Online or Brick and Mortar? Hmmm . . .

A question that has been asked a lot from prospective nontraditional students is:

What’s the difference between a “regular” college and an online college?

Well, in some cases, there’s not much difference, and in other cases, there are many differences. It really boils down to what one is looking for in a college experience. One decision that many nontraditional learners consider is whether to choose an online academic program or a brick and mortar college. We luckily live in a time when higher education has realized that adult learners need flexibility and options. Many brick and mortar schools now offer online or hybrid programs (part in-class and part online), and many online colleges have perfected their admissions and advising practices to get students through reputable programs. As a result of each type of institution revising its practices for the 21st century student, adult learners are getting jobs and career promotions regardless of which type of school they enroll in. So, one really needs to think about the following questions when deciding what type of school to attend:

  1. What program am I looking for and who has it?
  2. Is the program accredited?
  3. What type of college best suits my learning style?
  4. Do I learn best face-to-face, online, or in a combination of both?
  5. Am I disciplined enough to work on my own (for online learning)?
  6. Do I have the time to drive to a campus (for brick and mortar)?

While you’re attempting to answer these questions, let’s look at the makeup of each type of institution:

Brick and Mortar

Brick and mortar institutions (aka traditional colleges) offer many classes face-to-face and have campuses one can drive to. The general feeling amongst advocates of brick and mortar is that face-to-face learning is better. Engaging with classmates and professors in physical spaces offers its benefits. Discussion is more authentic, at time spontaneous, and learners get to pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, hand gestures, and mannerisms. A learner also gets the added benefit of interpreting silence (there’s a lot to be said for silence in a classroom). Brick and mortar institutions symbolize the fact that learning is ongoing, dynamic, and social instead of isolated. Learning with classmates in a classroom with the professor acting as facilitator is great for those who need encouragement and on-demand guidance. Some adult students, after trying online learning, return to traditional classrooms because it matches their learning style best. For those who thrive best in these types of environments, the traditional classroom could be the better option.

Some institutions offer hybrid classes to accommodate not only the nontraditional learner, but different learning styles. This means that a percentage of class time is face-to-face, while another percentage is online. This is great for learners who can’t make it to a class every week or who needs a combination of social and isolated learning. It’s also great for students who are technologically advanced, yet need an environment that offers some face-to-face time.

However, brick and mortar colleges also have their disadvantages. Many institutions have not yet found a way to serve the full needs of nontraditional students. Classes are not always offered throughout the day and evening to accommodate student schedules, which slows down time to graduation. Some student support offices are open in the evening, but only until 6pm or 7pm (at best). Academic advisers are not on standby waiting to take calls whenever a student desperately needs them. While many brick and mortar colleges are looking at ways to be progressive and accommodating, it’s simply not possible [yet] to be everything to every student. This is where some online colleges shine.


Online programs offer everything online. Your professors, academic advisers, academic support resources, libraries, etc. are all online. The classroom is online as well, which means that class discussion, learning, and assignment submission will be completed via the computer. For institutions that have succeeded in creating online colleges, they have mastered the art of customer service and cutting down on time to graduation. Learners can schedule talks with their professors by phone, Skype or Zoom, via chat boxes, or simple email. Admissions reps can tell a student within 24-48 hours if they’ve been accepted or not. Student support counselors usually call back within the same day if they cannot be reached immediately. Students often have instant access to financial aid tools and college costs can be seen and understood on a user-friendly platform (no hidden fees). When it comes to doing to the work, if you have a demanding job, then you don’t have to request time off to drive to and attend class. If you like to travel (or have to travel), then your class work can be done from anywhere. All of these things are usually a huge draw to busy students who don’t have time to waste or extra money to spend.

Now, don’t be fooled. Online learning takes just as much time, if not more, than learning at a brick and mortar institution. Some online colleges are for-profit (i.e. expensive). Everything you do will need to be typed, so your writing needs to be clear to all readers, which can be time-consuming. Most importantly, be mindful of the fact that online learners are most successful when they are self- disciplined. Those who attend face-to-face classes have a built-in reason/time to separate themselves from the rest of the world. However, commercials for online learning makes it seem as if every adult student can hold their eyes open after the world goes to sleep in order to study and complete work. Not so. If you attend school online, make sure you block time off for school work.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending brick and mortar as well as online institutions, and my experiences in both settings were wonderful. What made them great, aside from choosing the best program and school for me, was setting aside necessary time to do my work and fully immersing myself in my areas of study. I also re-evaluated my learning style and chose the right environment based on that style. As I aged, my learning needs (and schedule) changed in a way that online and hybrid learning worked best. Be sure to fully research colleges and assess your learning needs before jumping in to the wonderful world of academia.

Keep moving forward and enjoy the ride!

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