So, you’re ready to advance your education.You did your preliminary research–and a bit of soul- searching–and you realize you need a flexible program that allows you to take classes at your own pace and at a price point you can afford. You’re convinced an online college is the way to go.
Given your situation and the ubiquity of online colleges, it’s a practical decision, but before you dive in, let's get one thing straight: Not all online schools are the same.
To ensure a school meets your needs (and avoid major disappointment), it's imperative that you do your due diligence and research.
1. Check credentials.
Accreditation says the university has been reviewed by an independent body and has proved that their programs are legitimate and their faculty can be trusted to provide students comprehensive, quality instruction. Schools have to go through a rigorous accreditation process, which includes observation, course analysis, and interviews.
In addition, there are two types of accreditation agencies: National and regional. As their name suggests, national accrediting agencies accredit schools nationwide. They generally cater to for-profit, technical, or vocational colleges. Regionally accrediting agencies operate in specific sectors of the country and grant accreditation to schools with an academic focus. Of note, credits from regionally accredited schools are generally easier to transfer.
2. Review the payment options.
College is an investment of one’s time and money, so you want to make sure the cost is within the parameters of what you can reasonably afford. Many online schools do not receive federal aid, and for-profit schools may be more expensive than a not-for-profit school. While you’re weighing which system and which specific school is best for you, ask yourself:
What is the total cost of this degree or certificate program?
What financial aid programs is this school offering?
Do they offer payment plans?
How often are payments due?
If they don’t offer payment plans, is it possible–and practical–for me to take out a private bank loan?
3. Research their reputation.
Let’s be honest: One of the major reasons why adults attend college is to earn skills to negotiate a salary bump, make a vertical career move, or switch to a higher-paying career. You must check to see if the cost of your program is worth the degree. To determine if the return on investment is there, research the following questions:
What is the job/career placement percentage of your university?
What is the graduation rate?
What are current students and alumni saying about the rigor of the coursework, the content knowledge, and the accessibility of the professors?
Are there ample resources to help students who are struggling?
Do they have virtual tutors, an online writing center, and/or a peer group to help keep students on track?
How long has the school been active?
Is enrollment steady, increasing, or dropping?
The answers to these questions may tell you if the school is meeting the needs of 21st-century students. You can also look to outlets like U.S. News or OnlineU to find the best accredited online universities and most affordable online colleges, respectively.
4. Explore course offerings.
When narrowing down schools, it's important to know what degree and certificate programs they offer. If you’re a serious student, you probably have an idea of where you see yourself four years from now. How do the schools on your list align with your vision?
Some institutions like American College of Education specialize in niche areas like education and nursing, whereas other schools have broader programming. In addition, some online schools only cater to advanced programs like master's and doctoral degrees.
5. Confirm that their credits transfer.
In a perfect world, students would enroll in and graduate from the same college, but in the real world, things happen. Sometimes, schools close. Sometimes, priorities shift and students have to take a break from school and find another institution to meet their needs. Will other colleges accept your previous coursework from your online institution? Knowing this information beforehand can eliminate a lot of time and frustration.
6. Ask about online support.
Whether you are new to the world of technology or not, all online schools have a unique system that you’ll have to learn in order to turn in assignments, check grades, access the library, and communicate with classmates and professors.
As you're researching schools, explore the website and see if it's easy to navigate. Reach out to current or former students and look into whether assignments and other resources are easily accessible online.
And remember, when it comes to technology, encountering an issue is not an “if” situation, but a “when.” When issues arise, you need to know you’ll have backup. Will technical support readily available? Are there alternate ways to communicate (i.e. video chat, telephone, in-person, etc.)?
Taking the plunge into the world of online learning can be exciting and satisfying if done thoughtfully. Don’t just enroll because you see or hear a persuasive advertisement. Look deeper. Do your research, ask questions, get answers, and make the right decision for you.