Traditional-age college students in online programs can benefit from campus access and success courses.
Because online higher education has generally been aimed at older students, so has most advice for online students.
But with an increasing number of 18- to 24-year-olds turning online for at least some of their undergraduate study, perhaps it's time to update that advice.
Here are five suggestions for traditional college-age students considering a new-age virtual approach to a degree.
1. Live close to the online program: Despite the appeal of the ability to complete online course work from anywhere in the world with Internet access, younger students starting online studies may find it more comforting to enroll in a nearby institution, experts say.
Some may want to experience the social aspects of on-campus life despite taking virtual courses. Others may simply want to know they can physically access academic materials or meet with faculty.
"If nothing else, know what your resources are," says Theresa Harper, a student success counselor at Oregon State University's Ecampus online program. "Find some people on campus, that when you're in trouble, you can go to them. Even if they're not the right resource, they'll get you to the right resource."
Living close to an online program can mean staying in the region where you grew up. But there are outliers like Maria Marin, who moved from South Florida to Gainesville as a freshman enrolled in the University of Florida's fully online Pathway to Campus Enrollment program. Students in the program can transfer to the residential program after reaching 60 credit hours and maintaining a required GPA based upon their field of study.
"I think it's honestly been the reason why I've been so on top of my things," Marin says of her decision to move. "For instance, to do my classes, I go to the library a lot. The fact that you're seeing people doing work, you just want to do your work, too."
[Learn what to ask about library services as a prospective online student.]
2. Sign up for student success courses: These courses, designed to help students recognize and develop their study skills, aren't unique to online higher education. But they can be especially helpful to young online students faced with the twin tasks of learning a new way to study while also adjusting to the social and economic challenges of early adulthood.
Students who take these courses are more successful, regardless of how they take them, says Amy Davis, coordinator of counseling and advising services at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. "In terms of the online students, I think one reason that it's very helpful for them is that these courses address such a wide variety of needs."
Kameron Hood, a 20-year-old freshman who is balancing school online at Arizona State University with working 35 hours per week at a Starbucks in Yakima, Washington, has taken two such one-credit courses since beginning his studies in the spring.
"I went into it being kind of skeptical," Hood said. "But they're good to take, especially if you're coming in as a freshman and you're just starting online."
[Consider whether to take an online course at community college.]
3. Don't consider online education an either-or decision: Young students who don't want to feel alienated from the traditional college experience but also need a more flexible academic schedule may find options in between fully residential and fully online experiences, experts say.
Hybrid courses, which combine face-to-face and virtual instruction, are becoming increasingly mainstream on college campuses, Harper says. And at OSU, she says many students mix almost equal proportions of fully online and fully face-to-face courses without feeling they've lost a place in the on-campus community.
"If you asked them if they were an online or an on-campus student, they would tell you they're an on-campus student," Harper says.
4. Reflect on your learning style: Because younger students often have less experience as unsupervised workers or students, experts say it can be hard to know exactly how they can best use the unstructured learning time common with online courses.
These challenges arise if students haven't done much self-reflection, or if they lack leadership experience, Harper says. "They're learning who they are as a person at the same time that they're also having to be their own marketer," she says.
[Find out 10 big mistakes online students make.]
Even though he already had work experience, Hood says finding his rhythm as an online student came only after substantial trial and error.
Marin says she's found the adjustment a little easier, if only because she knew she needs to work ahead. "I don't like to overwhelm myself," she says. "I always knew I was like this with school, but I never in my life thought I would be so good at it on my own."