Overcoming the Stigma of the Online Student

Bag over head stigma of an online student

Hi! My name is Jake, and I was an online student.

Let me interrupt myself right there. I can’t just destroy my credibility so quickly. I should know better than anyone the reputation that floats around people who attend college online. No one will take me seriously if they know I went to school virtually. I’ll be looked down upon or, even worse, pitied.

Let me try again: Hi! My name is Jake, and I earned my bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University.

Better. But who is pretentious enough to lead with their education status? One more time, with feeling: Hi! My name is Jake, would you like to hear a story?

This is a riches-to-rags story unlike any you’ve heard yet today. A story of a young man who had it all: a hefty academic scholarship, a spot on the football team, a house, a loving wife, a PlayStation 2…and how he lost almost all of those amazing things.

The word “dropout” kept ringing in my ear. Or rather, my brain. No one had said it. But they were thinking it. I was thinking it, so they had to be. I felt like even strangers could smell it on me. Me, “The College Dropout.”

I really did like school. Maybe that was weird, but having been raised a homeschooler, I was no stranger to being weird. Yet this was even weirder to me than liking school. Dropping out of college? Walking away from scholarships and grants that very nearly fully paid my tuition? Leaving my friends?

I was walking away from my hope for a future.

That was crazy even to me and, I was sure, to everyone I came into contact with thereafter. You just don’t do stuff like that. Not without repercussions. I knew the script, and I was veering completely off it. Living “el solo lobo.” (Or something like that. I didn’t major in Spanish.)

I was convinced that that wasn’t the end, though. I would return to school. I would make it work. Somehow it would happen. Little did I know then that my “somehow” would take on forms I had never imagined. Forms I had silently scoffed at before.

Online colleges didn’t have a great rep in my book. I had seen plenty of commercials for the seedy-looking ones, and had heard “testimonials” from former online students who graduated with very little to show for their commitment to bettering themselves. I didn’t want to be one of those. I wanted to get back into a real school. Plus, I like people. I thought it would be harder to connect with people virtually (though some people argue otherwise). I wanted robust classroom discussions, not Internet forums.

But my options were swiftly dwindling. You see, I had left my “made man” situation in order to save my young marriage, and to focus on being a dad for the first-born my wife and I unexpectedly conceived just seven months into our marriage. I hadn’t planned on having kids until I was closer to graduation, and here I was degree-less, not even enrolled anywhere, and about to welcome our first child into the world.

The prospect of working to support a budding family, wanting to be a present, involved father and husband, and pursuing a degree at a real, brick-and-mortar university seemed less and less possible by the day. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, work, or pursuit of education.

So, in my desperation, I began looking into *gulp* online classes.

To my surprise, I discovered that some legit schools were offering more and more classes online. So I dove in and, also to my surprise, they were really helpful and empowering. But I still felt stigmatized. I couldn’t bring myself to say I was taking classes online. Let alone that I was doing so through a community college. When I finally started owning up to it, I made sure to qualify the information by assuring the interested party that I planned on transferring to a “real school” as soon as I finished up my prerequisites.

I enjoyed the classes and learned a lot, but was still embarrassed by the label. As if taking online classes was something to be ashamed of. So, even when I transferred to a bachelor’s program online at Colorado State University, I kept as quiet as I could about the “online” side of things.

To my relief, my degree didn’t indicate that I studied online. Now I know from my experience that I got the same education as anyone on campus would receive, and that I received a quality education from a well-respected school.  But I still didn’t know how to handle conversations that involved me telling someone about how I earned my degree.

I would find myself rehearsing in my head how best to present the information. How to frame the facts truthfully while still hiding/disguising the hairy details as long as possible. I wondered when I would finally just accept it, when I would finally reject the stigma of the online student.

In some ways, I’m still wondering. I still have moments where I feel like the fact that I studied online is something I have to hide. But I have less of them now, and the distance between those moments is growing by the day.

And do you know what’s helped? Well… me neither, exactly.

There isn’t a magical formula that will convince you that the stigma is finally dead or insignificant. But there is recognizing that the divide between degrees earned online and those earned on campus is being obliterated by a bunch of smart people realizing that they can teach other smart people no matter where they are. Be it in a grand lecture hall or at someone’s kitchen table, people are still being educated by top institutions and professors from around the world.

So, with that in mind, I keep telling myself (and now you) this:

The stigma is dead. Let’s move on to more important discussions.

Do you think the stigma surrounding online students is dwindling? Learn more about the experiences of the students in online programs at Colorado State University in this short video.

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