Online Colleges: What to Look For

Online universities have become a popular option for people seeking higher education in the digital age. Online courses offer some obvious advantages. Student can take classes from their own homes using their laptops on their own schedules, no dorm room or commute required. Online education also tends to be cheaper. In fact, a study by the University of the Potomac shows online degrees are less than half the average cost of an on-campus education.

But just like brick-and-mortar schools, online programs vary widely in quality or value. Some institutions have come under fire in recent years for providing an expensive education that delivers little real value, especially when it's time for graduates to look for a job. "It's essential to think about value when choosing an online degree program," says Taitum Ridgway, marketing manager for the SR Education Group, an organization that evaluates and produces reviews of online education programs. "Prospective students should look for an online college that provides quality education at an affordable rate."

While researching options, prospective students should go beyond the university's website, says Dr. Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium. They should also follow up with a phone call to check on key details, such as the institution's accreditation (or lack thereof), graduation rates, financial aid, and services such as advising and tutoring.

So let's break it down. If you're thinking about getting an online education, consider these factors before enrolling.

Is the School Accredited?

Accreditation is more than just an educational buzzword -- it's your guarantee that you aren't enrolling in a failing or fraudulent school. To become accredited, schools or programs must meet accepted academic standards. Accreditation reassures potential employers, too, because they can have confidence that graduates will be prepared for work.

There are six regional and four national accreditation groups in the United States. The national groups are all recognized by the US Department of Education. An endorsement from any of these organizations can be taken as a seal of approval. Check out the College Navigator tool on the National Center for Education Statistics website, where you can confirm accreditation as well as retention and graduation rates, test scores for admission, tuition, and review the loan default rates.

Regional

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission
  • Council on Occupational Education

Curriculum and credits

Check out the curriculum for the program you're considering. Make sure the coursework aligns with the commonly accepted skills you'll need for employment in the field, whether you're enrolled in a trade school or an accredited online college. Career counselors can provide details on current skill requirements, especially in fast-evolving technology fields.

If you already have some college credits, make sure they can be transferred before enrolling.

Support

What kind of outside help is available during your time as a student? Can you reach the instructor outside course hours? How helpful is the business department when you have a billing question? The answers to such questions can go a long way towards determining if a school is right for you. "A study we did in 2015 found that the main area of dissatisfaction reported by online students is not anything to do with the quality of the program," Ridgway says. "Rather, students cited student support services as the major hurdle of online education."

Price

Can you afford the program? Where can you find a list of affordable colleges online? Are there any hidden costs or fees? The Guide to Online Schools maintains a list of accredited online programs with annual tuition under $15,000. If you are looking for an online MBA, for example, the Western Governors University -- an accredited schools with a strong reputation offers an MBA for $3,250 if you complete it in six months, $6, 500 if you complete it in 12 months, and $9,750 if you complete it in 18 months.

Financial aid

Don't just take the word of financial aid representatives employed by the school. Do your own homework: How do the school's loan packages stack up against a bank loan or other sources of outside financing? What's the interest rate? Are there penalties for early repayment?

Importantly, you'll want to make sure that you won't have to navigate finances on your own. "Understanding student loan and financial aid packages before signing anything is critical, but it's also important to get a feel for the financial aid support services available, so that you're confident someone will be available to help you with questions later on down the line," Ridgway recommends. On-campus students can simply walk into the financial aid office and get the help they need, but at some online schools students have difficulty receiving responses to their emails and phone calls, Ridgway points out. "This isn't just an annoyance; it can lead to major financial burdens," he says.

Check the Numbers

Do some career planning prior to applying to schools. Graduation and employment statistics reveal a lot about the value you can expect from an online program. Go with an independent source such as College Navigator or the Chronicle of Higher Education to see how a school stacks up.

Placement services

Long before enrolling in an online program, ask what job placement services are available for graduates. This is a valuable benefit that many schools include as part their educational package. Schools may also offer networking opportunities with alumni, which can help your career advancement. "Most institutions that offer online programs offer career services," says Buban of the Online Learning Consortium. "However, students should confirm the types of services offered under this umbrella." They should also check to see how long they'll have access to these services after graduation, she adds.

Online schools may not offer much in the way of campus life or school spirit, but they can deliver a solid education. As with any other major investment, you'll want to do plenty of research before making a commitment.

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