How to Choose the Right Online Education Program
Choosing the right online college and degree can be extremely difficult. With hundreds of institutions and programs currently operating online, it's easy to get bogged down by the seemingly endless amount of research you must conduct in order to make an informed decision. This may be one of the most important decisions that you make in your lifetime, but there is information available to help guide your way.
The following steps for choosing the best online education program are designed to provide you with the information you'll need to make an informed and sound conclusion about your educational future.
- How Should I Choose a Subject and Degree Level?
- How Can I Compare Schools?
- How Do I Apply to a Program?
- Are There Any Additional Things I Should Consider?
How Should I Choose a Subject and Degree Level?
Before deciding on the school you would like to attend, it's important to know which subject you would like to study and the type of degree you would like to obtain.
If you are unsure of which subject you're interested in pursuing, check out our list of degree options for some ideas. It's important to keep in mind both your interest in the curriculum of the degree and the career options available once you've completed the degree. Pursuing a degree is a substantial time and financial commitment, and you want to ensure that you reap the rewards of your efforts with a fulfilling career and educational experience. If you're unsure which subject area would be best for you, talk with friends, family, and career counselors, who may be able to steer you in the right direction.
Online vs. On-Campus Programs
Most online colleges offer the same degree levels that are offered at traditional campus-based colleges. Ranging from a high school diploma/GED all the way to an advanced doctoral degree, the degrees offered at online colleges can suit students at varying points of their educational career. If you're not sure which type of degree you're interested in, take some time to read this explanation of educational degree types. Be sure to read about degree level prerequisites and fully understand the time commitment associated with each degree type. For example, if you're interested in an advanced degree, like an online master's program, you must have a bachelor’s degree first. However, if you want to pursue a lower-level degree, such as a certificate or associate degree, a high school diploma or GED will be sufficient prior experience. The time commitment required for a certificate may be only one year, while other degree levels can take up to four or five years to complete.
It's important to understand that not all disciplines or subject degree-level combinations are offered in an online class format. There are still many subjects, especially those in the healthcare field, where hands-on training is required for a comprehensive educational experience. Some schools have started to offer hybrid programs, which are a combination of in-person and online classes, as a way to solve this problem.
How Can I Compare Schools?
Hundreds of colleges and universities have begun offering online and distance learning courses, and it can often be hard to know where to start when comparing your options. While traditional students often start narrowing down options based on the accessibility of the school’s location, leaving only a few school options available, location isn't a factor for online students. On the other hand, this wealth of different schools can be extremely overwhelming. Below are a few different attributes that you should consider when comparing schools, though the weight of importance that you give to each of these attributes is up to you.
The number of degrees and subjects that an online school may offer can vary greatly. Some schools may offer only one fully online degree, while other schools will offer one hundred or more different degree options to online students. Whether or not a school offers your desired degree will likely be the most important attribute of a school to you, so it's worth looking into program offerings early on in your decision-making process. If you're not completely certain what you want to study and would like time to take classes in multiple program areas, make sure you find a school that offers multiple degrees that interest you. This will prevent you from the lengthy and frustrating process of having to transfer schools. You can search for schools that offer the programs you desire by using the “Find a School” tool at the top of this page.
Accreditation is an important thing to consider when making the decision about which school to apply to. Accreditation is a way to ensure that the time and money that you spend on your education is worth it, so you should confirm that whichever school you decide to attend has been accredited by a well-respected agency. Accrediting agencies take the time to ensure that the training and knowledge you receive is up-to-date, enriching, and respected by employers. There are many different accrediting bodies that are well known for upholding high standards in education. These accrediting agencies are recognized by The US Department of Higher Education and The Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Take some time to review these articles about accreditation to fully understand which accrediting agency’s approval is important for your degree and career. Be sure to note the difference between regional and national institutional accreditation. If the subject you want to study has an associated programmatic accrediting agency, you should consider whether it's important to you if the program you go to has been recognized by this agency.
Do you have credits from a former college experience? Do you expect that you may need to transfer to another college before finishing your degree? If so, it's important to talk to counselors at your college about the possibility of transferring your credits. Transferring credits from a prior college experience can help save time and money on your degree, but colleges are not required to accept credits from other institutions. Oftentimes, colleges will only accept transfer credits from schools or programs that have been accredited by the same accrediting agency. This means that if you plan to transfer from a school with national accreditation to a school with regional accreditation, you will likely run into roadblocks.
The reputation of the school that you attend will affect how your degree is perceived by family, friends, and most importantly, employers. Getting your degree will take a lot of time, effort, and money; therefore, it's important to understand the reputation of the school that will be giving you your degree when you graduate. Here are a few resources for you to gauge a prospective school’s reputation and quality:
- Student Reviews: The experience of former students can tell you a lot about the quality of the school you are looking to attend. Take some time to read the reviews of your potential schools and notice whether or not they generally recommend your school. These reviews will help inform your decision in ways that talking to an admissions counselor or reading facts about a school can't.
- Online College Rankings: College rankings by reputable agencies will tell you the general impression that the public has about your potential school and how the quality of education that you receive compares with other institutions. On Guide to Online Schools, we feature Military-Friendly Online College Rankings and Non-Profit Online College Rankings in addition to our general Online College Rankings.
Date You Can Begin
When choosing a school, you will want to consider how soon you would like to begin your program. For some schools, you will need to apply six months to a year before you want to begin taking classes. This is a common practice at public and private universities, where admittance into the school may be competitive. However, there are other schools that have classes starting every few weeks which will allow you to enroll and begin your classes almost immediately.
Tuition and Financial Aid
The cost of college is highly variable, and higher cost does not necessarily mean a better education. No matter how you're planning to finance your college education, it's likely you do not have unlimited resources to spend. Look closely at the cost of each school and consider how it compares to other colleges. We've listed the annual tuition for each school, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, in our school lists.
If you are planning to take advantage of federal financial aid, whether in the form of grants, work-study or loans, it's important to make sure that the school you attend is eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. For more information about financial aid and other forms of financing your education, check out our Financial Aid section.
Traditional campus-based colleges are known for a vast array of student services, including tutoring, libraries, and career services. Some online colleges offer these services as well. These services can often enhance the college experience and the success a student sees after graduation. Decide which services you would likely take advantage of, and find schools that provide them.
How Do I Apply to a Program?
Once you've done your research and narrowed down your options to one or two potential schools, it's time to request information and apply! Every school has different application procedures and requirements.
The first thing you should do once you've decided on a school is request information or talk to someone about the application procedure. Some schools may have competitive admittance into their programs, which may require you to write an essay, get transcripts from your former schools and submit letters of recommendation. These schools may require that you apply to the program months before you would actually begin your first semester. Other schools might not have such a rigid process, and may require a lot less in order to enroll. Talk to a counselor at your school to find out your school’s exact procedure.
Are There Any Additional Things I Should Consider?
Just like traditional universities, there are many online schools with varying religious affiliations. Religious schools are often of predominantly Christian denomination and maintain a value-oriented foundation, consistent throughout all curriculum and student atmosphere. Some students may gravitate toward these institutions for a variety of personal and professional reasons. While structures and specific denominations vary, religiously affiliated schools share an emphasis on healthy moral living and spiritual education as a complement to traditional studies and career learning. Deciding whether a religiously affiliated school is right for you can help you narrow down your colleges choices.
Career Colleges and Trade Schools
Vocational education affords students -- particularly working adults returning to school -- the opportunity to receive specialized education in a relatively short amount of time. Vocational education is designed to highlight the most relevant curriculum and to incorporate a high degree of professional training and hands-on experience. This structure is endorsed for the purpose of familiarizing students with an actual workplace scenario. Various accrediting institutions exist to ensure that vocational schools meet minimum standard requirements and are capable of delivering adequate training and support to the student body. If you're considering a vocational school, be sure to verify the programmatic accreditation of the school before enrolling.
Access to Technology
If you're contemplating an online education, it's very important to make sure you have consistent access to a reliable and up-to-date computer with Internet connection capabilities. Much of your school work, including discussions with your professor and classmates, as well as access to your homework and exams, will require a computer with Internet access. Each school has its own specific technological requirements to be a successful online student. Remember to factor in the cost of obtaining the right technology for your program when you're comparing different schools.