Perhaps the better question is “Can distance learning be a substitute for the college experience?” In this day and age, many colleges, including old, well established Ivy League colleges are offering courses via distance learning. Harvard University has several Master’s degrees where you can earn the majority of the required credit via the internet which is likely the best mode of distance education.
Perhaps you are looking for the more traditional college experience? Perhaps you want to make friends, see the football and basketball games and hit some parties where you hook up with others who are interested in some alcohol induced recreational sex? If so, then distance learning isn’t the college experience you are looking for and distance learning is therefore a poor substitute for college.
On the other hand, if you are a little older and burdened with responsibilities like job and family then perhaps distance learning is for you. Many brick and mortar mainstream colleges and universities are entering the distance learning arena and some have been there for years. There are also those “for profit” institutions that are accredited but are for profit institutions such as University of Phoenix that now offer classes via seats in a classroom and via the internet. There are also many lesser know colleges and universities that are both regionally and nationally accredited.
At this point you have to evaluate what you are looking for in regards to going to college. While there are many majors available via distance learning, not every major or degree type is available via distance learning. The advantages of distance learning include scheduling convenience, lowered commuting costs and if you would have had to stop to get something to eat on your way to class you will spend less on food expenses because you can eat at home. Also, it doesn’t restrict your ability to travel. While I was in the Navy I had to travel to the Middle East fairly often and it was great to be able to keep up with class work via the internet and my distance learning courses through California State University.
With the number of traditional colleges getting into the distance learning arena with the idea of getting to mature learners, you are trading the college experience for a college education. Properly run distance learning program uses such programs like blackboard or other specially designed software so that you get a new and perhaps educationally better experience. Nearly all of the software programs that colleges use require extensive student interaction and nearly all of this interaction will be class related. While bulletin boards and e-mail doesn’t recreate the college experience, it does give you an ample opportunity to establish friends and to see a diverse perspective on the questions that the professor and other student post.
So, to answer the question: Can distance learning be a substitute for college? That depends on what you want out of college. If it is just knowledge, then it works. If you want the rest of it, put your professional life on hold and go be a college kid no matter what your age.