The digital revolution has forever changed how students obtain a higher education. According to U.S. News & World Report, more students are enrolled in at least one online college class than ever before. Then, consider these numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics: In fall 2012, the largest U.S. university campus by enrollment was Arizona State University, which clocked in at 60,169 students. Now compare this to the 380,232 students enrolled in the primarily online University of Phoenix, or the 70,011 enrolled in the all-online Kaplan University.

What’s it all mean for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities? Is online learning poised to become the new norm?

Online Learning Goes Mainstream

It’s doubtful the virtual classroom will replace the physical classroom anytime soon, but the evidence does suggest that distance education will become the predominant form of education in the future. What’s abundantly clear is that traditional universities are offering more online classes in an effort to compete with distance education universities.

For example, in fall 2012 the educational powerhouses MIT and Harvard launched edX, a venture that offers free online courses to anybody with an Internet connection, with the goal of creating an online community attended by millions. Though these particular types of classes, known as massive open online courses (MOOCs), offer no credit toward a degree, they are surging in popularity, and the two institutions expect other respected universities to join in this venture. Similarly, Stanford has Udacity, and Princeton, Yale and Carnegie Mellon are following suit with their own MOOCs. Add to this the number of the nation’s top programs that can be found online, and it’s evident higher education is experiencing a revolution.

The Pros of Getting an Online Education

So what does online education have going for it?

Improves accessibility. Online education makes it easier for everyone to get the same quality of education, whereas attending traditional college isn’t always possible to those from certain geographical areas or walks of life. Disabled students may find access to a higher education is easier than attending college on a traditional campus, and people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college due to work and family obligations can now study on their own time from the comfort of home.

It’s usually cheaper. There are many factors that come into play as far as which is more expensive, online school or brick-and-mortar colleges, including whether a student chooses to go to a public or private institution, in-state or out-of-state, and the amount of financial aid granted. One thing is for certain – the costs associated with attending a traditional college (room and board, commuting costs) are greater than attending college online.

The Cons of Online Learning

There are drawbacks to online learning, as well.

Lack of widespread respect. When it comes to hiring graduates who earned their degrees online, it’s really a crapshoot as to whether the hiring manager will view that degree as valid. Skepticism still exists, especially when it comes to the matter of accreditation.

Lack of “real world” experience. Students are in a more isolated learning environment online. Many cite the inability to exchange ideas with peers and educators face to face as a detraction.

Will State Schools Join the Frenzy?

The prized concept of a free marketplace is playing to the advantage of distance education students. While online schools have high enrollment numbers, state schools are in the position of being able to offer the flexibility distance education provides while still offering degrees held in high esteem by businesses and companies across America. Most states prize education and funnel taxpayer money to their state schools in an effort to reduce the financial burden on students. In cases where a student is pursuing a degree based on a cost perspective, state schools can often be much more affordable.

Online universities are certainly expected to gain more momentum, as people are increasingly interested in going to college exclusively online. How dramatically this will affect higher education as it exists today remains to be seen.

For more than 30 years, prospective college students and parents alike have looked to the U.S. News & World Report college and university rankings to gauge the top institutions of higher learning. Now the publisher has gone beyond ranking prominent brick-and-mortar programs with its 2013 listings of best online education programs.

Online education is growing in popularity and numbers. Across the board, college administrators and online education companies are reporting increased enrollment numbers for online courses – in fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a nearly 25 percent increase in online enrollment over the past four years. For many students, online education provides a less costly alternative to getting that valued degree the traditional way.

The evolution of Web-based learning has provided prospective students with many resources to evaluate whether online education is right for them. Highlights from the rankings can be found at the end of this article; additional education resources from can be utilized to determine if a Web-based education is the right fit for you. In addition to understanding the opportunities for learning through online education, students will also discover the opportunities for their careers and their futures.

Why Study Online?

After choosing an area of study, which is widely regarded as the most major decision facing students, degree-seekers should understand what will be required of them in online learning. There are a number of factors to be taken into consideration; an online education offers more specialized programs, flexible schedules and lower tuition rates, but chief among its drawbacks is the isolated nature of studying and learning and the physical distance from faculty and peers. These are aspects that some consider the most crucial element of the traditional, liberal arts-style of education found on American campuses.

Take Into Consideration…

The quality of the program. Despite popular belief, many online programs have the same caliber of teaching as their on-campus counterparts. In essence, professors are doing two jobs: teaching in-person classes and online sessions. Whether or not that instruction comes across as effectively over the Internet as it does in person depends largely on the program, the technology and the student.

Access to teachers. Obviously, there is a physical distance between students and professors with online learning, but many programs offer videoconferencing opportunities with professors and regular email contact. Online education boosters tend to downplay the concern for physical closeness as an relic of a bygone era.

The student’s lifestyle needs. Just like taking a campus tour at a traditional college or university, online learners should look into the programs they are considering to determine the most appropriate fit to their needs and life circumstances. For instance, a working parent who goes back to school for career advancement might put a high priority on having a flexible schedule, whereas a recent high school graduate working two jobs to make ends meet may put a higher priority on low tuition rates. Invest time looking into a number of different offerings to find the program that best meets your needs.

The technological and material requirements. Just as most traditional college courses have required readings and textbooks, online programs usually require students have a reliable computer with two-way videoconference capability, Web access and good writing and organizational software. Students should inquire about specific technological requirements to ensure they aren’t left scrambling to connect on their first day of classes.

What’s Next?

Demand for a quality education has enabled the evolution of online learning. States like California are moving ahead with pilot online education programs that may set new precedents for learning on a budget. In addition, there are many Web-based programs offering accreditation.

Here are the top five online undergraduate and graduate degree programs, as ranked by U.S New & World Report:

Best Online Bachelor’s Programs

  1. Pace University (New York)
  2. Daytona State College (Florida)
  3. St. John’s University (New York)
  4. Westfield State University (Massachusetts)
  5. Graceland University (Iowa)
  6. Lawrence Technological University (Michigan)
  7. Colorado State University/Global Campus
  8. Brandman University (California)
  9. Bellevue University (Nebraska)
  10. Regent University (Virginia)

Best Online Graduate Programs


  • Washington State University
  • Arizona State University (Carey)
  • Indiana University/Bloomington (Kelley)
  • University of Florida (Hough)
  • California State University/Fullerton (Mihaylo)


  • St. John’s University (New York)
  • Auburn University (Alabama)
  • South Dakota State University
  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of South Carolina


  • University of Southern California (Viterbi)
  • Pennsylvania State University/World Campus
  • Columbia University (Fu Foundation) (New York)
  • Purdue University/West Lafayette (Indiana)
  • University of Michigan/Ann Arbor

Info Tech

  • University of Southern California
  • Sam Houston State University (Texas)
  • Virginia Tech
  • University of Bridgeport (Connecticut)
  • Pennsylvania State University/World Campus


  • Ferris State University (Michigan)
  • Lamar University (Texas)
  • University of Michigan/Flint
  • Clarkson College (Nebraska)
  • Graceland University (Missouri)

The rankings are based on several factors, including graduation rates, indebtedness of new graduates, support services offered to students, faculty credentials and student engagement.

Students should do their research before committing to anything; it’s important to sift through the common facts and misconceptions to determine if an online college education is the right fit for you.