The year was 2010, and I had a crucial decision to make: selecting where to earn my second master’s degree in educational leadership. Many colleges offered inviting programs for the working educator, but all the traditional brick-and-mortar schools were too much of something: too expensive; too far to commute; too long of a program; too inflexible to work with my schedule.
The research became frustrating. Then, a colleague recommended an online option: American College of Education. My first thought was absolutely...not.
I had my reasons. I felt online universities were all greedy for-profits with unapproachable professors and little to no resources. I assumed my employer wouldn’t accept the degree. I had fears that the virtual school would shut down before I graduated, and my colleagues would say “HUH?” when I gave them the name of my dot-com school.
But time was of the essence. I craved more leadership opportunities, and I had to make a decision fast. So, I discreetly engaged my colleague. I discovered he earned his M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from American College of Education. He was part of one of the early Chicago cohorts in 2008. At the time, ACE solely focused on graduate programming. (The college has since expanded and continues to do so.) He assured me that ACE was accredited, accepted by our employer, affordable, and that I would have my degree in under two years.
These were attractive attributes for a single mother and full-time teacher like myself, but I still did my own research. After confirming everything my colleague said was right, I took the plunge.
Courses were challenging, yet exciting. I could apply lessons and theories to my job immediately. I got accustomed to uploading assignments and having virtual study groups. I was able to visit the library in the middle of the night from my bedroom. Professors gave constant feedback and advice via email and by phone. I even met one professor in person, and several wrote me recommendations for a fellowship. Since my district partnered with the college, tuition was deducted from my biweekly pay so I didn't have to worry about how to manage funds.
In 18 months, I graduated. My certification to be a principal was endorsed by the state board, my employer gave me a raise, and I was flooded with so many leadership offers that I had to turn some down. I coordinated after-school programming and facilitated professional development for new and veteran educators. I no longer felt skeptical of my institution. I was proud.
Since earning my degree, I have become addicted to online education. Now, I am working toward my Doctor of Education in leadership online with no shame. I'm also a member of the American College of Education chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, which has opened doors to scholarships as well as opportunities to write for our scholarly journal and even speak at conferences (Yes, online universities have these resources.)
And traditional schools are paying attention. A 2016 study by the Babson Survey Research Group found that distance-education enrollments increased for the 14th straight year. And to meet the demands of place-bound professionals looking to advance their education, many colleges and universities are turning to online learning, too.
That shifting tide is why I now look at all institutions of higher learning the same. That's not to say that all online institutions are worth your time, but it's important to look past the "dot com" to what really matters: accreditation, efficiency, graduation rates, the caliber of professors, relevancy of courses, and, of course, reputation.
Does the school you're considering check off those boxes? If so, it's worth a second look, possibly enrollment, and definitely respect.