Online vs. Traditional Associate Programs in Computers and Technology

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Computer and technology associate degrees comprise two years of undergraduate general education and fundamental training in technology concepts. Aspiring computer science professionals can pursue associate degrees to jumpstart their careers. Online associate programs in computers and technology offer potentially alluring flexibility.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer network support specialists and web developers can secure entry-level opportunities with an associate degree. As of 2020, these careers offer respective median salaries of $55,510 and $77,200. From 2020-2030, the BLS projects faster-than-average job growth of 9% for network support specialists and 13% for web developers.

An associate degree can also serve as an affordable, efficient stepping stone to a bachelor’s. A four-year degree may open the door to opportunities in computer programming, information security, and network architecture.

From 2020-2030, the BLS projects faster-than-average job growth of 9% for network support specialists and 13% for web developers.

Students traditionally obtain an associate degree by attending in-person classes at two-year community and technical colleges. However, an increasing number of schools now offer online learning options for degree-seekers who need additional flexibility throughout their enrollment.

Should you get your associate degree online or on campus? This guide aims to answer that question. Explore the sections below to understand the pros and cons of each learning format.

What to Expect From an Associate Degree Program

All associate programs in computers and technology share one common goal: provide students with the fundamental education required to start a computer science career. Associate degrees typically require 60 credits, which translates to 20 courses. Computer science students can pursue several types of associate degrees:

  • Associate of Arts: Designed to prepare students for transfer to a four-year program. Combines general education and major courses, and largely focuses on the humanities.
  • Associate of Science: Designed to prepare students for transfer to a four-year program. Combines general education and major courses, and largely focuses on science and math.
  • Associate of Applied Science: Designed to prepare students for immediate career entry after graduation. Offers fewer general education courses, and credits may not transfer to a bachelor’s program.

Full-time earners can expect to spend approximately two years earning an associate degree online. Some programs offer accelerated pacing options that take less time.

Explore Your Degree Options in Computer Science

Difference Between Online and In-Person Associate in Computers and Technology Programs

Online and on-campus associate degrees share many key similarities. Both degree types maintain comparable admission requirements, course curricula, and timeline expectations.

Differences between online and on-campus programs include delivery format, scheduling, and student demographics. Explore these differences in the following table:

On-Campus Associate Degrees Online Associate Degrees
Classes meet on campus, with a group of students led by an instructor Classes take place online, with students logging in from home, work, and other locations
Rigid scheduling; classes take place at set times on set days Flexible scheduling; students view course material at their convenience
Often attract recent high school graduates looking for a more traditional college experience Often attract older students and working professionals looking to advance or change careers
Offer in-person opportunities for socializing, networking, and participation in extracurricular activities Physical distance between students means fewer opportunities for interaction outside of class
Face-to-face communication with instructors and peers Communication through email, message boards, and phone or video calls

In summary, on-campus programs emphasize being part of a group — offering benefits like one-to-one communication with instructors, socializing with peers, and a traditional college experience — while online programs emphasize individual flexibility.

These differences mean online learners must approach their studies with a greater sense of ownership and accountability. While support services like remote tutoring and advising may be available, online programs place a greater responsibility on degree-seekers to keep up with their course material, assignments, and due dates.

Delivery Formats for Online Associate Programs

Depending on the school they select, online degree-seekers may need to decide between a hybrid or 100% online delivery format.

Hybrid programs:

  • Combine online coursework and in-person class sessions
  • Allow for scheduling flexibility and the interactive benefits of a traditional classroom setting
  • Provide greater opportunities for students to engage in on-campus activities, clubs, and extracurriculars

100% online programs:

  • Take place entirely online, with no requirements for on-campus attendance
  • Allow students to complete coursework with flexibility, anywhere in the world with an internet connection
  • Typically cost less than on-campus and hybrid programs, since students avoid campus-based fees and expenses associated with commuting

Both 100% online and hybrid programs rely on learning management systems (LMS) like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard to replicate the classroom in an online environment. Schools use their preferred LMS to deliver course material, connect instructors and students, accept finished assignments, and conduct secure exams.

Online programs may use a synchronous or asynchronous learning format. These terms refer to students’ scheduling and login requirements.

Synchronous learning:

  • Online classes in a live, real-time environment
  • Students and instructors login to the LMS at scheduled times and connect with one another through live video and/or audio streaming
  • Allows for greater collaboration and group participation

Asynchronous learning:

  • Online classes without real-time learning components
  • Students choose when they want to login to the LMS and view previously recorded and uploaded course material
  • Allows for maximum scheduling flexibility while limiting interaction opportunities

Accreditation and State Authorization for Online Associate Programs

While evaluating online associate programs in computers and technology, students should take time to research accreditation and state authorization. Accredited institutions undergo an independent review and meet specific academic standards. A school’s accreditation status can impact your ability to transfer credits and qualify for federal financial aid.

Colleges can pursue two types of accreditation: regional or national. Regional accreditation, usually pursued by nonprofit liberal arts schools, is the oldest form and generally considered more prestigious. National accreditation organizations tend to focus on private, for-profit, and career-specific institutions.

A school’s accreditation status can impact your ability to transfer credits and qualify for federal financial aid.

Regional accreditation organizations to look for when choosing an online computer science degree include:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges Western Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Middle States Commision on Higher Education
  • New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Western Association of Colleges and Schools Senior College and University Commission

State authorization is another key consideration for online degree-seekers. Every state sets its own rules and regulations for colleges, and any school teaching students in that state must follow these rules, regardless of physical campus location. In other words, online schools without proper state authorization cannot enroll learners from said state.

Before applying to an online school outside your home state, make sure the institution is authorized to teach you. Thousands of distance learning institutions work with the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) to ensure maximum student accessibility across state lines.

Cost Expectations for Online Associate Programs

Online associate degree cost expectations vary depending on several factors, including school type and student residency.

While public college tuition costs less, private institutions charge all students the same tuition rates, regardless of state residency. Out-of-state degree-seekers at public schools pay an average of $11,000 more per year than in-state learners. Fortunately, some public colleges charge online learners resident tuition prices, even if they live out of state.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average 2018-2019 tuition and fees cost $3,313 at two-year public institutions, and $15,727 at two-year private institutions. Online students may incur additional costs while enrolled, including textbook purchase or rental, school supplies, and technology updates needed for remote learning.

Associate degree-seekers can use various types of financial aid to lower out-of-pocket costs. Students should prioritize scholarships and grants, which do not require repayment after graduation. Federal, state, and private loans also provide assistance, but repayment is required.

Learn More About Scholarships and Financial Aid for Computer Science Degrees

Is Getting an Associate Degree Online Right for You?

Choosing the right learning format requires weighing many considerations. For example, an extroverted student who values peer interaction may struggle more with an online program than an introvert who enjoys working alone.

Scheduling availability is perhaps the most common reason degree-seekers choose to complete their education online rather than on campus. Working professionals and those with children or other family obligations may find it difficult to attend in-person courses on weekday mornings and afternoons.

Some institutions offer evening and weekend in-person courses, but regular commutes to campus still pose a problem for many learners. Some students may live too far from campus, and others may lack the reliable transportation needed to make the trip.

Choosing whether to enroll online or in person is a uniquely personal decision for every college student. While evaluating your options, consider the following pros and cons of an online associate program in computers and technology versus an in-person program.

Online and In-Person Associate Programs: Pros and Cons

Online Associate Programs

  • The most flexible learning option; students can complete coursework on their schedule, anywhere in the world with an internet connection
  • Expands high-quality education access to those who otherwise may not be able obtain a degree
  • Often more affordable than in-person programs, due to elimination of campus-based fees and commuting costs

  • No access to in-person support, and remote access to services like tutoring may be limited
  • Places greater responsibility on the student to get work on done on time
  • Relies heavily on technology, which can sometimes be unreliable
  • Some employers may view online programs as less credible

In-Person Associate Programs

  • In-person classes provide face-to-face interaction and discussion opportunities with peers and instructors
  • Better aligns with the traditional college experience for those interested in extracurriculars, sports, or clubs
  • Some community colleges and technical schools offer day, evening, and weekend courses to accommodate various student schedules

  • Less control over your course schedule, with classes offered only at specific times on certain days
  • Requires relocating and/or regularly commuting to campus, which costs time and money
  • Often costs more than online learning, due to costs associated with student housing or commuting, campus meal plans, and other fees

Explore the Different Types of Online Computer Science Courses Use These Tips for Taking Online Computer Science Classes

Selecting Your Associate Degree in Computer Science Program

Whether you pursue an online or in-person associate degree, many factors affect the selection of the right school and program. A few areas to consider include:

  • Campus Location: Especially important for in-person programs, campus location can impact commute times and overall cost of living.
  • Available Concentrations/Specializations: Consider whether you want to develop a broader computer science foundation or train for a specific industry or field. Look for a school that offers the courses you want to take.
  • Faculty Credentials: Look for programs taught by well-educated instructors with significant experience in the computer science discipline they teach.
  • School Size: Understand your priorities. Larger schools may maintain greater name recognition and larger budgets, but smaller schools typically provide smaller class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios.
  • Future Education Opportunities: School and program selection can impact your future education opportunities. Consider accreditation and the transferability of credits.

Trying to Select a Program? Start Here.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get your associate degree online?

    Definitely! To better accommodate the needs of busy learners, many technical schools and community colleges offer online associate degrees in a variety of fields, including computer science and information technology.

  • Is there a big difference between online and in-person associate degree programs?

    The primary difference between online and in-person associate degrees is the way students attend class. While in-person programs require on-site attendance at specific times, online degrees allow learners to complete coursework on their schedule, from the comfort of their home.

  • How long does an online associate degree take?

    An online associate degree typically takes two years of full-time study to complete. Some schools offer accelerated programs less than two years in length. Part-time students generally take more than two years to graduate.

  • Should you get your associate degree online?

    Online learning models do not suit every student, but many students find the flexibility of remote college invaluable. Factors that may impact your decision to learn online include campus location, program cost, and class scheduling.

  • What can I do with an associate degree in computer science?

    Online associate programs in computers and technology can prepare graduates for entry-level careers as computer support specialists and web developers. Graduates can pursue more advanced careers by transferring to a bachelor’s program.


Featured Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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