Why don't typical US colleges offer more online courses so that all of the classes could be taken online?

Online courses are cheaper, more profitable and more efficient to produce quantity of student(which translate into more people can be educated); students don't have to spend time traveling to classes. Students could simply hand in homework online and colleges can just open up a lot of computer labs for the students to take exams in exchange and lay off some lower quality professors. Also, students can have more time to themselves to interact privately on the computer and all formal discussions can take place within the class online.

Also, the government would be able to pay less financial aid and students would have the convenience of learning the class material on a cell phone.

The most importantly,students can join a reputable college outside of thier home city and able to save the charge of dormitory

Also, isn't that it is better to eliminate the high cost private college by competition and let more low cost public university survive by let our government became richer from giving away less financial aid?

  • 2
    Why down vote this?
    – Victor
    Feb 21, 2015 at 3:03
  • 18
    "Online courses are [...] more efficient" More efficient at what? Transmitting skills? Then [citation needed]. In my experience fewer student do well in them. Further, don't kid yourself about the professor hours needed to run on-line courses well. It is significant. Feb 21, 2015 at 4:54
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    Also colleges aren't just there to teach classes they are there to engage students, get them involved in research and other extra curricular activities and create a strong academic community. That is difficult to do if students are rarely on campus. Feb 21, 2015 at 5:03
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    This seems like a rant disguised as a question.
    – fkraiem
    Feb 21, 2015 at 8:06
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    Students could simply hand in homework online and colleges can just open up... — Those two bold words strongly suggest that you have not thought seriously about this. Neither students nor colleges can "simply" or "just " do anything. There are always costs, and tradeoffs, and unexpected hurdles, and unintended consequences.
    – JeffE
    Jul 16, 2018 at 22:25

4 Answers 4


I think there are multiple reasons, I'll touch on some:

  • Currently online courses tend to fill a gap for students who otherwise would not be able to complete many courses.
          This allows non-traditional students to have a chance at academically being competitive, although traditional students sometimes utilize them as well. They aren't designed to replace traditional courses, but to augment them.
  • It's harder to verify who is actually doing the coursework.
         This seems like a fairly important issue, after all, you want potential employers to be confident that the degree a university bestowed means something - namely that you earned it. As a university, you want to be sure that your students aren't cheating.
  • Market saturation.
          In-line with the previous bullet point, if classes were very cheap for many students, universities wouldn't be able to charge as much in general per student. This essentially translates to a lower value "per degree". This effectively tackles you point about joining "reputable" universities - the general train of thought is "If everyone can get in... is it necessarily reputable?" (Definitely a con from the university's point-of-view as they can potentially inflate their importance by limiting degrees conferred.)
  • Points of failure.
          An online class, depending on the format, could potentially require a large amount of bandwidth. This means the university would be footing the bill to effectively run these courses, and the facilities to run quality web-based courses may not be cheap. While it's true the lectures could just be recorded or utilize some sort of learning software, decreased student interaction tends to lead to lower grades overall (Source: multi-year TA)
  • Decreased profit.
         Arguably, I believe colleges make a fair amount of money by physically having the students on campus. "Butts-in-seats" mean that they charge more longterm for dormitories and food. Increased physically facility usage allows colleges to approach benefactors for more money, citing student use and need of expansion. Benefactors want a dorm with their name on it, not a server rack.
  • Collaboration.
         Not the bad kind, mind you. Like @WetLabStudent mentioned, physically being at a college or university exposes you to ideals, people, and methodologies you might have never come in contact with. The ability to interact with a large spectrum of people is an important skill for the vast majority of students to develop.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but I hope it raises some of the issues. If I missed a few more major relevant points, feel free to comment.

  • Also, isn't that it is better to eliminate the high cost private college by competition and let more low cost public university survive by let our government became richer from giving away less financial aid?
    – Victor
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:28
  • As there are computer lab in the college with someone who supervise the exam, it is the same to see if the student are cheating.
    – Victor
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:32
  • 1
    You forgot one: Developing a good stand-alone online course is incredibly difficult—much harder than writing a textbook or developing an in-person class—and universities are generally unwilling to give faculty the necessary time and resources to do a good job.
    – JeffE
    Jul 16, 2018 at 22:30

Some high profile university do offer several programs online, such as Georgia Tech, which offers an online masters program (http://www.omscs.gatech.edu/).

I believe the reason more colleges do not offer these courses is simple. American brick-and-mortar universities are very good as selling "the college experience." Universities are very good at convincing (mainly) young, high-school graduates to attend. They do this by having a nice looking campus, with (usually) a really nice gym and theater they can show perspective students.

Most universities require freshmen to live in the dorms, and have a meal plan. The university also has several sports teams that parents and alums pay to watch. There is also a dining hall and a bookstore (and sometimes a swag store) that students tend to frequent. Online students can't spend money buying stuff on a virtual campus.

Finally, adding online courses would mean hiring more profs. This coupled with the fact online courses are usually cheaper means that the university would be better off having more in-person courses, and accepting more students to stay in the dorms, eat at the campus dining hall and see campus sports teams.


Another issue: online learning requires much more self discipline. Precisely, one of the points you make "students don't have to spend time traveling to classes" is part of making them successful. The daily commute is establishing a routine, and just by sitting in class, they are absorbing information, and a pace is set.

In an online program, you don't have a class telling you what you should know. You have little pressure to keep up studying. In all practical ways, you are entirely responsible for your own study. We can agree that with ideal students (spherical, massless, and in a vacuum), that should be sufficient, but experience shows that, in most cases, it isn't.

Also, online discussions are not the same as in person. Writing on a forum keeps a permanent record, and gives you time to think and rewrite your arguments. But you loose spontaneity: it takes some time to get back and forth, and it becomes easy to talk through each other. In particular, if you are explaining some concept to me, and you misunderstand my doubt, it may take some time before we both realise it. In person, I can give you feedback until you say "Aha! I know what you mean!".

A chat is a bit better in this respect, but it is still slower to type, and you loose visual feedback. If you explain me something, you want to know if I am following you, getting more confused by the moment, or completely ignoring you. Furthermore, the clarity of a chat decreases with more than two participants.

The closest thing to real life would be a video chat. But still, given the quality of audio, you have to make sure you don't interrupt others (that can make getting into the discussion difficult), you are in a completely silent room, all the hardware and software is functioning properly (never a given! At work, we have professional equipment and a team of great IT support, and still, every now and then, our remote collaborator cannot join our meetings), etc.

  • 1
    In my home country, there are a number of online degrees, and they have exactly this problem: not even half of the students complete their degree if they take it online.
    – user141592
    Feb 21, 2015 at 20:13

This is in addition to the practical problems raised by Ramrod, since in Europe many universities offer online degrees where you just take the final exam on campus and everything else happens online.

From my experience at universities in Europe and the US, there is a really big difference in the attitude to an undergraduate degree. In Europe, a degree is something you complete and you end up with a record of courses you took and you performance in them. In the US, it is more about the experience: you live on campus with everyone else, you eat on campus with everyone else, you take the same basic required classes with everyone else. It's not just about getting the knowledge and a degree: it's about the college experience. You can't get this experience through online classes, so such degrees would be vastly different from the degrees on campus students get.

  • I mean more option for the student are always nice, also people can meet each other at the college library for the campus life...
    – Victor
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:05
  • @Victor By the time you have the same amount of social interaction as for an on campus degree, you are literally doing an on campus degree.
    – user141592
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:07
  • I mean people can meet each other at their hometown not at Harvard or Yale...
    – Victor
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:08
  • 1
    @Victor How many people in your hometown are doing a degree at the same place as you?
    – cpast
    Feb 21, 2015 at 19:23

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