In-person vs. Online Programs: 5 Factors to Consider When Selecting the Best Setting for You

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Young woman looking at a laptop and biting a pencil, suggesting concentration

This post was written with moms of young children in mind. However, some of these concepts may apply if you have older kids too. Simply tweak the guidance as necessary. In most cases, there will not be a single determining factor when deciding between in-person and online programs. Instead, consider your circumstances and emphasize the factors that matter the most to you.


1 Childcare

You’re dressed. Your school bag is packed. You’ve double-checked the campus map. Your partner filled up your gas tank last night. And then, just as you are ready to jet off to class, it hits you. “Holy moly! Whose going to watch my kid?!?”

This might seem obvious for moms who are attending classes outside of the home. However, online students should spend some time reflecting on this as well. While it may seem convenient and cost-effective to have your little one(s) curled up on your lap or playing in another room while you attend your online class, there’s a fair chance that this will be a disaster. Yup, I said it! Parents around the world can surely agree that at the moments when you most need your normally well-behaved child to be quiet, that child will without fail lose his/her little mind. I have zero science to back this up, but God knows I live it. I’ve had those moments when I needed to take a phone call or log on for a class, while keeping an eye on LO. Honestly, I’ve experienced mixed results. If you have a low-key kid who happens to be having a good day, it can work. But in my experience, even when it did go ok, I was on edge the entire time, worrying about when things might go south. For that reason, I just can’t advocate this approach as a long-term solution if you can avoid it.

2 Distance

On a related note, consider how comfortable you are with being a considerable distance away from your LO. Personally, I enjoy knowing that I can get to my son pretty quickly. You never know when you might get a call to pick up LO early due to sickness, injury, inclement weather, yada yada yada. In the case of my son’s childcare, it is in our contract that we (or the emergency contact) will be able to pick up our son within an hour of one of the aforementioned early dismissals. We’re so blessed to have my hubby’s parents nearby, but they also have lives and jobs. Therefore, I’m hesitant to commute too far out of the area without being sure that some member of the family will be at home or otherwise easily available. Even if you have a nanny or an au pair, circumstances may arise when you will need to get home fast. Nannies get sick too, you know! In reality, this may be more of a time issue than distance. There are parts of the country where you can travel 20 miles in the blink of an eye. There are also places plagued by traffic congestion, where a trip of the same length could take hours. Attending online classes eliminates most of these concerns.

3 Cost

There can be a vast difference in the cost of in-person vs. online education. There are tons of factors that can influence these differences such as the degree level, whether the institution is public or private, nonprofit vs. for-profit, etc. Your program choice may also vary depending on whether or not you choose pay out of pocket or fund your education with loans. Beyond tuition, you should also consider related expenses such as transportation (i.e. gas, parking, train/bus fare), food, and printing. There may also be benefits built into the cost of on-campus tuition such as gym access, tutors, or affordable healthcare. Take a look at what you stand to get for your money in each educational setting. Then weigh the costs vs. benefits.

4 Unpredictability of your schedule

If your schedule significantly varies from week to week, attending in-person classes may be a challenge. Maybe your work schedule changes a lot or maybe your partner tends to get stuck in traffic while heading home to take over child care. Either way, you are left in the position of being periodically late, unable to attend class, or just plain stressed. Scheduling and organization are a mom’s best friends. With that said, the reality is that controlled chaos is definitely a lifestyle for some of us. If this sounds like you, then your best bet may be an online, asynchronous program, i.e. a program that does not require students to log on at a specific time.

5 Subject matter

The reality is that some subjects are better when taught in-person. These are going to vary from person to person. For me, I think I benefit from in-person instruction for anything mathematical. I want to be able to flag down the instructor as soon as I get confused, which is likely to be often. Likewise, if you are preparing to enter a field that involves lots of interaction with other people, it just makes sense to get to practice those skills with your classmates. As a counseling student, I have taken a few courses online but the vast majority of my program has been completed in-person. It’s hard (but not impossible) to practice counseling skills through a computer. Essentially, you will need to consider your learning style as well as the course content.

Bonus option: Hybrid Model

If you find yourself torn between in-person and online programs, consider the hybrid option. As the name implies, these programs allow for a combination of online and in-person coursework. This can be a nice choice as you may be able to select the individual course modality based on what best matches your schedule for a given semester. The hybrid model can also save you time and money due to the reduced need to commute to a campus.

I hope that this post gave you some food for thought. Regardless of which route that you choose, you’re doing something amazing. You’re choosing to pursue your education and thus create more opportunities for yourself and your loved ones. You’re choosing not to settle. You’re choosing to push past the obstacles in your path and chase your dreams. So regardless of if your kids see you working late at the dining room table or rushing off to campus, you’re modeling the importance of education. And that my friends, is one of the most important messages you can ever send.