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How Hard Are Online Graduate Degree Programs, Really?

If you’re considering an online education, it’s natural to wonder:

  • Is online school harder than a traditional graduate degree program?
  • Will I get the same high-quality learning experience in an online school?
  • Which path will lead to a better career outcome?

For busy students, online courses offer an achievable path to career development and higher pay, without having to leave the workforce. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, between fall 2012 and 2018, enrollment in hybrid online college programs went up 33%, while enrollment in fully online programs increased by 24%. Simply put, as more employers embrace online degrees, workers are motivated to enroll in graduate programs where they can obtain specialized, in-depth knowledge and develop professional skills.

While remote learning doesn’t suit everyone, many online students report high levels of satisfaction. In a 2019 survey of summer courses at Santa Clara University, 76% of online students agreed that the technology used in the class allowed them to participate as fully as a traditional classroom setting. Roughly 81% of participants believed there were ample opportunities for students to communicate with one another, and 85% agreed that the online learning modules were effective at helping them understand the material.

Getting an online degree comes with unique challenges, but you can overcome them if you’re prepared with realistic expectations. Find out whether an online graduate degree program is compatible with your lifestyle and learning needs.


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How hard are online classes?

In general, master’s degree programs are challenging for most students because you’re encouraged to adopt learning modes that are different from what you experienced in undergraduate college. Making this transition as an online student may be especially hard if you value the structure and external accountability of traditional classes. Keep the following factors in mind as you consider your options for getting a degree.

1. Self-Paced Coursework

Online learning is designed to offer flexibility. You have control over when and where you complete coursework, as long as you submit assignments by the deadline. While some assignments, such as live discussions, may be scheduled for an exact time, lectures and readings are typically available for you to review at your own pace.

If you have trouble with planning and time management, you could easily fall behind on assignments, making it more difficult to gain an in-depth understanding of the material.

2. Virtual Learning Environment

Do face-to-face conversations with students and instructors make you more excited about learning? Do you feel energized by the traditional classroom setting? In a remote learning environment, it’s harder to have spontaneous discussions at the same time that you’re taking in new material. Everyone is completing coursework independently, so it’s often necessary to set aside your questions and comments for later.

3. Writing-Based Curriculum

All master’s degree programs heavily rely on writing, reading, and research in their curricula, but writing assignments are even more prevalent in many online programs. In traditional lectures, you might not contribute to every discussion or prepare written responses for every reading.

Because writing is the primary form of communication in online coursework, you’re expected to present well-researched answers in every discussion. Instructors need ways to gauge whether or not you’re thinking critically about the coursework and strengthening your skills. If you’re better at presenting your ideas orally, it may take time to adjust to a writing-oriented environment.

4. Availability of Professors

Traditional students have the ability to get help or feedback from professors during classes or office hours. Depending on how the online program is structured, you may have shorter windows of time to communicate directly with the instructor. Many professors are busy managing both traditional classes and online courses, which limits their availability.

If your professor is located in a different time zone, this could further restrict your timeframe for virtual meetups. Look for online degree programs that use teaching assistants, as they can provide support and guidance when a professor is unavailable.

5. Technical Difficulties

A reliable computer and internet connection are absolutely necessary to do well in online courses. Everything from weekly assignments and discussion forums to tests and grades are usually available through your school’s learning management system.

If you don’t have internet access at home, it will be harder to participate in live events that are scheduled for a specific time. You also run the risk of missing any course updates if you’re unable to regularly check your email.

Is online learning harder than traditional learning?

Are any of the factors mentioned above dealbreakers? Of course not! But they are important to consider as you begin to think about completing an online graduate degree. By preemptively understanding the potential challenges, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them if and when they begin to affect your studies.

While completing your degree online may have its challenges, that doesn’t necessarily make it any more difficult than traditional, in-person learning.

Is an online graduate degree right for you?

When comparing traditional and online education, it’s important to think about your individual learning style. What motivates you? What conditions hinder you from making progress? What resources do you need to succeed in school? 

Much like a traditional college, an online education has advantages and disadvantages based on how you learn and the resources you value. Before committing to an online program, determine if it is right for you. Research different schools to find out how coursework is structured and the flexible options available to help you balance school with your personal life. While earning an online degree will be difficult, it is 100% attainable as long as you choose a program that’s well-suited to your goals and schedule.