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College can be one of life’s biggest investments. And, earning a degree or certificate is an important step forward down many career paths.
Millions of students work to cover expenses and gain on-the-job experience while furthering their education—with some reports showing eight in 10 students working during their post-secondary programs.
Balancing the competing demands of coursework and a job can be a challenge, especially for students working full time and going to college.
There are more degree holders in the United States than ever before. Approximately 37% of U.S. adults have earned a bachelor’s degree, while over 13% have an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctorate.
It is certainly possible to work full time while studying. Still, given the inevitable differences between schools and their program offerings, it can be a good idea to research schools (and their existing degree or certificate programs) before deciding where to attend—as tuition, topics taught, work-study options, and types of degrees being offered can vary from university to university, and from school to school.
For some learners, taking online classes while working full time is one way to fit school into an already packed schedule. In 2018, for example, nearly 7 million students were enrolled in online college classes (also known as distance learning).
If a student is figuring out how to work full time and go to school full time (or even part time), online classes are one flexible option. There are some fairly clear pros (like pre-recorded classes watchable on demand and not having to commute to campus) to taking classes online.
But, beyond scheduling flexibility, it’s likely many students still wonder: ‘What types of classes get offered online?,’ Are online courses effective?’, and ‘How to manage time while working and taking classes?’
Here’s an overview of the pros and cons of taking online classes while working full time, including strategies for juggling the demands of schooling alongside holding down a job:
Pros of Taking Online Classes
Given the time and financial investment that earning a degree can demand,
it could be helpful to weigh different schooling options before deciding whether to pursue an in-person education, online classes, or some hybrid of the two. Online classes can have distinct advantages.
Some potential pros of working towards a degree or certificate online include:
Having a Flexible Schedule
Traditionally, college and graduate school courses meet once or multiple times per week throughout a semester, trimester, summer or winter session. The length of class time varies too. For example, large lectures may only span one hour while once-per-week seminars could run for two or three hours.
If a student is taking a full-time course load, which usually constitutes a minimum of twelve credit hours, they’ll have to coordinate these blocked out class hours around their existing work schedule.
So, in-person learning, where students are expected to be in class at a set time each week, is not always the most workable solution for learners who plan to keep working while hitting the books.
For students who work full time, online classes can come with added flexibility. After all, online courses are often facilitated through pre-recorded lectures, streaming video tutorials, self-guided activities, and readings that can be done on a student’s timeframe.
In some cases, online classes do still include a certain number of live lectures or learning activities (typically hosted via streaming video) that enrolled students are expected to attend.
In those scenarios, students might opt to arrange their work schedule so they’re not scheduled on the job during the times when their online classes convene live.
Naturely, most online classes still assign weekly topics. So, students will need to consider when readings and projects are due. But, online degree programs and classes often offer a higher level of scheduling flexibility, allowing students to block out study time or “attending class” around when they’re not working.
Maintaining Location Independence
There are thousands of colleges and universities across the United States, but probably only a handful near most students’ home or place of work. While taking classes as a commuter student might be logistically possible, sticking to programs hosted by local universities might limit a student’s choice of faculty or subject areas.
Additionally, it’s possible that local options aren’t the top-ranked in a given topic—and might not even offer specific degrees or pre-professional certificates.
On the flip side, the only location required for taking online classes while working full time is a reliable internet connection and a comfortable study space. Online classes also can save students a trip to campus, giving some student workers more time to juggle post-secondary studies alongside their regular jobs.
Possibly Lower Living Expenses
Tuition is only part of the equation when calculating the total cost of attending college. Some universities may require students to live on campus for one or more years, which could carry dining hall and other fees (in addition to the base cost of living in a dorm).
Students attending four-year public universities can expect living expenses to account for 50% of the cost of education . Opting for an online degree program can help bypass some of these additional expenses.
Cons of Taking Online Classes
In addition to online learning’s merits, there are some potential cons to think through when evaluating taking online classes while working full time:
Not Every Degree or Major is Available
Colleges across the U.S. offer hundreds of majors and types of degrees. The possibility of taking online classes, as well as the number of options available, will depend on a student’s chosen field of study.
For online bachelor’s degree programs, majors focused on business and health professions are among the most commonly available. Students interested in earning a master’s degree online in business or healthcare are in luck as well. There are also opportunities to study graduate programs in education, engineering, criminal justice, and various social sciences entirely online.
Other majors and degrees, especially those that require in-person lab time or hands-on apprenticeship, such as culinary arts or chemistry, might not translate as well to an online format.
Limited Networking Opportunities
Attending college in person can provide opportunities to make friends and build relationships with professors. Building a deep social and professional network while in school may help some graduates to find internships and jobs after school ends.
Taking online classes may make it more challenging to connect with professors and fellow students, though. That being said, it’s still possible to make a strong impression on professors and peers in course assignments, presentations (whether individual or group), and written correspondences.
If a student is planning on taking online classes while also working full time in the same field (e.g., a nurse or a teacher studying for an extra certification in those professions), this potential networking disadvantage may be less of a concern—since they can still connect with fellow professionals on the job.
Strategies for Taking Online Classes
Whether a student just graduated high school or is returning to the classroom after years of working, being prepared can help adult learners get the most from their online classes—and, ideally, help to create a healthier work-life balance. Here are some key ways to prep for working full time and going to college:
Making a Schedule and Sticking to It
The flexibility of online classes can feel liberating, but those readings, online discussions, and assignments still need to be completed. Keeping one’s work schedule in mind, it can be helpful to block out some non-work hours during the week or weekend just for studying and school assignments.
It may also be helpful to think about when to get school work done. If you’re not a morning person, it’s likely you won’t be cracking the textbooks at sunrise. If you find out that your present work-school schedule is hard to sustain over time, it’s perfectly okay to go back to the drawing board.
The important thing is to find a time-management system that works for the duration of the time you’re both working and studying full time.
Even if students who feel confident and excited about returning to the classroom (virtual ones count, too), taking online classes while working full time may be a big adjustment.
Some online degree programs allow learners to enroll as part-time students, which can be a ‘trial-run’ opportunity—allowing enrolled workers to understand how demanding juggling school and studies can be (before paying full tuition).
Understanding how much time each online class will demand can help student-workers to be realistic about how many classes they can take each semester without burning out.
Setting Goals and Rewarding Progress
Creating achievable goals at the beginning of each class or semester is one way to stay on track, grow as a student, and measure success. Attaching a reward to these periodic goals can help many learners to stay driven and engaged.
Whether you passed your first online class or are graduating summa cum laude, you deserve to celebrate achieving your educational accomplishments—things like, passing a major certification exam or completing a big group project.
Paying for Online Classes
For some students, the cost of online education (after subtracting dorms, dining plans and transportation) can be an additional determining factor. The individual cost of online degrees and certificates will vary significantly from school to school—including price differences between public and private universities’ programs.
In some cases, online-only programs may cost less for enrolled students. In others, online classes are priced similar to their in-person counterparts.
Whether a student opts to work and go to college at the same time, how to pay for college is likely a big question. Making a plan for financing your education is one step in figuring out how to take online classes while working full time.
Completing the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) can help applicants determine how much federal student loans and grants they’re eligible to receive. Students can also explore scholarship opportunities through universities, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations for additional funding.
Many students also borrow money through private loans to pay for advancing their education. SoFi’s no-fee private student loans offer flexible repayment plans, helping students find a loan that fits their budget and financial plan. (It’s worth noting that federal student loans come with baked in benefits, like income-driven repayment or public service loan forgiveness, that are not guaranteed by private lenders).
Applying online with SoFi is free. You can find your student loan interest rates in 3 minutes or less.
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