Online colleges: Pros and cons for students who learn and think differently

By The Understood Team

Expert reviewed by Ace Parsi, MPP

Online college courses have become widespread. But are online colleges good options for kids who learn and think differently? To make an informed decision, here are some pros and cons of online colleges for you and your child to consider.

What to considerProsCons
Programs and majors

Online colleges may offer programs or majors students can’t find at local colleges. Before enrolling, ask if you can speak with current students who learn and think differently. Or ask to speak with recent graduates with these issues.

Some programs and majors may not be available at an online college. One example is occupational therapy (OT). There are no accredited entry-level OT programs that are entirely online.

Before enrolling, find out if the college is regionally accredited. If it isn’t, this means it doesn’t meet certain standards. It also means that other colleges may not accept transfer credits from this school.

Class structure

Students can “attend” class from anywhere. They can choose the time of day or night when they work best. Students can also work at their own pace. This includes deciding what they need to review and which topics might not require as much attention.

However, online colleges tend to have strict deadlines for when assignments are due. Before enrolling, find out what happens if a student misses one of those deadlines.

Online classes may require even more self-discipline than in-person courses. That’s because there is no set time students need to be in class. Students need to create their own structure and keep themselves organized and on track.

Meeting deadlines may be especially hard for kids who struggle with time management, prioritizing and other executive functioning skills.

Coursework and class interaction

Video lectures or podcasts can be paused or replayed to help students take notes. (Keep in mind that much of online learning is still based on reading. The lectures may be hard to follow if students haven’t finished or don’t understand the assigned reading.)

Class discussion usually takes place in online forums. Students who aren’t comfortable speaking in front of a group may welcome this format. But before enrolling, find out how the school helps kids develop speaking skills that are often needed to succeed in the workplace.

Online learning requires a certain level of reading fluency and comprehension. Before enrolling, find out how much of the curriculum is print-based and if there are tools that can help kids with reading issues keep up.

Class interaction may include some video chats. But for the most part, students have to use writing to express their thoughts, ideas and overall understanding. This can be tough for some kids with language issues.

Interaction with instructors

Most interaction will be by email. For kids who are more comfortable connecting by email than in person, it may be easier to ask questions and get help.

Before enrolling, find out how long students typically have to wait to get a response from the instructor.

Generally, there’s no in-person interaction. This makes writing skills all the more essential for asking questions and demonstrating knowledge. The lack of in-person interaction can also make it harder for students to build a relationship with their instructor.

Before enrolling, find out how many instructors use Universal Design for Learning to make their courses accessible to a diverse group of learners.

Technology skills

Online students get used to doing things like logging in and uploading assignments. These and other computer skills are often needed in the workplace

If tech problems arise, online students often need to do the troubleshooting themselves.

Social and emotional concerns

Online colleges may remove some of the pressures and distractions of campus life. Some kids might not be ready to leave home socially or emotionally.

Being at home with family may also ease some kids’ anxiety about taking college-level courses.

College-level courses can be stressful whether online or on campus. Online students may not have as many chances to develop interpersonal skills. They may also feel more isolated.

Before enrolling, find out what mental health resources are available to online students.

Support services

Some online colleges offer supports like closed captioning for video lectures, audio textbooks, and access to tutoring and advising services.

But not all online schools provide the same range of services. (This is also true for brick-and-mortar colleges.) Before enrolling, find out which accommodations are available and what steps students need to take to access these supports.

Some supports and resources like writing labs may be harder for online students to access. It may also be hard for online students to bond with tutors and study groups.

Self-advocating via email can be tricky for some students. It can be hard to express thoughts, questions and concerns in writing.


Some research suggests that people who took online classes had larger salary gains than their peers who took classes on campus. But it’s important to note that this study looked only at community colleges. These are public, nonprofit schools. Many online colleges are private, for-profit schools.

Before enrolling, ask the school about graduation rates. It’s also good to ask about retention rates. (This is the term for how many first-year college students enrolled in the school again the following year.) You may be able to find some of this information on the college scorecards compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

A different study found that students who take online courses are more likely to get lower grades. They’re also more likely to drop out than students who take in-person classes.

Higher dropout rates may help explain why students at for-profit schools default on their student loans at twice the rate of students at public two-year colleges. Before enrolling, ask about default rates. It’s also good to ask about job-placement rates and earnings.


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