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What is the Difference Between a Traditional Degree and an Online Degree?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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There can be many differences between a traditional degree and an online degree or there can be few. Some of these distinctions are most felt when an online degree is earned from a non-accredited university, and others when a student gets his diploma or transcripts. For instance, some schools automatically make note that the student obtained his degree online, while others don’t, and some online schools have physical campuses, so the actual weight of the degree is not considerably less than if he attended classes on the campus. Additionally, the way each type of degree can be weighed, provided they both come from accredited schools, depends on the student's major and career path, and also if the degree is a first stop toward additional studies, as in graduate programs.

Some students and educators contend that the differences between traditional and online learning are felt by the students, but may not be assessed by future employers. A very thorough program that is conducted online is still different than the experience of taking classes in a traditional classroom setting. Some classes may have a certain amount of student participation, where students are learning together, and others are self-paced and self-directed. The truth of “physical campus” classes is that learning opportunities exist not just from teachers, but from other students too.

Participation and discussion in a classroom may enhance a student's education, giving him opportunities for thinking about the things he learns in different ways. Moreover, some general education courses have a certain amount of hands on requirements, such as science labs. It’s hard to know how online classes would match these requirements, though a non-science major may not ever need to have taken a lab. Nevertheless, an online degree from a well-respected, accredited university isn't likely to be viewed as that different, though it may make sense to get a degree from a university that also has a physical campus and doesn’t specify that the degree was earned online.

There may be some differences between a traditional degree and an online degree if a student plans to attend graduate school. Graduate school applications often rely on you getting excellent letters of recommendation from instructors. Never meeting the instructors except in an online setting often means that it's more difficult for a student to make a great impression. Instructors often don’t get to know students in a personal way, as they would if they were sitting in their classes; they may not even know what the people taking the class look like. This can take the glow off a recommendation, and top grad schools often look for letters of reference from instructors who are very well known, so students may be somewhat limited in terms of where they can go to continue to pursue their education.

Certain fields where a large amount of practical work is required, such as in health care fields, may mean there are big differences between traditional and online training. A nursing student who is pursuing a degree from an online university that does not have an accepted program for him to complete his practicum hours, may find that it's almost impossible to get employment, and the degree may not be worth the paper it’s printed on. Since much of a nursing degree depends on learning things hands on, students may be better served by obtaining a traditional degree.

Some universities offer many online courses, which can help with things like commuting to school, but still require students to spend some time on a physical campus. Degrees received from these universities aren’t considered online degrees and will typically match up well with any traditional degree. Taking some classes online may be a good option if a student works well independently, and if he has a very tight schedule. The student will still probably need to complete some of his courses at the university, which may be the best of both worlds.

Naturally, the biggest differences between a traditional degree and an online degree may be felt by people who get their degree from a university that is not accredited. This basically means that various learning institutions have not judged the degree to be as good as a traditional degree. This may matter hugely if the person is seeking employment or wants to continue his education. Students should always make sure that any university they attend has an excellent reputation and is accredited so that other universities and employers will recognize the degree.

PracticalAdultInsights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By GreenWeaver — On Nov 03, 2010

Latte31- It is also important to look at the financial aid options available to you.

The financial aid can make a difference because online school tuition tends to be higher than in traditional colleges.

Some online schools offer payment plans where you can finance your tuition.

You really have to weigh the cost of the degree with the actual expected salary. If you are looking to get into a field that is not very marketable you may have trouble finding a job when you get your degree and may have trouble paying your student loans.

By latte31 — On Nov 03, 2010

Cupcake15- When you consider degree programs online you have to realize the amount of work that is required per course.

Too often people have the misconception that because the work is flexible that it must be easier.

It is actually harder because you do not have the structure that you otherwise would have if you would be attending a traditional classroom.

Also, like a traditional classroom course, each three credit hour class represents about ten hours of homework.

So if you are working full time you will have to take this into consideration. In addition, you will also have to see what type of support is offered if you have a question.

What kind of access will you have to the professor? Also what kind of interaction will you have with the other students. Will there be a forum in which other students from the class can discuss questions and problems?

These are all things that you need to consider when considering an online degree.

By cupcake15 — On Nov 03, 2010

Suntan12-The question many people have is, “Are online degrees credible?”

Online degrees are more mainstream and respected now, but it is critical to obtain the accreditation status of the school you seek to get a degree from.

Schools that are not accredited will mean that the degree from the institution will not be recognized and you would have wasted your money on a useless degree.

Employers also know which schools are accredited so it important to go to the Department of Education website and view the actual accreditation.

There are many schools that offer history degrees online as well as science degrees. Many mainstream universities now offer online college degrees as well.

For example, Florida International University offers a bachelors in Business Degree and the University of South Florida offers an education degree in Gifted Education.

It is as an online college degree masters for educators with an existing teaching license. These types of degree programs are great from working teachers because they can get their Masters degree faster.

By suntan12 — On Nov 03, 2010

Online degree vs. a traditional degree is something that a lot of people are now considering. The online college degree makes it accessible for a lot of nontraditional students to earn their college degree from the comforts of their own home.

This flexibility allows would be students the opportunity to hold a full time job while earning their degree from home.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor,...
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