Online learning is no longer just a trend in the field of education; it’s become a necessity for millions of students across the United States and beyond. Public and private K-12 students, university undergraduates, and non-traditional students alike are discovering precisely what distance education is all about, including its unique challenges and many benefits.
For many students interested in postsecondary training and education, the question is no longer whether attending an online school is a good idea. Instead, these college hopefuls are pondering which online schools will serve them best.
If you’ve found yourself among the droves of prospective students looking for online options, then consider the following ten factors that distinguish virtual schools and programs from one another.
#1. Type of Online College
First things first. When considering going back to school online, it’s important to understand that virtual postsecondary education is not a one-size-fits-all experience. On the contrary, there are many different types of online colleges and universities available. To make the best choice for your present circumstances and your future career goals, you need to understand your options.
Online Community Colleges
Online community colleges are colleges with strong on-campus programs that also offer some degrees and certificates via a virtual format. These online schools are typically two-year public schools that offer associate’s degrees and vocational diplomas and certificates. In many cases, the degrees offered through online community colleges will transfer to a four-year university. This option is optimal for students who eventually want to complete online bachelor’s degrees in the future.
Online Vocational-Technical Schools
Like online community colleges, online vocational-technical schools typically offer both associate’s degrees and career certificates. These types of schools often emphasize technical skills and trade school training, though. Degrees offered through these schools tend to be Associate of Applied Science degrees that prepare students to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation.
Online Four-Year Schools
If you want to earn your bachelor’s degree online, then you’ll need to enroll in a four-year college or university. Ironically, though, a four-year school doesn’t always require a four-year time commitment. Many of these schools accept transfer credits from community colleges that can reduce the time necessary to complete your degree. Others offer accelerated online bachelor’s degrees that can be completed in less than four years.
100% Online Colleges
Another type of online school is the 100% online college. These institutions of higher learning offer programs exclusively online, meaning they aren’t associated with a physical campus. Historically, these types of colleges struggled to maintain positive reputations, but with the increase in quality assurance standards for online programs, this is changing. In fact, you may find that 100% online colleges have more support services for online students since these virtual learners comprise their entire student body.
Colleges and Universities with Online Degree Programs
In addition to colleges that offer programs exclusively online, there are also numerous online schools that have strong on-campus degree programs. These programs tend to offer fewer support services for online students, but they shine in areas of academic rigor and curriculum standards. In fact, many of these types of online colleges offer distance learning programs that mirror the programs offered on campus. In some cases, the same faculty members who teach on-campus classes will also teach the online versions of these same courses.
#2—Admissions Requirements and Deadlines
Just as all online colleges are unique, so too are their admissions requirements. That means that when considering which online college is right for you, you’ll need to ensure you can meet the minimum requirements for entry.
Easy, right? Not necessarily. It’s a myth that online colleges and universities are easier to get into than traditional on-campus schools. In fact, by some reports, the acceptance rates for online degree programs are slightly lower than those of on-campus programs.
Some online schools are more competitive than others, but all institutes of higher learning require that you have a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent. Many virtual colleges and universities also require that you submit college entrance exam scores such as SAT or ACT test results. Programs specifically designed for adult learners may waive this requirement, though.
Admissions deadlines are another thing to consider when selecting an online college or university. While on-campus schools often have stringent deadlines and start-dates, some online schools are more flexible. The most convenient online schools have what’s called rolling admissions, meaning you can apply and be admitted at any time you wish. This might be something to consider if you have a short window of opportunity regarding when you can begin your studies.
#3. Available Degree Programs
Before you settle on an online college or university, you must ensure that the school offers the type of degree that you’re interested in pursuing. Online degree programs exist at every level of postsecondary education, and there are different options for each level as well. Below, you’ll find a list of the types of degree programs you’re likely to find at online schools.
Online Associate’s Degree Programs
- Associate of Arts (AA)
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate of Applied Arts (AAA)
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs
- Online Bachelor of Arts (BA)
- Online Bachelor of Science (BS)
- Online Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
- Online Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
Online Master’s Degree Programs
- Online Master of Arts (MA)
- Online Master of Science (MS)
- Online Master of Business Administration (MBA)
- Online Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
- Online Master of Education (MEd)
Online Doctoral Degree Programs
- Online Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Online Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Online Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Online Juris Doctor (JD)
If you’re not yet sure what type of degree you want to earn, do some research into the career path you’re pursuing. This should give you a good idea of the type of credential you’ll need to achieve your professional goals.
#4. Areas of Study (Including Concentrations and Specializations)
In addition to selecting a school with the type of degree program you’re interested in, you’ll also need to ensure the online college or university offers a program in your desired subject area. Ideally, you’ll want to pick a school that specializes in the academic field you want to study. These schools will have faculty members who are experts in their respective industries. They may also have centers and institutes devoted to academic research in the field.
Once you determine whether the school offers programs in your chosen area of study, dig deeper to find out if concentrations or specializations are offered as well. Often, these focus areas can be beneficial, especially if your major is a broad one. Customizing your degree plan around a curriculum focus can help you become more knowledgeable (and employable) in a specific sub-field. Keep in mind that some online schools will allow you to create your own specialization or concentration through independent study options or elective classes.
Finding an affordable online college is often a priority for students. Tuition costs for online colleges can vary significantly, though, depending on the school and program you choose as well as your enrollment status. One way to save on your education expenses is to choose a public school in the state where you live. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost per credit hour for online bachelor’s degrees nationwide is over $300, but you can cut this cost by more than half by choosing one of the cheap bachelor degrees online within your own state. Of course, when considering tuition costs, remember that you will likely be eligible for some type of financial aid, whether it be in the form of scholarships, grants, or loans.
#6. Scheduling Options
Online schools are designed to be convenient, so it should come as no surprise that many of them offer various options in terms of scheduling your classes. Thus, when choosing the right online school, you need to take some time to think about how your coursework will fit into your daily or weekly routine.
If you have a day job and want to keep it, for example, then you may want to consider a school that offers a part-time track. On the other hand, if you have a fairly open schedule and want to finish your degree requirements quickly, then an accelerated program may be a better fit.
#7. Content Delivery
Another factor related to scheduling is content delivery. All online schools offer their content via distance learning technology, but the delivery method can vary. Generally speaking, there are two basic types of content delivery formats: synchronous and asynchronous.
Synchronous content delivery methods rely on real-time class meetings and activities. These can include streaming lectures and live class discussions, for example. Online programs that utilize synchronous delivery for their content will be inherently less flexible since students are required to be online at predetermined times.
Programs featuring asynchronous content delivery work more like traditional distance learning methods. Students enrolled in these types of programs are largely responsible for completing coursework on their own time and at their own pace. Instead of logging on to their learning platforms to participate in a live class meeting, for example, students can access pre-recorded lectures at any time day or night. Deadlines for assignments may still be applicable, but there are no required meeting times.
If you like the idea of enjoying aspects of both synchronous and asynchronous delivery methods, you’ll be glad to know that there are some online programs that combine these two formats.
#8. Support Services for Online Students
Another thing to consider when choosing the best online college for you is the school’s student support services. These may include career services, academic assistance, and technology support, for instance. If you’re new to virtual learning or just want to ensure that help is available when and if you need it, then you’ll want to ensure the online school you choose has a robust suite of online support services. If you’re unsure which services are offered, contact a representative at the school’s division of online learning. He or she should be able to answer any questions you have about the type of support available to online students.
If you’re concerned about the legitimacy of online colleges, you’d be wise to educate yourself on the issue of accreditation. Accreditation is a quality assurance process that evaluates a school’s standards of academic integrity and rigor. While accreditation is voluntary, the vast majority of schools participate in the procedure in order to prove their credibility to prospective students.
When evaluating an online school’s accreditation status, look for evidence that it has been accredited by an official accreditation agency approved by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Accreditation is important for a number of different reasons. While it certainly provides a dose of much-needed reassurance that the online school you’re committing your time and money too is, in fact, legitimate, there are other benefits as well. Attending an accredited online college will ensure that you’re eligible for federal financial aid, for instance. It will also provide opportunities for you to transfer the credits you earn to another college or university should you want to continue your studies in the future.
A more subjective factor to consider when selecting an online college or university is the particular school’s reputation. Typically, an online institution’s reputation is evaluated in two distinct ways: by examining the school’s rankings on websites like this one and by reading student reviews. We recommend you do both. When reading reviews of online schools and programs, though, do so with a critical eye. Some students who perform poorly while enrolled in a program may later take their frustration out by writing a negative review of a class or program. It’s best to consider the totality of a school’s reviews rather than a single individual’s experience.
Choosing the online school that will serve you best is a process. Take the time to consider each and every factor that could potentially affect your success in the program and your career options after graduation. It will be time well spent!