Today, online degree programs are more popular than ever.
In 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 7 million college students took online classes — or more than one in three students. Over 3 million students were earning a fully online degree.
But prospective online learners often wonder about how to choose an online degree program. How can students distinguish between the best online degrees and worthless diploma mills?
Here, we break down what to look for in an online degree and how to identify and avoid red flags.
Researching the Best Online Degrees
Many students don't know where to start when it's time to research online colleges and programs. How can you learn more about tuition rates, student support services, and accredited programs?
Fortunately, students have more resources than ever before to evaluate their career goals and college choices.
Take, for example, the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even before choosing a major, students can use the handbook to research career paths, earning potential, job growth numbers, and the recommended education for each path.
If you want to become a registered nurse, for example, the OOH tells you what degree you'll need and how to earn an RN license. How much do RNs make in your state? The OOH tells you that, too.
Students have more resources than ever before to evaluate their career goals and college choices.
Once you have a better idea of what your career goals are, you can find a program that matches them. First, it's important to choose an accredited school. The Department of Education has a Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs that you can use to identify accredited schools and programs.
Next, check out the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which collects school data for things like graduation rates, the number of online students in different majors, and the number of students receiving financial aid. You can use the College Navigator to compare programs and make an informed decision.
It's also a good idea to contact programs directly to get the most up-to-date information, especially about things that change often, like tuition rates and financial aid opportunities. Talking one-on-one with an administrator is also a good way to get a feel for how easy it is to navigate the school as a student. In 2019, about 23% of online learners contacted more than one school before deciding where to enroll.
How To Choose an Online Degree Program
Once you've researched the top programs and narrowed it down to a handful of options, how do you choose? There are a few big things to consider.
Costs and Fees
In a 2019 study of online learners, a majority of undergrads said that cost was one of their top considerations. That's not surprising, since college is a major investment.
However, when researching costs, students should look beyond a school's tuition rate. Online learners may also need to pay technology or distance learning fees, and some schools also charge a graduation fee. You need to factor in all relevant costs before you can measure the total cost of your degree.
In addition to cost, it's a good idea to consider your unique circumstances. Do you have a large number of transfer credits? Then you'll want an online program with a generous transfer credit policy. Is your work schedule irregular? Then you might benefit from an online program that meets asynchronously, allowing you to arrange coursework around your work schedule.
It's also worth researching a program's degree requirements, internship opportunities, and graduate placement record, as well as the school's overall reputation. These things can all have an impact on your future career.
Prospective students should only attend accredited programs. Otherwise, you might not get the high-quality education you were seeking.
Accreditation can get confusing, so keep it simple: Unless you're attending trade school, you want to enroll at a regionally accredited institution. That goes for most fields, including liberal arts, STEM, business, health science, and education.
Some fields also require programmatic accreditation, without which graduates can't get licensed. Take nursing, for example: In every state, nurses must graduate from a nursing program that's been pre-approved by a nursing accreditation agency before they can pursue a license. If they attend an unaccredited program, they can't get a license to practice.
TBS only lists accredited schools in our rankings because accredited institutions meet the highest standards for educating students and granting degrees. You can learn more about the ins and outs of accreditation with our helpful guide.
Red Flags in Online Education Degrees
Unfortunately, some online programs take advantage of students. These red flags can help you avoid diploma mills.
Accreditation is the first thing to check. Many diploma mills claim they're accredited, but not by an approved accrediting agency. If you're considering liberal arts or research schools, only look at regionally accredited institutions. For vocational or trade programs, national accreditation also works, as long as the accrediting agency has approval from the Department of Education.
When programs offer a degree after only a few months of coursework, that's another warning sign. Associate degrees require at least 60 credits, and bachelor's degrees require 120 credits. It's possible to earn a degree in less time by applying transfer credits or choosing an accelerated schedule, but schools promising a four-year degree in under one year is a huge red flag.
The best online programs want you to succeed, so they offer student support services like career advising, online tutoring, and access to library resources. Avoid programs that don't offer any of these resources. That's a sign that they're cutting corners and aren't invested in your education and career success.
Online Degree Program Red Flags
|Accredited — but not by an approved accrediting agency||Approved accrediting agencies have high standards for things like faculty qualifications, academic achievement, and student outcomes.|
|Four-year degree in one year||A bachelor's degree requires 120 credits. Squeezing 120 credits into one year is suspicious.|
|Little to no student services||The best programs offer services like career advising, online tutoring, and library resources.|
|Low graduation rate||Low graduation rates can indicate problems with the institution or its student support network.|
Finally, check the school's graduation rate. An unusually low graduation rate can indicate a lack of support for struggling students. On average, according to NCES, colleges and universities report a 62% six-year graduation rate. The rate also varies by type of institution, with 67% at private nonprofit schools, 61% at public schools, and 25% at private for-profit schools. Schools that fall significantly below a 60% graduation rate are probably a bad investment.
Schools with low graduation rates are also at risk of losing accreditation — which could hurt your career prospects if you earned a degree there. In 2018, the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions identified dozens of four-year institutions with graduation rates of under 25% and two-year institutions with a graduation rate below 15%. Unless they fix those numbers, these schools are at risk of losing their accreditation status and their access to federal financial aid.
By watching out for red flags before submitting applications, online learners can increase their chances of successfully earning a degree.
Average College Graduation Rates
Are Online Degree Programs Worth It?
Online learners overwhelmingly say that their programs were worth the cost. In a 2019 survey, 84% of online students said their education was worth it — and only 6% disagreed.
The same survey showed students giving high marks on their experience in online classrooms. More than eight in ten online learners enjoyed their classes and found their instructors effective.
But did an online degree prepare students for the workforce? In 2019, 81% of online learners believed they were building the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after graduation. A majority of students also reported discussing their career options with instructors or advisors, which built confidence that they would succeed on the job market.
However, an online degree doesn't guarantee a job after graduation. Students who earn an online degree from an unaccredited school or through a program that does not meet licensing requirements may struggle on the job market.
Researching online programs before enrolling is a critical step. No one wants to invest years in earning a degree only to realize it doesn't help their career prospects. By spending time researching and choosing a solid program, students can feel confident about their education.
How to Pick an Online Degree Program
Only look at accredited colleges. Schools without accreditation are a major red flag.
Avoid schools with a very low graduation rate. They could lose their accreditation status.
Online programs should offer tutoring, academic advising, and career support to help distance learners.
Focus on your unique needs: your schedule, your career goals, and the learning environments that best help you succeed.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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