A study by the Illinois Department of Employment Security found that many of the 25 most-in-demand jobs require an associate degree or higher. That means a lot of state residents, and the Illinois economy, would benefit from increased access to higher education. Although 87 percent of the state's 12.8 million residents have earned a high school diploma, only 12 percent of those 18 to 24 years old have at least a bachelor's degree and less than 40 percent of those residents older than 25 have some sort of college degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Fortunately, online colleges in Illinois offer working people plenty of opportunities to go to school while holding down a job or raising a family.
According to the Illinois Virtual Campus (IVC), Illinois colleges and universities reported over 715,000 online course enrollments during the 2011-2012 academic year. IVC, a virtual catalog of distance education offered by schools in the state, serves as a valuable resource for Illinois residents considering online learning. Through the site, students can browse online courses and degree programs from a variety of participating post-secondary institutions.
National online colleges provide yet another option for those interested in pursuing an online education. Some, such as DeVry University, University of Phoenix and Everest University, even have physical campuses located throughout Illinois. In addition to a broad range of fully online degrees, these schools may offer blended learning options, which combine on-campus instruction with the added flexibility of online courses.
There are 6.6 million workers in Illinois, and they earn on average $47,680 a year, or $22.92 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The vast majority of those workers come from the Chicago metropolitan area.
There are also exactly 100 colleges and universities in the state. Twelve of those are public institutions, and 63 are private non-profit schools.
The following list ranks the 10 schools in Illinois that offer online degrees at the lowest tuition costs. This ranking is based on a number of factors that are important to prospective students such as the actual degree programs that are taught online, and information on tuition fees, accreditation and notable alumni. Tuition figures are sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics (2014-2015) and reflect in-state tuition (when in-state tuition is available) for all students, including online students. See our Methodology section for more details on the ranking methodology.
Q. What can you tell us about the online programs offered at Eastern Illinois?
Because EIU is primarily a residential university, it is important that our online programs augment on-campus enrollment. This is why our focus has been on developing online programs that serve 1) nontraditional students (i.e., those whose work and family responsibilities make it difficult for them to take classes on campus on a regular basis); and 2) new markets off campus.
EIU offers three wholly online programs designed for nontraditional students interested in earning a baccalaureate degree:
We also offer low-residency programs that combine online coursework with some face-to-face courses offered at times convenient for nontraditional students (evenings, weekends, summers). For undergraduate transfer students, these include:
For graduate students, these include:
Our second focus is on developing online programs for new markets. This fall we will inaugurate low-residency graduate programs in Aging Studies and Health Promotion and Leadership, and we plan to offer both our MBA and Financial Planner programs wholly online. Next year, we plan to offer a new graduate program in Cyber Security as well as online versions of our Master Teacher and Natural Sciences programs.
Q. How do you advise students interested in an online degree program?
First, be sure that online learning is right for you. Online courses are as tough as -- and in some cases tougher than -- their face-to-face equivalents, and they require substantial self-motivation and time management. You can't just "show up" and expect to pass. Instead, you have to complete some activity virtually every day -- read assignments, post answers to questions about them, critique others' responses, take quizzes/tests, participate in group conversations and projects, write papers, etc. If you have questions about whether you're up to the challenge, read the Illinois Online Network's advice for prospective online students at http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/StudentProfile.asp.
Second, if you're considering enrolling in online courses in a state other than the one in which you reside, be sure that state has approval to offer courses in yours. Not all of them do. At EIU, we keep online students apprised of these authorizations at http://www.eiu.edu/adulted/applicants-outside-il.php. (FYI, state authorization is a federal requirement tied to federal financial aid rules.)
Third, be sure your online courses are being taught by faculty members who have been trained to teach online, as all of EIU's are. (This information should be available on the instructor's course website or syllabus.) Not only does teaching online require special knowledge of technology and how to use it to engage students in the learning process, it also requires excellent writing skills, since this is the teacher's primary means of communicating with students. Teachers (like students) also need to have excellent time management skills: Students have access to the Internet and thus to their online courses 24-7; teachers need to recognize that students may ask important questions at any time of the day or night, and that they expect a prompt response.
Q. Will online learning change much in the future?
There already is some evidence that the online market is glutted -- at least, enrollments have stopped growing. This complicates enrollment management efforts, especially in Illinois, which is seeing a dwindling supply of high school and community college students to fill face-to-face classes. If the supply of online learners also is diminishing, institutions will need to ensure that their online programs truly are competitive -- that is, that they are producing high quality graduates who not only secure employment but also know and can do what employers expect. At EIU, all students complete the same requirements and learning outcomes, whether they are taking their courses in a classroom at 10 a.m. or at home at 2 a.m. But this is not the case at all institutions. What this means for online students is that they should expect their courses and programs to define learning and program outcome measures more explicitly. Their knowledge and skills will be assessed more frequently, and their post-program success will be tracked more carefully.
As Illinois higher education continues to see reduced funding, institutions also may begin rethinking their investments and their students' investments in remedial education, which potentially could be provided to students for free via online solutions such as Khan Academy and MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching).
Last, I think you'll also see institutions rethinking their online program inventories. Some of them may begin to retrench and refocus their offerings on programs that support their missions and address truly unmet needs in the higher education marketplace -- which is what EIU's plan for online programs has called for all along. In the long run, online programs likely will get better, though there may be fewer of them.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the online programs offered at the University of Illinois-Springfield?
The University of Illinois Springfield is both a mature online course provider and a leader in the field of online learning. UIS faculty began teaching online in 1998. Thirty students were enrolled in the initial programs. Today, over 1,700 students are majors in online programs. This deliberate and slow growth has allowed UIS to continue to offer high quality, high touch programs to students through online media. More information is available about online learning at UIS at http://www.uis.edu/colrs/.
Q. What advice would you give to students interested in an online degree program?
My best advice would be for students to do diligence in finding out about a university and the program of study they are interested in pursuing. Here is a list of items I think are important to potential students:
If the university seems like a good fit for the student, then the student should address his or her ability to excel in an online program. Here are some additional components that students should consider when thinking about enrolling in an online program:
Q. How do you anticipate online learning might evolve in the coming years?
Online learning will continue to mature. More universities are looking to add additional and new online options to their current program offerings. We will also see more technologies being added as learning options in online courses. Perhaps the most important aspect of online learning is that course work be available through use of any device. Mobile technologies in online classes will continue to develop and be a strong influence on the future development of apps for learning.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
There are nearly 5 million workers living in the large metropolitan area that includes Chicago, Joliet and Naperville, Ill., comprising about 75 percent of the entire state's workforce. Workers in the metropolitan area earn an average annual salary of $49,820, for an average hourly wage of $23.95. Chicago has a very diversified economy, leading to more stability than most large cities that are dependent on a handful of industries. Chicago's Cost of Living Index is 117.5, and average home prices are $422,337.
Chicago has always enjoyed a diverse population of residents. There was a great influx of immigrants to the area in the 19th century, and the city's African-American population doubled from 1910-1920 and again during the next decade as many blacks moved north from the American South for better jobs. Although unemployment all over Illinois soared during the Great Recession, it has declined significantly in recent years in Chicago, even though it remains stubbornly high in some parts of the state.
Chicago is known for its food, nightlife, waterfront, museums and sporting events. It's home to both the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs, and fans also flock to football games played by the Bears and basketball games featuring the Chicago Bulls. The city is also renowned for its theater companies.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
This region of Illinois, located along its western border along the Iowa state line, is considered the Quad Cities Metropolitan Area, and its economy combines the strength of Davenport, Iowa, with Moline, Rock Island and some other medium-sized municipalities along this stretch of the Mississippi. Workers here earn significantly less than workers in Chicago, pulling down $40,800 on average annually, for an hourly wage of about $19.61. Average home prices in this area are $308,369, and the Cost of Living Index is 95.9.
There are nearly 205,000 workers in the Davenport-Moline-Rock Island metropolitan area, or roughly 3 percent of the state of Illinois' entire workforce. The unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state.
Moline is the home of John Deere tractors, so there are historical spots, factories and memorabilia to see about those famous green and yellow tractors. There is also a wealth of outdoor and cultural activities, including the Family Museum, the Niabi Zoo, the Putnam Museum and the Figge Art Museum.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
Workers in Peoria earn on average $47,400 per year, for an average hourly rate of $22.79. Its unemployment rate is the seventh lowest among Illinois' metropolitan areas. Its labor force of 197,000 workers is about 2 percent of the state's total workforce.
Peoria, founded in 1691 and still the largest city on the Illinois River, is the center of a metropolitan area of 373,590 people. It is the headquarters for Caterpillar Tractor Co., and is a world leader in the manufacture of earth-moving equipment. Caterpillar is one of the top employers in the area.
There are 20 registered historic places in Peoria, making it a popular destination for history buffs. It also boasts a vibrant cultural scene, with museums, a symphony and a downtown area that has been revitalized with riverfront lofts, artists studios and a dining and entertainment district.
Illinois students interested in pursuing an online degree must first meet certain entry requirements, which differ from one institution to the next. For more information about a specific school or program, prospective students should consult an admissions counselor. Many nationally accredited online colleges have advisors available to answer questions online via email or instant messaging.