If you’re curious about the benefits of online learning to help you get back to school while balancing full-time work and family commitments, you’re not alone.
A growing number of today’s college and university students are working full-time, raising families, and balancing other commitments while working towards a degree.
According to a 2016 report by the Online Learning Consortium, 85% of Americans enrolled in college are considered non-traditional students, with 75% being 25 years of age or older. According to the National Adult Learner Coalition (NALC), non-traditional students often face unique barriers to graduating. In fact, a 2017 NALC report found that 38% of college students with additional financial and family responsibilities drop out of school within their freshman year.
Ray Schroeder, director of the UPCEA Center for Online Leadership, said those numbers weren’t surprising.
Adult learners often have less time, less flexibility in their schedules, and less financial support dollars than their 18-year-old counterparts, Schroeder said. Throw family commitments into the mix, and completing a college degree can seem impossible.
However, Schroeder said there are many benefits of online courses, from increased flexibility to a more personalized learning experience, that can help improve educational attainment for adult learners.
1. Online learning offers more flexible scheduling than traditional campus-based programs.
As you consider returning to school while balancing full-time work and family commitments, you’re probably wondering how to find time for lectures, study, and projects. Flexible timing is one of the main benefits of online learning, especially for adult learners.
Many online degree programs offer students 24/7 access to study materials, email access to faculty and online tutors, and student message boards to ensure you can study whenever you have time—whether early in the morning, late at night or during your free time lunch break.
“Older students often don’t have the means or the desire to move to a university campus,” Schröder said. “Access to online learning opportunities gives them the freedom to plan classes around their lives, rather than their lives around their classes.”
2. Online learning provides a more personalized learning experience.
While classroom instruction works well for many students, it may not be the way you learn best.
One of the benefits of online instruction is the wide variety of learning materials available to students instead of traditional face-to-face events – from instructional videos and digital guides to discussion forums, infographics and webinars.
Having more options for learning course material allows you to personalize your learning experience.
“Online learning offers new opportunities to interact and collaborate with other students and the professor,” said Andrew Grauer, CEO of online tutoring platform Course Hero. “Help is no longer limited to the classroom or office hours… The online availability of course materials gives students the opportunity to reflect on concepts in a way that best suits their learning style and leads to a deeper understanding of the subject. ”
3. Online learning can improve access to and affordability of higher education.
The financial constraints of returning to school are one of the most common hurdles that can prevent you from earning a degree. In addition to tuition, campus-based programs often come with additional tuition fees, expensive textbooks, and living or transportation costs.
However, many online degree programs can help you reduce college expenses—whether it’s by saving on the cost of the school itself, or by saving on the cost of getting to campus, hiring extra childcare, or reducing your hours of work.
“Online learning opens up the opportunity for more adult learners to pursue degrees because of the flexibility it offers,” said Sarah Oxley, Marketing Communications Manager for i-to-i, an online English as a second language program. “In the past, some adult learners have had to give up job roles or renegotiate hours and make do with lower pay to complete classroom learning.”
4. Online learning can help increase completion rates for adult learners.
Getting a degree is never easy, but when you’re working alongside school or starting a family, the challenges are even greater. However, learning online can help improve your chances of graduating.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the rate of students aged 25-29 completing a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 25% in 1995 to 36% in 2015.
At the same time, online or distance learning has grown in popularity. In 2015, 28% of all college students in the US — 5.8 million students — were taking at least one online course — a 3.9% increase from the previous year and the thirteenth consecutive year of growth in enrollment, according to the yearbook for distance learning online testimony from the Babson Survey Research Group.
“We don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the same period that the internet went mainstream,” Grauer said. “It has made online learning possible, and the flexibility of this format has enabled continuing education in ways that would not be possible for many adults through traditional classroom learning.”
5. Online learning can lead to better career prospects.
Post-secondary education is more important than ever in today’s workplace. According to NALC, by 2020, 65% of American jobs will require some level of post-secondary education. With increased flexibility and accessibility, online degree and professional training programs can help you gain the skills you need to thrive in today’s economy.
“We understand that most people entering the workforce today will likely hold a dozen different positions in multiple different fields over the course of their working lives,” Schroeder said. “Professional development and certification of skills, knowledge and abilities are essential for advancement and employment in the rapidly changing workforce. Online learning is the way to acquire the tools and skills for new positions and careers.”
The benefits of online learning show no signs of slowing down. According to Schroeder, online degree programs will become even more powerful as new technologies, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence, improve learning opportunities.
Susan Bogle is a higher education marketing and student recruitment specialist. Follow her on Twitter @Suze1776 or connect on LinkedIn.