Dear Straight Talk: I’m graduating from high school this June. My stepfather and I don’t communicate and sharing a room with two siblings makes concentrating impossible. I have to get out, but my parents cannot help with college costs. My thought is to get an second job (I already have one) and live on my own while taking classes online. But friends tell me I won’t like online classes, that it is hard to learn on the computer. What do you advise? Is it worth the loans to enroll in real classes? Or should I study online? — Troy in Toledo, Ohio
Brandon, 21, Mapleton, Maine: If your degree even hints at online education (University of Phoenix, DeVry, Kaplan), be prepared to have your resume tossed out. Some universities offer online classes, and those your employer won’t know about, but will you learn anything? Probably not. I’ve only had one online course that I retained actual knowledge from because we were forced to Skype every few days. (Some use online “discussion” forums, but most students only input the minimum.) The online system is a nightmare. I once assisted my university dean in finding teachers who were uploading stolen lessons and quizzes, many with auto answer banks so they didn’t even have to grade them. Don’t be left with an empty feeling and a potentially worthless degree.
Leif, 25, Ningbo, China: I did my bachelo’’s at a [U.S.] campus, but have taken some online courses. They can be fruitful, but you have to stay motivated when it’s easier to give up. With actual classes, you have support from professors and peers — a big deal when things get tough or you dislike the material. To help decide, try a free online course from coursera.org.
Brie, 22, San Francisco: The online classes I’ve taken (through my college) were pretty easy — if you kept up. However, in-person classes are a completely different experience. You make friends and have a real teacher. I’m on my own and work full-time while taking 12 (classroom) units. It’s hard, but possible.
Lara, 22, Vienna, Austria: It’s tough working your way through college. Having face-to-face support from teachers and peers will get you through much easier than trying it online. I put myself through [U.S.] college while working two to three jobs. I took some online courses, but the ability to learn was much better in a classroom (some online courses were helpful to collect credits and graduate quicker — and being enrolled, I knew which ones would transfer). I advise community college first. Living at home can be really helpful financially. Find a study place and only come home to eat and sleep.
Katelyn, 19, Huntington Beach: Online courses will impact your ability to get a degree within 4-6 years. Cheapest route: Start at community college. Apply for financial aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov), scholarships, explore crowd-funding sites like GoFundMe, and only accept SUBSIDIZED loans. Since community colleges don’t have dorms, post ads for roommates.
Brennan, 20, Colorado Springs, Co.: You may not realize that many small private colleges offer generous financial aid for needy students. It can sometimes be cheaper to attend a $50,000 college than a state school because of their grants. Look into it! Regarding loans, the income potential from a real college degree makes them worthwhile.
Dear Troy: I agree with the panel to avoid online classes unless taken within an enrolled college program — and even then, minimize their use. Students report less learning and experiments show the same thing. Online classes cost less, because they are worth-less. Go to a real college. College grads today earn almost double what high school graduates make. The costs are worth it. — Lauren
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