Online Public Schools with Distance Learning Programs: How to Choose

Many of the largest schools offering distance education opportunities are public schools, which are supported partly through state funding. Students with up to two years of prior college experience can enroll in an online bachelor's degree completion program, and full associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs are available through distance learning initiatives at state schools.

Learn about the variety of distance learning degree programs offered by public schools. Read about how tuition can vary between these programs, what resources they offer, common hands-on components and some of the schools that offer distance learning.

How to Select an Online Distance Learning Public School

Public schools often offer a wide range of online degree programs, covering various academic subjects and degree levels. Students should always consider tuition costs and hands-on components before making a final decision.

Degrees Offered

The first consideration of students choosing a distance learning program at a public college or university is finding a school that offers the appropriate degree level in the desired field of study. Public schools may offer associate's degrees through bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees via distance learning. Undergraduate and postgraduate certificate programs are also offered. Not all schools offer all degree levels.

Although public schools with distance education programs offer basic general education classes online to satisfy the core curriculum requirements for undergraduate programs, the majors available for both undergraduate and graduate degrees are often more limited than for on-campus programs. More extensive selections of online degree options may indicate the level of support given to distance education at a school; a school that offers only one or two distance learning degrees may not have as many resources committed to online degrees, or as much experience offering them, as a school with a broader online catalog.


Because public schools are partly state-funded, they generally offer lower tuition rates to state residents. Many, but not all, public schools charge in-state tuition for all students in their online degree programs, so choosing a distance learning program from a public school in another state can potentially cut a student's tuition bill. However, schools may charge the higher out-of-state tuition rate if a distance learning student takes any on-campus classes or classes with a campus-based component.

Additional fees for online courses often apply on top of tuition charges, to offset the costs of adapting courses to distance education formats and providing the technology and technical support for distance education programs. The structure of individual degree programs determines whether students enrolled in distance learning degree programs are eligible for financial aid.

Resource Access

Students in a public school's distance learning degree program are generally considered fully enrolled at the university and are permitted use of the campus' library facilities, though distance from the campus may make this unfeasible. While online students may not be able to physically access the library stacks, many public colleges have electronic media collections including e-books, online journals and scholarly databases. Library resources for online students also include reserve readings that professors upload through the library, which makes them available to online students. Access to these virtual research resources, along with research librarians and other methods of conducting research for term papers and theses, may factor into the choice of a distance learning degree program.

Hands-on Course Components

Hybrid classes allow students to complete some portion of the course online but require students to travel to the main campus sometimes. On-campus work may include either individual class sessions or residency periods of a week or more, several times during the program. Some programs allow students to complete labs, clinical components or field experiences at a location near the student, with the approval of the school. In these cases, an on-site supervisor often needs to be approved by the university.

Students may also need to find a test proctor or approved test site to supervise midterm and final exams. A student considering a distance learning degree program may want to explore how a school handles the hands-on and test components of a degree program to ensure that they can meet those requirements with the resources at hand.

Public Schools with Distance Learning Programs

The distance learning program at University of Nebraska - Lincoln makes use of internet courses, email communication, videoconferencing, CD-Rom programs and an online learning management system to educate students away from campus. In some hybrid options testing is done on campus, but most distance learning programs may be completed completely online. Students who pursue online training at UNL may pursue undergraduate degrees in applied science and early childhood in a mobile society. These students may also pursue graduate degrees in many other fields, such as agronomy, business administration and community development.

The University of Wisconsin System eCampus is a collaboration of 13 four-year campuses, 13 two-year campuses and the statewide UW-Extension that work together to offer distance learning to students. The schools in this collaboration are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and offer a number of programs at the certificate, associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. These programs cover the fields of nursing, management, education, business and criminal justice to name a few broad categories.

A number of public schools offer online distance learning programs in a variety of fields at all levels. Some of these programs may be completely online, while others may involve some on-campus work.

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