If you're curious about the benefits of online learning to help you return to school while balancing full-time work and family obligations, you're not alone.
A growing number of today's college and university students are working full-time, raising families and balancing other responsibilities while working toward a degree.
According to a 2016 report from the Online Learning Consortium, 85% of Americans enrolled in higher education are considered non-traditional students, with 75% aged 25 or older. Non-traditional students often face unique roadblocks to completing their degree, according to the National Adult Learner Coalition (NALC). In fact, a 2017 NALC report found that 38% of higher education students with additional financial and family obligations leave school within their first year.
Ray Schroeder, director of the UPCEA Center for Online Leadership, said these numbers are not surprising.
Adult learners often have less time, less flexibility in their schedules and receive fewer financial aid dollars than their 18-year-old college student counterparts, Schroeder said. Throw family obligations into the mix, and completing a degree can seem impossible.
However, Schroeder said there are many advantages of online classes, from increased flexibility to a more personalized learning experience, that can help improve educational attainment rates for adult learners.
1. Online learning offers more flexible scheduling than traditional campus-based programs.
If you're considering returning to school while balancing full-time work and family obligations, you're probably wondering how you'll find time for classroom lectures, studying and projects. For adult learners in particular, flexible scheduling is one of the top benefits of online learning.
Many online degree programs offer students 24/7 access to learning material, email access to instructors and online tutors, and student message boards to ensure you can learn whenever you have time - whether that's early in the morning, late at night, or on your lunch break.
"Older students do not often have the means or inclination to move to a university campus," Schroeder said. "Accessing online learning opportunities gives them the freedom to schedules classes around their lives, rather than their lives around their classes."
2. Online learning offers a more personalized learning experience.
While classroom-based instruction works well for many students, it may not be the way you learn best.
One of the advantages of online classes is the wide variety of learning materials that are available to students in place of traditional classroom lectures - from instructional videos and digital guides to discussion forums, infographics and webinars.
Having more options for learning course material can help you personalize your learning experience.
"Online learning offers new ways 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 availability of course materials online gives students the opportunity to revisit concepts in ways that best suit their learning style and results in a deeper understanding of the subject."
3. Online learning can improve access to and affordability of higher education.
The financial constraints of going back to school is one of the most common roadblocks that may keep you from trying to earn a degree. In addition to tuition, campus-based programs often come with additional student fees, pricey textbooks and living or transportation costs.
Many online degree programs, however, can help you reduce the expenses of earning a degree - whether through savings on the cost of school itself or by saving you the cost of traveling to campus, hiring additional childcare or reducing your work hours.
"Online learning opens up the option of graduating to more adult learners due to 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 re-negotiate hours and cope with less pay in order to be able to complete classroom-based learning."
4. Online learning can help boost degree attainment rates for adult learners.
Earning a degree is never easy, but if you're working or raising a family while going to school the challenges are even greater. But online learning may be able to help boost your chances of completing your degree.
According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the rate of students ages 25 to 29 who completed 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 higher education students in the U.S. - 5.8 million students - were taking at least one online course - a 3.9% increase over the previous year and the thirteenth consecutive year of growth for distance education enrollments, according to the annual Online Report Card from Babson Survey Research Group.
"We don't think it's a coincidence that this is the same time period where the internet became mainstream," Grauer said. "It has made online learning possible, and the flexibility of that format has made continuing education viable in a way that wouldn't be possible for many adults through traditional classroom learning."
5. Online learning may lead to better career prospects.
Post-secondary education is more important than ever in today's workforce. According to the NALC, 65% of American jobs will require some level of post-secondary education by 2020. With increased flexibility and accessibility, online degree and professional training programs can help you gain the skills you need to succeed in today's economy.
"We understand that most people entering the workforce today will likely hold a dozen different positions in several different fields over their work life," Schroeder said. "Professional development and certification of skills, knowledge and ability is essential for advancement and employment in the rapidly changing workforce. Online learning is the pathway to acquire the tools and abilities for new positions and careers."
The benefits of online learning show no signs of slowing down. According to Schroeder, online degree programs are poised to become even more powerful as new technologies, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence, enhance learning opportunities.