For high school students who are very serious about their competitive riding careers, the idea of earning a college degree online while simultaneously freeing up time to ride and compete can certainly seem like the ideal path to take after graduation. In particular, for students who hope to become professional horsemen and women (and whose parents will not permit them to forego a college degree in favor of “going pro” immediately after high school), the online route can gain added appeal – a way to have your cake and eat it too.
Now, before proceeding with the rest of this blog entry, I will preface my words with this information: I have two college degrees, one of which is a Bachelor’s in English that I earned from a traditional, four-year liberal arts college where I lived on campus and went to class every day. The other is a Master’s that I earned online while working full-time as a college admission counselor. The Master’s degree was earned through a local university with a brick and mortar campus and a host of traditional classes for both undergraduate and graduate students, but the online option worked better for me because I traveled 12 to 14 weeks per year and worked odd hours, so I couldn’t attend classes on campus on a regular basis. This personal experience with both kinds of education, however, has given me what I hope is a balanced perspective on the pros and cons of online degree programs.
Without a doubt, the best feature of online education – especially if you’re a professional horse person who needs to ride multiple horses every day and travel to shows each weekend – is flexibility. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you have an Internet connection, you can go to class. Maybe you’re a morning person who can get up at 4:00 or 5:00 and study for a few hours before you head to the barn or perhaps you do better in the evenings when all of your “horsework” is complete. (There’s also a third option, which is to use the middle of the day for a lunch and study break – the choice is yours!) Best of all, if you head out to a horse show or a clinic for a long weekend (or even for a full week, depending on your equestrian discipline), you won’t be absent from class.
Most online courses rely on Internet-based software and shared class message boards and/or chat rooms, which enables this flexibility and allows your professors to keep tabs on how your education is progressing. You’ll likely have a required level of participation (e.g. posts and comments in class discussion threads each week), as well as assignments like papers and journal entries to turn in periodically. Reading assignments and video or audio recordings are also staples of online programs. In my case, the majority of my professors required that we all post our initial responses to our weekly reading assignments by Tuesday evening at midnight, then comment periodically throughout the week to supplement the class discussion and propel it forward. Some courses had weekly writing assignments due and others relied on three or four major papers that were spread out over the course of the semester.
Beyond the flexibility of your daily schedule for online coursework, online degrees also offer flexibility in terms of how long it takes you to earn your degree. While some may wish to get in and complete the work as soon as they can (a two, three, or four-year degree), others may be content to work through the program at their own pace, perhaps limiting their course load to just one class per semester during the busy summer horse show season and taking a full or half load (two to four courses) during the fall and spring. Thanks to the flexibility of online programs (though each is unique in their requirements for graduation, so be sure to research thoroughly), you have the option to arrange your schedule in the way that will best benefit you. (Due to the nature of my work schedule, I took four and a half years to complete my Master’s.)
Finally, online programs still have plenty of options for financial aid for students who enroll in them. Each state and each college/university is different, but for the most part, you’ll be able to get financial aid in much the same way that you would if you were enrolled in a traditional program (e.g. through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA). For my Master’s degree, that meant that I was even entitled to a partial Michigan Tuition Grant (a statewide aid program for students who were Michigan residents with demonstrated financial need and who chose to attend a private college or university within the state’s borders), an award that helped pay for nearly half of my program.
If flexibility is one of the hallmark strengths of an online degree program, however, it must also be listed as one of the largest cons against online education as well. Why? Quite simply, without the formal, regimented structure of going to class at a prescribed time every day or week and having face-to-face meetings with faculty members who can hold your feet to the fire if you’re falling behind in your assignments, it’s rather easy to procrastinate on homework – especially when the date of an upcoming horse show looms and your daily “To Do” list in the barn grows ever longer. To find success in an online educational setting, you have to possess the self-motivation to make yourself study every single day if you hope to learn and advance in your chosen program. In fact, many people find that an online degree isn’t feasible for them because they require the more rigid and immediate learning environment of a classroom in order to succeed. (My cousin was this way when she completed her Master’s degree in education; she began her program online, but soon discovered that she needed to be in a classroom with other students and a professor in order to hold herself accountable for her learning, so she completed the rest of her coursework on campus.)
The diversity of online degree programs available to students can also lend confusion to the selection process when it comes to determining what program might be right for you. In the last three days alone, I’ve seen televised commercials for the University of Phoenix, as well as the University of Southern New Hampshire’s online programs and my Twitter feed is overwhelmed with discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”) being offered by many of the top named universities in the United States. (For more information and a basic overview of MOOCs from the New York Times, click here.) As a result, the process of determining which online program is right for you can sometimes be more daunting than the college search process for students seeking a traditional education! (Likewise, vetting the programs can also be an in-depth process thanks to the proliferation of for-profit colleges online and the ongoing discussions concerning their value for price and whether or not students who emerge with degrees from those programs will find their education recognized by future employers.)
If you decide that online education is something that you’d like to pursue for your undergraduate or graduate degree, I recommend that you take the following into consideration:
- Look for an online program that is affiliated with an established, non-profit brick and mortar campus. There are two reasons for this; primarily, for-profit colleges (like the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, etc.) are currently taking a beating in the media for offering very little educational value for your tuition dollar. Whether or not this is true no doubt varies by school and by campus, but at the end of the day, if you seek employment in a non-horse related field (or if you seek admission to a graduate program), you will be subject to less outward scrutiny if your degree is from Oregon State University or the University of Dayton, both of which offer online degrees but are also non-profit public universities with long-established campuses and the appropriate academic accreditation. Second, having the affiliation with a physical campus – especially if it’s local – gives you the flexibility to enroll in on-campus courses or hybrid (online/on campus) courses if you find that procrastination or real-world distractions are taking over your online educational goals.
- Ask the admission office to connect you with currently enrolled students to get their impressions of the program before you enroll. Similar to taking a campus tour, taking the opportunity to ask current online students what they think of a particular program (the strengths, the weaknesses, and their own discoveries about online education) will allow you to evaluate how you will fit into the program’s parameters – and likewise how it can fit into your busy life.
- Make sure that you select the right major, both for your future goals and for an online educational setting. By this, I mean that topics like business, communication, history, and even foreign languages can all be a good fit for people who wish to work in the horse industry (business in particular is a great choice!) and are likewise all subjects that can easily be taught in an online forum. Hands-on subjects, like biology and chemistry that require labs and may even necessitate one-on-one communication with professors and TAs aren’t necessarily a good fit, though – nor is equine education. (Granted, subjects like equine nutrition and even equine physiology can rather easily be taught online, but most professional horsemen agree that the hands-on nature of the equine industry as a whole does not lend itself well to being taught on the Internet.)
A mentor of mine was always fond of saying that education in any form is always a good thing, because in the end you wind up knowing more than you did when you started and I agree. But when it comes to seeking a college degree, not all educational formats are created equal – and the options are as varied as the students who seek them. With a lot of research and self-evaluation, however, you can no doubt find the type of program that will fulfill your needs. (And if you need support along the way, don’t hesitate to contact me.)