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 and if you have a clear vision of how these courses can shape your future. US News has 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. 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. This is extremely helpful since it comes from an unbiased source — you don’t have to rely on information offered by the colleges themselves.
But why does accreditation matter? While you can get jobs in some fields with a diploma from a non-accredited institution, most people will doubt your credentials. Plus, schools that aren’t accredited do frequently go out of business, and it generally doesn’t look good to have a degree from a defunct school.
When investigating schools, make sure to do your due diligence. Some schools will make baseless claims of accreditation. If a school claims to be accredited, be sure the agency is approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Some non-accredited schools will make up names of accrediting agencies in order to pass off their school as being fully accredited — don’t fall for it!
Some students are concerned that an online degree might be frowned upon by employers. However, a diploma from a college won’t specify that the degree was earned online. That said, if your degree is from an online-only school, an employer will know your degree was earned online. Some students might think that’s automatically a bad thing, but attitudes are shifting. As more and more students are finding that online learning works for them, the stigma around online degrees has lessened.
Know How to Spot a Scam
As you research, be on the lookout for online college scams. Some of these websites can be very convincing, and you may think you’ve found a legitimate educational institution at first. While it’s important to do thorough research on every school you consider, there are a few signs of scams that you’ll want to watch for.
One is very pushy recruiters. Some online school scams will have employees relentlessly call you after you show an interest in their school. Other scam institutions may run frequent enrollment incentives, and many of them emphasize how fast and easy it is to get a degree. This is a red flag on its own — as a student, you ideally want to be challenged enough to excel at your future career. And lastly, some scam institutions also collect a significant amount of money before you even begin classes.
Consider the School’s Experience
Some degree-seekers believe that it’s always best to select an online degree from a college that also has a physical campus. This is not always ideal. While you’ll want a degree from an institution with a good reputation, it’s also wise to consider how much experience the school has with online teaching.
A school that has recently adapted to teaching online, for instance, likely will not have a curriculum optimized for distance learning. Established schools that have been offering classes online for a long time will have a curriculum developed specifically for online learners. The best online colleges regularly consult with experts to develop their programs specifically for distance learners.
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. As with in-person colleges, you’ll likely find that prices vary a great deal depending on the institution.
Just like with brick and mortar colleges, online colleges typically offer some forms of payment assistance. Scholarships and even federal student aid programs are usually available to online learners, too. To start, fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to see if you qualify for financial aid. Since online colleges know students are often juggling work and school, they often offer a few in-house scholarships, too. Some schools will work with you to set up payment plans if you can’t pay all of your tuition upfront. You may also be able to apply for outside grants and scholarships to cover all or part of tuition. If you’re asking yourself “Is online college worth it?”, don’t be immediately deterred by the costs — in many cases, there’s something you can do to ease the financial burden.
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 would receive on campus. If you’re paying the same amount of money, you should be able to expect the same level of support, even from a distance.
Online students ideally get the same support traditional students, but this is not always the case. On your search, determine whether each school gives you a personal academic adviser or offers career counseling services. Either of these services can be instrumental in choosing the courses you need to take in order to follow a certain career path. If you have an idea of what you want to do, an adviser can help you discover what each potential career path entails. Make sure to see whether you can easily contact your course instructor if you have questions about the course.
Being able to easily contact the professor has another advantage — the beginnings of your professional network. If you take the time to get to know your teacher and ask questions, you’ll stand out as a good student. If you’re applying for jobs in your field after graduation, the professors you’ve gotten to know will be able to write detailed, effective letters of recommendation.
Learn About Faculty
In order to make sure your degree is worth getting, make sure that you’ll be learning from knowledgeable and experienced teachers. Check out the faculty in your area of interest. Look to see where they earned their degrees, what they’re researching or publishing, and how long they’ve been teaching. Ideally, faculty members will have had experience teaching online, as it’s fundamentally different from in-person teaching.
Ideally, the faculty will be from many different institutions. If a school’s faculty members have all gotten their degrees from the same institution, it’s rarely a good thing.
Consider Class Sizes
You might not think class sizes matter when it comes to online instruction. After all, you don’t have to sit in a physical classroom with your classmates. However, smaller classes often mean more attention from the instructor. In a class of 25, it may take an instructor longer to respond to emails or phone calls asking questions about the course. When the instructor does get back to you, they usually won’t be able to spend a significant time helping you. In a class of 10, the instructor has more time to interact with students and answer questions.
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? If you’re going for a program that involves in-person requirements, the most cost-effective way to do so is to choose an institution that’s at least somewhat close to where you live.
Consider Educational Models
Most online colleges are based on either student-centered learning or competency-based learning. Depending on your needs, one of these models may be more suitable. Student-centered learning is more in line with what you would expect from an in-person college course. The classes will have set deadlines, and the courses are led by an instructor. This usually happens in the form of either live or pre-recorded lectures. Sometimes, this learning model involves group projects. This can be challenging because students aren’t in the classroom together. However, it’s great practice for similar workplace situations. This model is ideal for students who prefer a structured learning environment with ample support.
Some colleges use competency-based learning. These courses have less structure and are ideal for very self-motivated students. Competency-based learning does not have a set timeline. Typically, courses on this module involve a set of progressive assignments. The course is self-paced, and there often is minimal support for students. This model can work well for students who are very motivated and have the ability to manage time well.
Be Wary of For-Profit Institutions
As you investigate potential online colleges, take a look to see whether the schools you’re looking at are for-profit or not. Often, students will avoid for-profit institutions. They tend to be more expensive, much like private colleges tend to cost more than public colleges.
However, for-profit online colleges do have major advantage — they’re much less selective than traditional online college, and some haveno admission requirements at all. For example, if you are 40 years old and want to go to college for the first time, mostonline schools will look at your high school GPA. If you didn’t do well in high school, it may be difficult or even impossible to get into a not-for-profit school. Since for-profit institutions are trying to generate as much revenue as possible, they are more likely to accept all applicants.
Look at Student Success Rates
When you’re choosing a college, you probably want one whose students have gone on to succeed in their fields. This can be a difficult thing to measure — after all, most graduates don’t report back to their college each time they get a new job. One thing you can see, though, is a completion percentage. Most colleges will report what percentage of their students complete their degrees.
A high completion percentage means that most students found adequate support as they worked to continue their degrees. It also means that most students found their online degree to be worth it. Often, students who feel overwhelmed, unsupported, or like their education isn’t worth the effort will be more likely to drop out.
Look Into Student Experience
As you look into each online school, the internet makes research easier. But nothing can replace talking directly to someone who has experience with the college. If possible, reach out to a professor or a current student to ask about their experience. When you tour an in-person college, you usually get a view into the student experience. With online colleges, talking to students offers you a similar view.
When talking to students in particular, do your best to get a complete picture of what it’s like to attend the college you’re evaluating. Do professors answer questions quickly? Are there any advisers to help you choose what courses to take next? Is it doable to balance coursework with work and family life? Be sure to ask what the student likes about the school as well as what they dislike.
Is online college worth it? Only you can decide the final answer. 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. Ultimately, you’ll need to evaluate whether your investment of time, money, and energy into this degree will enable you to make the next right steps in your life.
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