Online college can be a convenient way to get the degree you need from an excellent school on your own schedule, particularly if you have children or are already in the workforce. However, some online degrees are more valuable than others. In general, attending college online makes sense if you’re taking classes from a reputable institution. Read on for some benchmarks to determine whether the online degree program you’re considering is worthwhile.

Do Your Research

In general, a reputable online degree should take just as long to complete as a traditional bachelor’s or master’s program. For best results, choose a school that has an established brick and mortar institution in addition to its online programs. You should also choose a school that’s accredited by the appropriate educational institution, depending on the course of study you’re pursuing. All accrediting institutions should be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education. The Better Business Bureau maintains an online guide to choosing a reputable online degree program.

Consider the Cost

In some instances, an online degree can be cheaper than its traditional counterpart, but that’s not always the case. Before enrolling in an online institution, learn about how tuition is calculated and charged. Some schools charge by the credit hour, while others charge by the semester or a flat fee for a specific degree program. Once you have a cost estimate, compare it to the cost of a similar degree from a traditional, in-person college or university.

Analyze Support Services

If the cost for the online degree is similar to that of a traditional degree, are the support services you’ll receive as a student comparable as well? These should include regular contact with professors, tutoring and other resources, financial aid, career planning, and other services that students earning a traditional degree are privy too. If you’re paying the same amount of money, you should be able to expect the same level of support–even from a distance.

Read the Fine Print

While some degree programs are available completely online, others do have an in person component. This is especially true for degrees that have clinical components or other types of service learning as part of graduation requirements. If in-person visits are a requirement of your online degree, can you afford to make the required trips? How much cost does that add to the overall value of your degree?

In general, online degree programs can be worthwhile, provided you choose an accredited school that fits your needs. You’ll also want to consider the profession you hope to enter with the degree and the availability of new jobs in that role. This is particularly important if you’re planning to take out loans to pay for the cost of your degree, whether in person or online; will you be able to pay back those loans with the job you’ll ultimately obtain?

For further help, the U.S. News and World Report maintains an online resource to determine whether online college is right for you.

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