US NEWS: Weigh Online Degrees at Community College, For-Profit Programs

Career College Central Summary:

  • Students considering pursuing an online associate degree are most likely choosing between for-profit and community college options.
  • Traditional for-profits such as University of Phoenix and DeVry University have long been known for their online offerings, while community colleges actually serve the biggest share of exclusively online undergraduate students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Although both kinds of institutions have their merits, experts say making the right choice requires a careful analysis of which is the best educational fit. 
  • When it comes to selecting between the two options, students who have time to research their program have an advantage.
  • "There’s huge variations in community colleges," says educational technology consultant and market analyst Phil Hill. "So one of the first things to say about that is a consumer needs to be a much savvier consumer with community colleges."
  • That said, Hill, a blogger for e-Literate, believes students can find a community college program with the polish of a for-profit program if they put in the time. For less-informed consumers, however, he says the for-profit route might be a bit safer.
  • Students may also want to factor cost into their choice. 
  • For students looking to save money, community colleges are the way to go, says MiraCosta College freshman Liliha Hotard, who had considered the for-profit Grand Canyon Canyon University’s online program.
  • "I got multiple scholarships to there," says Hotard, who is pursuing an associate degree in communications. "But it was still just so much money. And I feel like if I can get my two-year degree reasonably, that would be wonderful."
  • To be fair, advisers at for-profit institutions are often willing to work with potential students to help them find as much financial aid as possible, Hill says. Even in an ideal scenario, though, the community college option is almost always cheaper, he adds.
  • Another factor to consider is academic support. 
  • Experts agree that in general for-profit institutions are better at providing online support for students who want to stay fully virtual. One reason is those online programs are more often organized as units independent of the school’s brick-and-mortar operation.
  • Another reason is the abundance of data for-profits keep on their online students, which more easily allows them to recognize academic struggles, says Eric Bettinger, an associate professor at Stanford University's education school.
  • Bettinger, who is partnering with DeVry to analyze the school's student performance data, suggests this isn't typically possible in the community college world.
  • "If I were to ask something like, well, did the student turn in an assignment, it’s very difficult for them to go figure out that data and isolate where the issues are," he says.
  • Before students sign up for an online associate degree at either a community college or a for-profit institutions, they should first make sure they can study entirely online, experts say.
  • Nearly all community colleges offer some online learning. But many that claim to have fully online programs still require students to visit campus to acquire textbooks, seek advising or even take select courses, says Russell Poulin, the director of policy and analysis at WCET, a cooperative that pushes for the effective use of technology in higher education.
  • Students looking to add more specialization to their studies might need to turn to a face-to-face course, he adds. Conversely, some students may find it comforting to be able to visit their real-life community college campus should any academic issues arise, Poulin says.

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