The answer to this question depends entirely on the person.
For some, distance learning is a great option. Provided you have the discipline to study in your own time and complete the required work, and are able to teach yourself much of the material, then distance learning could be a substitute for college.
It is particularly helpful for those who are unable to attend college, perhaps because they have a child or suffer from mental or physical problems. For example, for someone who suffers from social phobia and has panic attacks when surrounded by many people, distance learning is an opportunity to gain an education despite this condition.
For some, distance learning is the only option. If it were not available, there is a good chance that many people would not be able to further their education.
As for those that are healthy and able to attend college, distance learning can be a substitute. If they are disciplined and dedicated to what they are doing, they can be very successful in a distance learning course. This can be a problem for many college-age students, as they are not yet mature enough to take responsibility for completing the work themselves. However, this is not true of all students and there are plenty who would thrive on a distance learning course.
Taking a course via distance learning also affords students the chance to travel at the same time as studying. Perhaps you want to spend 6 months in a different country, but do not want to abandon your education. Distance learning allows you to do both.
Of course, there are some aspects of college that can not be replaced by distance learning. The social life gained from attending a college institution is something which is very valuable to some, and if this is the case for you, then taking a distance learning course may not be the best option.
Whilst distance learning courses do offer support through helplines and email, there is no real substitute for one-on-one help. If you need a concept explaining, it is so much easier face-to-face. It is also nice to be familiar with your tutors and feel comfortable to go to them for help. This is often hard if they are all remote.
If you think that you will need a lot of support, college may be the best option.
So, can distance learning be a substitute for college?
Well, that depends on the individual’s preferences and needs. For some, it is the only way to gain an education and is therefore an invaluable resource. It is also a good option for those who want freedom whilst studying, rather than sticking to the strict routine of a college. Individual learners will benefit from the responsibility of distance learning courses.
However, if you are the kind of person who needs a lot of support, and a schedule which forces you to complete the work, college may be better. Some people are unable to discipline themselves to work hard, and for them, college is a better option.
The way to choose which path to go down is to be honest with yourself. If you honestly think that you can work alone and cope without the regular contact with tutors that you would get at college, then you could benefit from a distance learning course. However, if you have a tendency to procrastinate and struggle to make deadlines, it might not be the right option. If you choose the right route, you will benefit no matter which you do.