance personal and professional responsibilities with your ambition to earn a degree.
  • Transferring credits can be really hard, possibly even nightmarish, especially if you attend the wrong online college. As you refine your search, eliminate any online schools whose credits are unlikely to transfer to a brick-and-mortar institution. If you plan to one day continue your education, you’ll want to know that the credits you earn today will have value tomorrow. Be aware that transferring credits can be a complicated, bureaucratic experience. Schools are getting better at this. According to The New York Times, “with nearly sixty percent of students switching campuses on their way to a bachelor’s degree, institutions are responding to the new educational reality.” That said, it still depends significantly on the quality and reputation of your online school. If you start calling around to traditional schools only to find out that your online college credits won’t transfer, chances are the quality of your online program leaves something to be desired.
  1. Plagiarism is rampant, and online colleges are definitely a factor. A Pew Research Center poll found that fifty-five percent of college presidents reported an increase in plagiarism in student papers over the prior decade (the other forty-five percent are living in denial obviously). Eighty-nine percent of those respondents confirmed that computers and Internet were major factors.
  2. This may be one reason why only half of all college presidents surveyed believe that online courses provide equal value to classroom courses. Of course, this low rate of enthusiasm may also imply that a few aging Luddites are still kicking around the front offices of our universities. On the other hand. . . 
  3. Only thirty-nine percent of adults who have taken an online class say the format’s educational quality is equal to that of a traditional classroom experience, according to EdTech. This low rate of positive response could suggest an array of factors, from a more diluted quality of schools to the challenges that individuals face making adjustments to the online medium.

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