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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

January 27, 2021

Student Success

College enrollment trends and online degree programs.

Focused teen girl writes notes while watching an online webinar or school course.

The way students attend college is changing—and changing fast. According to an report, approximately 97% of current college students switched to online instruction after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bigger question is: Does this shift represent a temporary break from the norm, or should we expect to see more students choosing to go to school online even after the pandemic subsides? According to one survey, half of those students who said they had delayed their college plans due to the pandemic indicated that they would be interested in enrolling in an online school or community college. 

And while much has been made about lapses in quality and student satisfaction in programs that had to move rapidly from classroom-based to online instruction, the National Student Clearinghouse reports that institutions that were already providing high-quality online-only programs before the pandemic began saw substantial growth in 2020. Compared to the declines in enrollment seen in higher education as a whole, this growth suggests that COVID-19 will only accelerate a trend that was already in motion.

Online degree programs offer valuable educational opportunities. If you're interested in an online program, learning more can help you decide if online education is right for you.

Who benefits from online learning?

There's no single type of person who benefits most from online undergraduate degree programs. But there are groups that might especially benefit from online learning.

  • Rural learners. There are often geographic barriers to higher education. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, as of 2018, 20% of rural adults 25 and over had at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 35% of urban adults of the same age. For many students in rural areas, postsecondary education opportunities are prohibitively far from home—if they exist at all. Online classes are one way to bridge this gap and help more rural students get their degrees.
  • Caregivers. With Americans living longer and the large Baby Boom generation reaching advanced age, young people are increasingly caring for family members and earning money to support their households. Some online programs, such as those that follow a competency-based learning model, are available in asynchronous formats, meaning students log in and learn on their schedules, not predefined class schedules. These types of programs give students the flexibility they need to balance work, caregiving, and school.
  • Students with limited finances. Many online degree programs are substantially more affordable than degree programs at brick-and-mortar institutions. While cost and quality can vary as dramatically at online schools as it can at brick-and-mortar schools, average online undergraduate tuition rates are typically under $1,000 per credit hour, according to These reduced costs are often a function of the fact that many online schools do not operate physical campuses or fund sports or other activities.
  • Self-motivated students. Online learners often create their own study schedules around work and family responsibilities, completing their coursework and passing their classes when they can. To be successful, students pursuing online undergraduate degrees must be disciplined and have solid time-management skills.

Earning your bachelor's degree online.

WGU operates with a competency-based education model, which measures students’ actual skills and learning on a particular subject rather than the amount of time they spend studying. This lets each student progress through the subject material as quickly as they are able to master concepts. Once they can pass an assessment proving what they’ve learned, they move on.

Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated mastery of a subject and have the credentials to prove it. It's thought, too, that this approach fosters a lifelong approach to learning, which is particularly valuable in an era when technology is evolving rapidly and skills have shorter shelf lives. What's more, earning credentials faster—which, on average, many online students do—lets learners enter the workforce faster, and usually without a significant amount of debt.

Online instruction could greatly increase your ability to earn your undergraduate degree for less while you balance school and other life responsibilities. Learn more to help you decide if online learning is right for you.

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One online university. Four colleges. Flexible degrees.

Our focus on your success starts with our focus on four high-demand fields: K–12 teaching and education, nursing and healthcare, information technology, and business. Every degree program at WGU is tied to a high-growth, highly rewarding career path. Which college fits you?

Want to see all the degrees WGU has to offer? View all degrees