Whether you are just finishing high school and are trying to decide what’s next, or you are an adult who is ready to go back to school to finish your education, you may be trying to find out which the online colleges or universities might be the best fit for your situation. If you’ve chosen what you want to study and have begun searching online for the best schools, it’s possible that your decision-making is now less clear than it was when you started!
Picking out the best online college can be difficult, but this guide can help. Showing you a list of considerations and helping you ask the right questions will allows you to narrow down your options and get to the right place for your online education. And that education can take you on the road to exactly where you want to go for your future.
1. Make Sure the School is Accredited
If the online college you are considering is not accredited, then it may not be worth the money or time you would invest in a degree. Of course, it will depend on your field of study but schools that are highly respected by employers will be accredited, so if your aim is to get a job after you earn your degree, this this is going to be one of the most important aspects. Online schools are particularly notorious for awarding degrees which are not necessarily considered acceptable by top employers. Most schools are proud of their accreditation and will post them on their websites.
There are three common types of national accreditation that exist in the United States:
- DETC (Distance Education & Training Council)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Schools & Colleges (ACICS)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
In addition, regional accreditation may also be found between six regional accreditation boards throughout the US. Theology programs may be accredited completely differently. Also, people choosing careers with state licensing boards (teachers, nurses, law, etc.) may have special requirements for those earning a degree outside the state. Do beware of the term “state approved” as it is not synonymous with accredited.
2. Choose a School with Online Experience
Many colleges and universities are getting into the online game these days, even though online schools have been around for decades. But it’s probably best if you aren’t a test student in a new program. No one wants to be a guinea pig! Even if the school you are considering has had a brick-and-mortar program for many years, that does not mean it will be able to manage its technology and online instruction methods from the get-go. Instead, choose a school with a proven online track record of at least 5-10 years. Check on the school’s website (usually the About Us page will offer this info) to find out not only the number of years since its online program began, but also how many degrees the school has awarded. If this information is not available on their website, be sure to ask an advisor by email or telephone call.
3. Check for a Broad Range of Programs
If you already know what you want to study then you are miles ahead of many potential students! But even if you do know what you think you want to study, it is beneficial to find a school that has a wide diversity in online program options in addition to the field you want to study. Plus, if you narrow down your options too far, you may not be able to change majors if you find yourself changing your mind down the road. Otherwise, you may find yourself having to transfer schools in order to change your major field of study. Another benefit of an online college with program diversity is that you can take electives that interest you but may be outside the realm of what your department offers.
Public (rather than private or for-profit) institutions do seem to offer well-rounded online learning programs for students. According to the 2016 Babson Study public institutions seem to garner the largest portion of distance learning students (73% undergraduate and 39% graduate level students) which means that the range of programs offered should be very good in most cases for online students, but it is certainly worth looking into.
4. Think about Student Support
When you are taking classes online, you need to make sure that your school is offering the support that you need, when you need it. And that there are live people available to talk to via telephone should you find that emailing is simply not working well enough. Talking to an admissions counselor at your potential online schools may help you to get a very good idea of how the school might be able to support you during your time as a student. If you call and can’t get an answer? You’ll know that maybe this isn’t the college for you. Finding out what other students have to say about their support experiences may also be a great way to get the information you need so don’t be afraid to ask for references and recommendations.
5. Find Out About Transferring Credits
If you’re a non-traditional student, you may have some previous college credits that you would like to have transferred into your new online college. If you’re 35 and you took your basic beginning English and Math courses when you were 18, those classes can still count toward your degree even if only as electives. According to a Learninghouse and Aslanian survey performed in 2014, around 80% of online undergrad students have credits earned at another institution that they want to transfer into their new school. Don’t assume that your new online school with automatically take the credits from your old one. Ask specific questions about exactly which credits you need to count toward which degree program, and get detailed information before making your decision on which online college to attend.
6. Consider Career Services
If you’re taking online classes, it’s probably because you are aiming to develop yourself in your career and eventually find yourself in a new job or promoted after you have earned your degree. Online schools that offer career services and job placement after graduation may be particularly attractive, especially if you are in a specialized degree program. Online schools that contain a large network of alumni may also be attractive because those connections may lead to better job opportunities. You may find out about job openings through your school’s career services, or considered for positions because of alumni connections, and that could make a huge difference in the development of your future success.
7. Ask About Credit for Prior Learning (CPL)
If you’re a student fresh out of high school then this particular aspect may not apply to you. However, if you have a lived a bit of life, worked in an industry related to your degree, or even travelled extensively, then you may find that your life experience qualifies you for Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and may keep you from having to take certain classes. Typically this means that you still have to pay for these credits, at a reduced rate, and you may be required to submit a portfolio in lieu of taking an entire class for a semester. If you have life experience that you think may qualify for credits, inquire at your schools of interest to see if you could cut short your college career and get back into the workforce even sooner. Check out the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning to find out more.
Here are some typical portfolio requirements for life credits:
- Work Samples
- Detailed Resume
- Job Description
- Co-worker or Supervisor References
- Awards or Certificates Received
- Paper Describing Life Experience
8. Find Out About Class Sizes
Whether you are in a brick-and-mortar school or an online school, the size of the class may affect the quality of education you receive toward your degree. Teachers who are overwhelmed with too-large classes may find themselves skimping on assignments and grading. Or you may find that a teacher simply isn’t responding to your communication when you need them. While a brick-and-mortar school offers the option of actually walking up to talk to the teacher even if he is too busy, in an online school you don’t have the option to stalk your teacher in order to get a conference. Make sure that the class sizes are small enough so that your teacher can give you the personalized attention and education that you need.
As the percentage of students taking online classes has increased from 28% to 32% over just the last two years, classes may be getting fuller and you’ll want to be sure that this doesn’t diminish the attention you’ll get from your teacher.
9. Time and Schedule Requirements
According to a 2014 survey by Learninghouse and Aslanian Market Research, one of the top reasons students cite for wanting to take online courses is in order to set their own schedules. But not all online schools allow this so you’ll want to clarify which type of learning your online school offers.
Two different types of session timelines occur in online schools: Synchronous or Asynchronous
Synchronous Classes: Typical campus courses are offer in a synchronous style where every student is on the same time line and taught in “real time”. In an online school, this means that students must participate in a class at a specific time through online attendance whether audio, video, or in a chatroom.
Asynchronous Classes: This type of class is more flexible and somewhat customized to the student’s personal schedule. In this case, the student accesses the necessary information at a time that is convenient, whether watching video lessons, listening to lectures, or participating in online chatrooms. There will likely be assignment and discussion deadlines, but these can be turned in at any time of day on a specific date, leaving the exact timing of the studies up to the student.
10. Consider Student Feedback
While not every student that offers up feedback is going to be completely unbiased, finding out what actual students have to say about an online college can be particularly helpful in determining whether you want to attend that school. Comparing all of the pros and cons from students may help, particularly if students have something to say about a specific field of study you are interested in, a certain program, or even a specific teacher. Remember that more people give online feedback when they are upset rather than when they are happy, so don’t be surprised if there is more negative student feedback than positive. On the other hand, if all of the feedback is good, then the school may have actually made it up themselves! Finding independent review sites for your school may help you know that the feedback you are seeing is actually real.
11. Match Your Technology
Although it might seem silly, this could actually be a deal breaker if the technology that you own is not compatible with the online college you are attending. While we’d like to believe that the 21st century has brought about assimilation throughout computer programming, this is not always the case. If you own only Apple products on which you intend to log in, watch videos, write papers, and share in chat-rooms, then you will have a severe problem if the online school you want to attend has limited itself and all of its classes to PC-friendly programs. Many schools are carrying both Apple and PC programs these days to accommodate all types of learners, but it is certainly still worth clarifying this detail early, before you get enrolled and find that you can’t log in. Also, if you are hoping to use a tablet instead of a desktop or laptop computer to access your classes, you may want to verify that this will work as well.