Have you heard of online high schools and are wondering if they're a good option for you? Are you unsure whether they're a flexible way to get a high school diploma or just an internet scam?
Read this guide to learn what an online high school is, what the pros and cons of attending one are, and how to decide if enrolling in a virtual high school is the right decision for you.
What Is an Online High School?
Like the name suggests, an online high school is a school or program where students can earn their high school diploma by taking classes online. Most of these classes are completely online, but some require students to visit a testing center or other location to take certain tests or hand in assignments. Some of these programs are affiliated with traditional brick and mortar schools while others are solely online.
If you enroll in a virtual high school, you can either take a few classes to supplement your degree at your regular high school, or you can earn your entire high school diploma online.
There are four types of online high schools:
Public schools: These are programs that are government funded, usually accredited, and available for free if you are a resident minor in the state or district in which it's offered. They usually follow curricula similar to that of your state's traditional high schools. Public online high schools have to follow strict guidelines in order to receive funding, and because of this they often have fewer course offerings than the other options listed.
Charter schools: Online charter schools have many of the same characteristics as online public schools; however, they often have a wider variety of classes and may use more innovative and non-traditional teaching methods.
Private schools: This is one of the fastest growing groups of online schools. Because they are not as regulated as the other groups, the quality and costs of private online schools can vary widely. However, they can offer a large variety of classes and typically don't require students to live in a certain state in order to enroll. There are also specialized online private schools available such as Christian schools, schools that focus on math and science, and others.
Schools affiliated with a college or university: Because they are sponsored by a college or university, these online schools often allow students to receive dual high school and college credit for the classes they take. These programs often offer high-quality classes, but they can be quite expensive to take. Some popular examples include Stanford University Online High School and Indiana University Virtual High School.
Who Attends Online High School?
What kind of people decide to pursue high school online? Most online high schools are open to both teenagers and adults returning to school to earn their high school diploma. Some of the people who enroll in high school online include:
- Teenagers who are unable to attend traditional high school or prefer to take classes online.
- Home-schooled students looking to supplement their education.
- Adults taking classes after being out of school for several years.
- Advanced students looking to take more rigorous classes than those their high school offers.
- International students who want to take classes offered by the country where they hope to attend college.
From this list, it's clear that people decide to pursue virtual high school for a variety of reasons. Read on to learn more about the benefits that online schools can offer.
What Are the Benefits of Online High School?
Benefit #1: Flexible Schedule
For many students, the most important benefit of attending high school online is that you don't need to attend school during regular hours. This can be extremely helpful for students, both teenagers and adults, who are trying to balance completing their high school education with a job or other responsibilities. If you can only take classes and study in the evenings or on certain days, online high schools make that possible.
Another benefit of this flexibility is that it allows you to learn at your own pace. This is beneficial for students who want to work at a slower pace to make sure they understand the material completely, as well as students who prefer a faster pace and are possibly looking to earn their high school diploma ahead of schedule. Flexible schedules can also benefit students who are ill, travel frequently, or otherwise can't attend a traditional high school.
Benefit #2: More Class Options
Many times, online schools will have more class options than traditional ones because they are not restricted by a limited number of classrooms or teachers like traditional high schools are. This can benefit students looking to take specific classes not offered by their regular high school, including certain advanced or AP classes. Some online schools even offer specializations or the opportunity to tailor your courses to subjects that interest you more.
This is also an important benefit for home-schooled students and their parents who may be thinking about online classes. Taking an online class can allow you to learn about a subject your parent or homeschool teacher isn't an expert in, such as advanced math classes, so that you can remain home-schooled but also get the benefit of a well-rounded education.
Benefit #3: No Traditional School Environment
Some people also choose virtual high schools because they don't enjoy or do well in a traditional school. This may be due to difficulties with classmates, trouble learning in a traditional classroom environment, or a different reason.
Attending an online high school also often results in fewer distractions. When you are taking classes online, you don't have to worry about what to wear, if your friends are in the same classes as you, or if you got invited to that party on Friday. When you sit down in front of your computer to work on your classes, you can devote your entire attention to learning and doing well in them.
Attending high school online can make it possible to take classes where and when you want.
One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
What Are the Drawbacks to Online High School?
While virtual high schools undoubtedly have benefits, there are drawbacks as well. I'll discuss four potential drawbacks below, and for each drawback I'll give ways to minimize it or avoid it all together.
Drawback #1: Not Always Legitimate
Unfortunately, not all online schools will provide you with a quality education, and some are little more than online scams that will award you with a "diploma" as long as you pay their fee.
Attending a school that isn't high quality can result in you getting a poor education, and this can make future schooling and jobs very challenging because you don't have the knowledge you were supposed to have learned in high school. It can also result in your diploma not being accepted by most colleges and employers, which means you can spend a lot of time and money on a piece of paper that's essentially worthless.
How to avoid: Make sure to only attend an online high school that is accredited. Schools can only become accredited if they are found to meet a certain level of education quality, and many employers and colleges only accept diplomas from accredited high schools. A school's website will usually state if they're accredited, and you can check out our guide to learn more about accreditation and online high schools.
Drawback #2: Can Be Expensive
While some virtual high schools are free, others can cost thousands of dollars, and that can be difficult for many people to afford. Some online high schools cost over $10,000 a year to attend.
How to avoid: The cost of an online high school depends on several factors, including your age, whether government funding is available, and what type of high school it is. Research different types of schools to find the best value for you. Public and charter online high schools are government funded and free to resident minors (so you must live in the state where it's offered and be 18 or younger). Private online schools are typically more expensive. Each state's department of education has a list of funded online programs, and you can look through these to potentially find an online school you can attend for free. Look on your state's department of education website to find more information.
Drawback #3: Less Social Interaction
Another potential drawback of online programs is that they have much less social interaction than traditional schools. There are no friends sitting next to you in class, no sports teams, no prom, no lunch in the cafeteria. Some people may not mind this, but others find the relationships they form to be one of the most important and enjoyable parts of high school.
Not having these experiences may cause you to feel like you're missing out on an important part of high school, and it may cause you to enjoy your studies less and become less motivated.
How to avoid: While you won't be able to recreate all aspects of a traditional high school experience, you can still form friendships and interact with people. Look for online high schools that offer a chat function and group projects so you can talk with your classmates. You can also join clubs and sports teams in your community so that you can still spend time with others in-person.
Why doesn't my laptop ever ask how my day has been?
Drawback #4: Requires More Self-Motivation
Unlike a traditional school, virtual high schools don't have a classroom you need to be sitting in at a certain time, you won't have a teacher you'll see every day, and you won't have nearby friends working on the same assignments. This means that it will be your responsibility to make sure you are doing the work you need to in order to graduate. For students used to being regularly assigned work, this can be a difficult adjustment. If you struggle with staying motivated, your grades could slip, and you could end up delaying your graduation.
How to avoid: Create a study schedule that lists the work you need to accomplish each day and stick to it. You can also look for schools that offer more teacher interaction and have more frequent deadlines to help you stay on track.
Should You Attend an Online High School?
So, is attending a virtual high school the right choice for you? There is no one right answer, but follow the three steps below to help make the best decision for you.
Step #1: Think About Why You Want to Attend an Online School
The first step is to ask yourself why you want to attend high school online. Is it because it's the only way you can fit taking high school classes into your schedule? Is it because you need to finish high school early? Whatever the reason, make sure you know exactly why you want to attend an online school so that you can look for schools that give you the benefits you want.
Step #2: Research Potential Schools
The most important step is researching schools. The number of online high schools is growing rapidly, and trying to find the best one can be overwhelming. Look on your state's department of education website to get started, and ask yourself the following questions for each school you are interested in:
- Is it accredited?
- How much will it cost?
- How much teacher and classmate interaction is there?
- How will you be graded?
- What classes do they offer?
- How much of a time commitment is required?
- When will you be able to graduate?
You should think about the answers to each of these questions and decide if the school offers what you want. You can also search for online reviews from past students to see what they say about a particular school.
It looks like these kids just discovered a great online school.
Step #3: Think Honestly About How Much You Would Enjoy Online High School
Some people want to attend high school online because they think it will be fun to take classes in their pajamas and be on the computer all day. While this may be true, online school can also be lonely, challenging, and monotonous. Before you decide to take online classes, think carefully about what it would be like to be alone all the time while doing schoolwork, not have a teacher able to explain things in person, have to plan your own study schedules, and not have nearby classmates to work on assignments with.
Some people don't mind this, but for others this environment can make completing high school a miserable and challenging experience.
One low-risk way to try out online learning and see if it is for you is to take a massive online open course, often known as a MOOC. While you likely won't receive any school credit for it, there are a huge number of MOOCs you can take for free. A simple Google search for MOOCs will show you a wide variety of options.
Try one class and see how you like online learning, then use that information to help decide if attending a virtual high school is the right decision for you.
Online high schools can be a great way for people who need flexible schedules to complete their high school studies, but there is also the risk of enrolling in a disreputable school, feeling isolated, and having to spend thousands of dollars to complete your degree.
In order to decide if you should attend an online school, research multiple schools carefully and see if they fit what they are looking for. You should also think carefully about what it would be like to attend school entirely online, and you may want to consider taking a free online course first before you decide to pursue high school online.
Interested in learning more about accreditation? We have a guide that explains exactly what accreditation is and how you can make sure an online school is accredited.
Trying to figure out your class schedule? Check out our expert guide on which classes you should take in high school.
Want an in-depth look at an online school? Read our guide on Stanford online high school, including reviews from current and past students.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.