Can distance learning substitute for spending six drunken years as an undergraduate, changing majors every semester, and finally graduating with with a B-minus average in Sociology of Sport? Yes, of course, quality distance learning compares pretty well to the academic accomplishments of a non-serious student.
But can distance learning be a substitute for a good college experience? No way. Distance learning consists of being pumped with facts and then being tested on those facts. It also includes submitted basic essays on broad topics of common knowledge, and good grades are rewarded for learning the standard analysis and repeating them. So you complete a distance learning program with a baseline of knowledge and information, and you have proven to the world (and yourself) that you can absorb information about new topics. These are valuable accomplishments, but they are far short of a good college experience.
A good college experience opens your eyes to the world. It introduces you to new topics, and new ways of thinking about old topics. It teaches you how conventional thinking has evolved over centuries, and how it must continue to evolve (ie., people used to think the world was flat).
College challenges you. It puts you in close, personal contact with people who are very different from you. They have different interests, different habits, different belief systems.
College inspires you in so many ways. You might become so enamored with freshman biology that you decide to make it your major, and then do thesis work on snakes. You were turned on by biology, and undoubtedly also by the way your inspiring teacher was able to convey the excitement and complexity of the topic. This doesn’t come from taking a distance learning course, neither the inspiration for you, nor the contact with other inspired people.
A good college experience also develops life-long friendships and professional contacts that distance learning programs don’t even attempt to do. Given that most of us will be likely change our jobs and careers many times in adulthood, having these contacts is crucial. Being open to new ideas enables us to shift our careers without missing a beat.
If you can afford the time and financial investment – and you are going to be at least half-serious about your academics – then college is the way to go.