The Savvy Student’s Guide to Online Colleges and Online Education

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?


Online colleges and online education are really just “distance learning” with a computer and WiFi. And distance learning is now nearly 300 years old. The simple fact is that people have, for a very long time, needed to learn without being able to "go to school.”

Students needing to learn “offsite” and go "online" have included pioneers in far flung lands, persecuted minorities barred from conventional instruction for religious and other reasons, and ordinary folks like us with full-time responsibilities such as a day job and family.

Online colleges and universities make learning possible where otherwise it would be impossible: from the skills people need to advance in a job, to the subjects required for a college degree, to ideas that enrich their understanding of the world.

Early distance learning classes were conducted by mail, where interaction between students and teachers took weeks, and sometime months. That started to change when radio was invented — in fact, the first MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) were offered on radio, almost one hundred years ago!

Television and telephone added important dimensions to distance learning; television allowed students to see their instructor, and gave students more of a feel of being right in the classroom, while telephone allowed instructors and students to interact directly with each other and get immediate feedback.

Using three different technologies — mail, TV, and telephone — allowed distance learning courses to meet all kinds of learning needs, but the hope existed that some newer technology would come along that could recreate the classroom experience.

A huge step in making that happen occurred with the development of the personal computer and the Internet. It took a while for modem technology to gain use in distance learning, but once it did, online educational platforms started popping up all over the place, first by connecting private computers directly, but later on the Internet. Add in the benefits of updated teleconferencing technologies, and it’s no wonder that six million postsecondary students take at least one fully online class every year.

Many students now take online classes, but are they right for you? Here are some good points to consider as you decide if this is a learning tool that will meet your needs:

Featured Online Colleges

What Are Your Learning Goals?

What do you want to get out of taking an online course? Do you want to get the training needed to get a particular job? Are you hoping to take an online class so you can earn a college degree sooner? Are you just interested in a particular subject, but you need some kind of structure to keep you focused on studying it? If you answered Yes to any of these questions, online learning can help you reach your goal.

What Is Your Learning Style?

Some students who have taken online classes say they are very different from other classes, because they require the student largely to teach themselves the material. That’s not really the case, but because most online classes don’t require everyone to meet at a specific place and time, they usually require students to be pretty good self-starters. This means you have to be able to plan ahead; you should have enough time in your schedule to study on a regular basis; you have to be willing to reach out to the instructors for help, since they can’t really see when you are confused or uncertain about something, and you have to know enough about your organizational style to make sure you can meet deadlines.

Is Your Computer Capable?

You also have to give some thought to your computer’s ability to let you make the most of the class. Many online classes include the viewing of large-file videos and also teleconferencing. That means some computers don’t have the memory, speed, or CPU power to get you through an online class (this is especially a problem for older computers). You also have to think about the Internet service you have — will it be able to stream those videos or teleconference without interruption?

Of course, you have to have the ability to make the most of your computer. Many online classes are based on email and YouTube platforms, but some are not. Do you have the interest and patience to learn new software programs, so you can get the most out of the class?

Finally, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to have a computer of your own to enroll in an online class, but if you have to go somewhere else to participate, class flexibility is limited to when you can access that computer. In any case, even if you have your own computer, make sure you have a Plan B in case your computer or Internet service fails just before a crucial deadline.

What About Cost?

Many students will find online learning appealing because of what it doesn’t require. It does’t require you to live on campus; it doesn’t require you to pay for gas or transportation to get to campus; it doesn’t require you to pay for the higher food and related costs often associated with being on campus, and it doesn’t require you to change your work hours. Add up the savings that can be realized from “going to college at home,” and the economic picture can be a bright one, to be sure — but there are other financial considerations.

Does it Feel Like College?

Other students wonder just what it will be like to go to school without going to a physical place that looks like a school. It’s great to learn new things, and to be able to discuss ideas with people who want to study them — but is that all there really is to college? And what about networking and friendships? Is it as easy to make connections with others in an online class that you can maintain and build on as you go through life, and into your career? These things matter more to some people than others. How much do they matter to you?

If you think about all these factors, and still aren’t sure if online learning is for you, remember you can try it out on a short term basis, sometimes for free. Many employers offer one hour seminars that are run like online courses, so you can try those out and see how they feel. Other students will try an online class that lasts for just a couple of weeks, or a hybrid course that is a mix of traditional learning and online learning. These options give you an opportunity to see what online learning is all about, so you can build your learning goals more on experience and less on guesswork.

Is the Online College Accredited?

Online education has grown at such a remarkable rate that it pulls us in two opposite directions. On the one hand, we have witnessed a remarkable growth in the credibility and perceived normalcy of online education, to the extent that today even the most vaunted and respected academic institutions incorporate some degree of online education into their broader set of course offerings. This has helped to undergird the perceived value of online colleges and to impose a level of accountability on its practitioners. In turn, employers and members of the general public have come to view online education with increasingly less suspicion.

On the other hand, the growth of online colleges has contributed to the expansion of for-profit institutions, in which education may be marketed as an internet commodity. The result is a significant sector within education consisting of institutions still to some degree trying to define their academic credibility or accountability, but with considerable marketing and recruitment resources. More traditional non-profit colleges only recently delving into online education thus find themselves in competition with more established for-profit online colleges. The latter have been doing online education for two decades and have considerable connections in industry and the corporate world, providing continuing education for companies that might otherwise have sought more traditional schools to advance their employees’ knowledge and skills.

Like any industry emerging from two decades of solid growth, online education exists across a spectrum of highly variable quality, credibility, and accessibility. Moreover, within this spectrum, the compatibility between a student and a given online college will also vary considerably. For those seeking an online education, finding the right institution and subsequently getting the most out of this institution can be challenging. There is a dense morass of marketing material, rankings, and course offerings through which every potential applicant must wade. In addition, it’s important to understand the quality of the course offerings, and accreditation is an important way to determine that.

Image of Raft of the Medusa The objective of this guide is to provide a life raft to potential applicants as they venture deeper into the online college waters. The pages that follow aim to assist prospective online students in navigating a marketplace that continues to grow and diversify. In them, we offer a discussion both of the benefits of attending college online and of the potential drawbacks that online applicants must consider. We also provide a brief history of distance education, both before and after the advent of in-home web usage. Along the way, you will find tips on how to initiate a search for the online college that’s right for you; how to make an informed decision; how to get the most out of your time in online college; and, finally, how to make your online degree work for you in the real world.

Best-schools-seal The advice we offer here therefore supplements the ranking of the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2019 at the start of this article. Likewise, it supplements’s analysis of the 25 Best Online Degrees in today’s job market as well as our breakdown of The Best Online College in Each of America’s Fifty States. Use this Guide in coordination with any of our online college and degree ranking resources as you undertake your search for the right online college.

Return to the top…

The Nuts and Bolts of Getting an Online Education

The explosion in online college enrollment over the last decade makes perfect sense. Web-mediated education provides opportunity to populations previously excluded from college transforms the strategic landscape for traditional highered schools. The benefits of online education are considerable and likely only to increase as the technology advances and the standards, and processes surrounding online education are refined.

What’s Your Learning Goal?

As a famous manager and educator once said, the best way to begin is to keep the end in mind. As you consider your distance learning options, what exactly are you trying to learn, and why are you trying to learn it? The answer helps shape the distance learning options open to you.

Self-paced distance learning

If you are interested in learning more about something just because you are curious about it, your distance learning options are wide open — you can take a credit-based class from an accredited institution; you can take a non-credit course from a club or organization whose members study this issue as a hobby; you can join a group that may not offer a structured distance learning class, but offers online resources and discussion threads where you can explore the subject with others who are interested in this area, or you can simply set aside time to study the subject online on your own, with the help of the research desk at your local library. Resources like JSTOR and online archives to newspapers, combined with the Internet, can give you access to some pretty impressive resources. Given that individual study is self-paced and free, this gives you the ultimate freedom in creating your own distance learning experience, absolutely free of all deadlines and costs related with a more formal course.


The idea of a self-created distance learning course appeals to many people, but most people are looking for something more out of a distance learning experience than just the knowledge. Whether it’s a transcript confirming the student took and passed the course; a certificate that indicates the student has completed a specific training objective for work; a credential necessary to apply for a specific job or get a raise or promotion, or a degree showing more comprehensive mastery of a subject, over 5.5 million students are taking some kind of credit-based distance learning class — and that’s just at accredited colleges. Combined with students taking distance learning classes through training companies and independent contractors, it’s clear that most distance learning students want some kind of recognition of what they know, as well as the knowledge itself.

If your goal is to earn a credential that shows acquisition of a skill or understanding of a body of knowledge, it’s important to make sure you are pursuing a credential that matches your personal or professional goals. If your career goal is to work as an Accountant, you want to understand the different levels of accountants, and the credentials required for each. If you want to work for a specific company in their Technology department, they may have specific requirement of the kinds of certificates or degrees needed to work there; you want to read their Website and contact their Human Resources Department to make sure you understand what they are looking for. If your current employer will give you a raise as soon as you have some kind of credential in Business Management, look at all of the distance learning options available, from corporate training programs to community colleges to four-year colleges. Pick one of interest, then make sure you show it to your boss — if it isn’t what they had in mind, you want to pursue some other program.


If your distance learning goal is to pursue a certificate, it’s important to understand the different kinds of certificates available. While a “certificate” describes a basic level of training and understanding, it turns out there are different kinds of basic levels. Some certificates are given to students who complete one distance learning course that lasts just a few hours; others represent a student’s work in as few as five or six classes, while the traditional certificate represents the equivalent of one year of full-time study at a college. Since all of these are called certificates, it’s important to understand the depth of training the certificate requires before you sign on for a specific program.


A credential that is gaining popularity, especially among distance learning students, is the badge. Badges are often used to demonstrate proficiency at a very specific skill, and are sometimes used by instructors to recognize students for completion of smaller tasks that are part of a larger course or program.

Like distance learning, badges were created to make learning more accessible for students. If an employer is looking for someone who has mastery of five or six particular skills, it would be just as easy to hire someone who has earned a badge of achievement in each of these areas as it would be to hire someone who has a college degree that covers these areas, plus more bodies of knowledge. The advantage to badging is that it allows the employee to meet the requirements to obtain the job without spending additional time or money on a credential that requires more training than the employer requires.

Since badges are a new credential, their use varies greatly from one field to another, and from business to business within the same field. Since badges can currently be awarded by almost anyone, it’s important to understand how widely a particular badge is accepted before signing up to take the distance learning class that leads to a badge. Badging is seen as a cost-effective approach to learning that could receive greater recognition in the future. For now, it’s wise to understand the limited recognition a badge may receive in a particular field.

Credit and Degrees

Students pursuing distance learning at a two- or four-year college are almost always taking the course in order to earn college credit. Long recognized as a high standard of quality, college credits are the units used to create two- and four-year college degrees, as well as the traditional college certificate, which demonstrates completion of one year of study in a particular field.

While a vast majority of distance learning classes offered by colleges earn students credit, it is important to understand what that credit will do to advance the student’s progress towards a credential. Nearly all credit-based classes can be taken for elective credit in a degree program, but there are only so many elective credits a student can apply to any given degree. Other credits will meet specific requirements of one degree, but might not be required for another degree. This is important for a student to keep in mind, especially if they aren’t sure what degree they want to complete. Taking Introduction to Engineering as a distance learning course as a freshman may seem like a great idea at the time, but those credits may have little value if the student later changes their major to Art History.

Students will also want to understand how employers view the worth of a degree that is completed entirely online. There are very few colleges that differentiate between distance learning classes and face-to-face classes on official transcripts. As a result, the official records of students taking a mix of the two kinds of classes will not be calling attention to the distance learning courses they completed as part of a traditional degree.

At the same time, many colleges are offering degrees that are earned by completing the requirements through distance learning classes entirely. In the past, employers have been wary to view these degrees as equal to degrees earned in a traditional school setting. Recent reports suggest this is changing, in part because more student are taking distance learning classes, and in part because accreditation standards for distance learning courses are raising the overall quality of distance learning courses. It’s wise to get an understanding of the acceptance of distance learning degrees in your field. This is something that can be done as part of your research of the credentials required to work in your chosen field. Combined with calling a few respected companies in the field, this is more than enough to have an understanding of the value a distance learning degree can earn in the workplace.

It’s also important for students to understand the value of a distance learning class if their goal is to transfer the class to another college. Many students take distance learning classes over the summer, while they are home on break, thinking they can continue to study from the comfort of home while earning credits towards their degree. This idea makes a lot of sense, but too many students sign up for a distance learning class from a school different than the one they attend in the fall, and don’t bother to check if their college will accept the distance learning course for credit towards their degree.

This may seem like an easy assumption to make, but it can be costly. A college may limit the number of courses a student can complete as transfer credit, or they may not accept transfer credits at all from particular colleges, in part because they are concerned about the quality of instruction. Other colleges may accept most transfer credits, but might not accept transfer credits if the course is in a particular field of study. If your goal in taking a distance learning course is to have it transfer to another institution, make sure you check with the college that will be receiving the credits, to make sure the credits will apply in the way you want them to.

Some students wonder if colleges have different policies for accepting transfer credit if the course is offered through distance learning, and not a traditional face-to-face class. While it is best to check with the college that will be receiving your transfer credits, it’s very rare that a college will not accept classes taken from an accredited college just because they were earned as a distance learning class. Having a full conversation with the transfer officer at the college receiving the credits is the best approach to take.

What’s Your Learning Style?

Another key factor to consider when thinking about taking a distance learning course is the way you like to learn. For many potential students, online colleges represent the one and only path to a formal higher education, but other distance learning students are simply looking for a structure that will require them to focus on something they are interested in. In many cases, they tried to study the topic on their own, but don’t know about all the available resources, or just can’t structure the time to give the field of study the focus it is due. If that’s the case, the structure of a distance learning class may be for you. Whether you are taking a distance learning class for pleasure, a credential, or both, it’s important to understand what you are committing to when signing up for the course.

Because the web-mediated nature of online colleges allows for instruction and interaction that is both synchronous (live online lectures, live chats, etc.) and asynchronous (lecture podcasts, bulletin boards, email exchanges), students have a better opportunity to balance personal or professional demands with academic responsibilities. Consequently, online college is an attractive option for many students who must also work for a living. According to EdTech Magazine, 27% of distance learners in 2012 also maintained full-time employment.1

This not only implies the benefit of improved control over schedule management, but also suggests that in the broader scheme, online colleges are making higher education more readily available to those for whom economic limitations might otherwise preclude enrollment. The proliferation of online colleges means many aspiring students no longer face a choice between working and learning. For many working Americans who wish to learn new skills, enhance their professional stature, or simply improve their body of knowledge, online education presents a chance to do so without sacrificing either income or career trajectory.

Adult Learners This is one of the reasons that online education has proven so popular among adult learners who wish to balance hectic personal lives with the pursuit of new skills and certifications. According to a CNN (2010) article about employment and online education, “‘Online degree programs are designed to help adult learners with busy lives earn their degree without being tied down to class times and without having to go to campus, says Jeff Caplan, dean of strategic enrollment management at American Sentinel University, an online university.”2

For prospective students already immersed in a career or who have a family to support, the flexibility and accessibility afforded by online education may make it the only realistic way to return to school.

Over the past decade, online colleges have also seen significant jumps in enrollment from younger members of the workforce. In particular, during the Great Recession that began in 2008, many young graduates who were dissatisfied with the job market ahead of them or who wished to make themselves more valuable to prospective employers found shelter and opportunity at online colleges.

In a marked contrast from the preceding era in which “going back to school” meant leaving one’s job, online colleges are enabling young workers to actually improve their job security. The scheduling flexibility and efficiency of online education is something about which most employers are quite enthusiastic. Indeed, some employers are even willing to help fund this education, if it means employees can use newly learned skills and knowledge within the company. Many larger, publicly traded firms have well-established programs that help to facilitate this kind of continuing online education.

While flexibility is a key component of distance learning, a closer look at the structure of specific distance learning classes suggests there’s more to the story. Some distance learning classes are designed to be completely self-paced; the instructor will post the required assignments at the start of the semester, give due dates for each assignment, and provide periodic updates of each student’s progress, as well as some readings and activities for the student to use or not use, as they see fit.

The complete flexibility of self-paced courses may seem attractive, but concerns about the lack of interaction among students, and the frequent absence of a sense of community in classes where every student is working at their own pace, are leading more distance learning classes to have more structure, and more frequent deadlines. These raised expectations may help students schedule their time more wisely, but many distance learning classes still leave it up to the student to organize their time between due dates to decide when to study, and how much to study.

This is one of several key factors to consider when deciding if distance learning is for you. Many colleges will offer, or require, a short quiz like this one to help students determine if distance learning suits their approach to learning. While all college classes require students to schedule their time wisely, the absence of a regularly scheduled meeting time makes many distance learning classes a greater challenge for some students. These students should think carefully about stretching their sense of discipline to meet the challenge of a distance learning course, or consider taking a distance learning course that requires students to be online at a specific time. That one small difference can be all the difference in succeeding.

Is the College Truly Accessible?

In many ways, online education substantially expands and improves access to higher education for countless groups that might otherwise not have the opportunity. For prospective students living in remote geographical settings or sparsely populated rural regions, brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning may be few and far between. By contrast, online colleges are physically accessible to all with a computer terminal and a high speed web connection. This diminishes the need for relocation, housing, or a taxing commute for many students. For many others, it does nothing less than make higher education feasible.

g.I. Distance Learner This extends to American students who must study from abroad, whether because of personal obligation or military service. The flexibility of scheduling and the elimination of spatial limitations means that students can continue to pursue degree programs from anywhere in the world.

Of course, this access doesn’t just apply to people limited due to their immediate geographical surroundings. The same is true for those who struggle with any number of potential impediments to access, mobility, or engagement of campus facilities. Online education eases the transportation burden on those who may struggle with physical disability and can represent a safe alternative to daily use of a university’s facilities for the handicapped.

This same benefit makes online education an attractive option for seniors wishing to return to school. Those who lack the means or physical ability to step into a classroom can still gain the knowledge or skills they desire without leaving the house.

That said, many online colleges are still learning how to accommodate a full range of disabilities. A recent federal lawsuit filed against Harvard and MIT casts this challenge into harsh light. According to the suit raised by the National Association of the Deaf, both of these venerable universities are guilty of discrimination against the hearing-impaired for failing to provide captioning for their constantly growing set of online course offerings. According to the Boston Globe (2015), the lawsuit targeted the schools because they are among the most prominent and most rapidly expanding providers of “massive open online courses (MOOCs).”3

The goal of the suit is to bring greater attention to the need for all online schools to accommodate this and other disabilities with greater inclusiveness. Based on their early responses to the charges, Harvard and MIT appear likely to adopt new standards over the coming year, including captioning for the hearing-impaired.4

Though the accessibility of online schools represents a leap forward for broad cross-sections of the population, the case against Harvard and MIT denotes the need for continuing improvement and refinement of what is a relatively young phenomenon in education. The case also suggests a trajectory in which the continued expansion of online education, especially through reputable institutions such as Harvard and MIT, should precipitate a continued improvement in its accessibility, and the standards that define it.

Online College Is a Self-Guided Experience

As a corollary to the improved flexibility and accessibility afforded online college enrollees, this medium also provides freedom from many of the social challenges relating to the college experience. Among the most basic of these advantages, the online student need not navigate campus busing systems, risk the ever-present campus parking ticket, or face the threat of physical tardiness. Students can attend classes without any of these pressures.

Moreover, an article in U.S. News & World Report (2013) indicates that online colleges can actually alleviate far more serious pressures. In the last decade, thousands of veterans have returned from war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. For many, the transition into civilian life is a very difficult one (especially those suffering with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). The G.I. Bill is designed to ease this transition by sending army veterans to college and ultimately helping them gain the skills they need to move into long-term civilian careers.5

Nevertheless, not a few veterans struggle to adapt to campus life, while many others simply do not desire this dimension of the educational experience. The article in U.S. News & World Report recognizes that for many veterans returning from tours of combat duty, it can be difficult and unappealing to connect with recent high school graduates taking their first steps away from home. The article notes that for many military veterans transitioning into college, an online education is optimal.6

Students in online colleges also enjoy an inherent flexibility that allows those who remain affiliated with the military to continue their studies even when their responsibilities call for unusual scheduling demands, geographical relocation, or deployment.

Naturally, these benefits are not reserved for military veterans alone. However, the popularity of online courses among former servicemen and -women is a perfect demonstration of the value of a self-guided learning experience. For those who wish to procure a meaningful education without undertaking the cultural experience of campus living, online colleges may be ideal.

Technical Savvy and Computer Availability

Students taking distance learning courses will also want to consider their access to a well-maintained computer and their ability to utilize all of its capabilities. In an age when a vast majority of students have cell phones and have worked with computers in the classroom, it would be easy to assume that this technological savvy would transfer over to distance learning with no problem. After all, if a student can use a smart phone to find a local pizzeria, place an order, and pay for it, shouldn’t they already have the skills to write a paper online and send it to a teacher?

The answer to this question may seem to be self-evident, but there’s more to a strong technology match between student and distance learning course than working a phone. This checklist PDF offers a strong foundation for students to consider before taking a distance learning course. In addition, students should consider these technological elements before signing up for a distance learning course that’s online:

Quality and age of hardware

You wouldn’t take a baseball class without a mitt and bat, and you wouldn’t take a photography class with a camera that’s thirty-five years old. The same is true for online classes and your computer. If you don’t have access to a computer, that’s going to be a problem. You certainly don’t have to have one of your own, but if you are going to rely on using a computer at work, the local library, or even on a college campus, remember that your schedule for working on class will be limited to the hours you have access to that computer. Will that access be flexible enough to do a good job on the class?

Online Education You also need to consider the age of your computer. More online distance learning classes are using large video files and teleconferencing as required components of the class, and some computers don’t have the capacity to handle these programs — in some cases, computers as little as two years old won’t work with some distance learning classes.

In addition, you need to consider the quality of your Internet access. The newest computer won’t meet the demands of an online class if your Internet access is spotty — and if you are counting on doing all of your work at the local coffee shop with free WiFi, you are limiting the time you can do classwork to the hours that shop is open.

Most distance learning classes will include a description of the hardware and Internet access required to complete the course. Make sure you look closely at these requirements.

Master the technology

Computer skills and savvy web usage does not come naturally to all learners attending online colleges. If this is your first time using your computer in a truly immersive way, it is important that you take the time to learn and master its capabilities. As an article in the Washington Post (2012) indicates, there is far more to online college than simply “learning which buttons to press.”

Indeed, the article stresses that successful online education is “about being at the center of many learning activities. You gain practice expressing yourself online in a range of activities, from offering an opinion and supporting it with evidence in a discussion thread to reflecting on your experience as a learner in a blog. There are more ways than ever for teams to collaborate on projects across time and space. You might find yourself in a Google Hangout with your classmates so that you can see and hear one another as you work on a presentation. Though many workplaces allow for a remote experience, when learning online you cannot count on resolving something at a face-to-face meeting. Learning online promotes building new collaboration muscles.”7

The best way to learn what you know, and what you need to know, is to take the platform for a test drive before signing up for the class. Many online learning providers require students to complete a distance learning orientation class that takes the student through all the applications used on the platform. It’s important to take this orientation seriously, and pay attention to your comfort with the platform. For example, if you don’t remember that you need to hit Submit twice when sending a paper through the distance learning platform, your grade will suffer. Keep that in mind, and if the orientation offers you feedback on how to improve your technology skills, follow the given advice.

Always bear in mind, however, that in online education, technology is a tool to help you gain knowledge and skills. Technology is a means to an end. Therefore, don’t let technology intimidate you. Technology can be learned and there are lots of resources to help you learn it. Learning to use the hardware and software at your fingertips with confidence and efficiency will not only spare you frustration and make you a more productive student, it will help you to establish more open and intimate lines of communication with instructors and classmates.

Related skills

High speed Internet and mobile smartphone technology have permeated every aspect of our lives, from the modern workplace to our homes and recreation. From video-conferencing and instantaneous document transmission to telecommuting and global correspondence, web technologies are an absolutely essential part of nearly every business sector today. Those with the skills to harness these technologies will have a considerable advantage in the job market.

As it happens, online education inherently requires you to master many of the technologies and skills that future employees will seek out. Even as you focus on the content of your online courses, you will naturally adapt to the technical demands that require you to attend live online lectures, access previously recorded media, incorporate research while using required materials, submit your own materials, independently manage your own working timetable, and coordinate with others through a number of web-mediated channels.

All of these are skills that will make you a more valuable candidate to potential employers. An article in the U.S. News & World Report (2015) notes that community colleges are often on the cutting edge when it comes to online course offerings. This, the article notes, is at least partially attributable to the fact that the process for approving new courses at a two-year college is faster and less encumbered by bureaucratic hurdles. As a result, online community colleges have been particularly effective at incorporating rapidly evolving technological ideas, processes, and standards into course offerings.8

To this end, according to U.S. News & World Report, Judy Baker, dean of online learning at San Jose’s Foothill College, observes that “employers in Silicon Valley seem to value the skills acquired in community college online courses just as much as in for-profit or four-year institutions…. In some ways, community colleges are able to be more agile and responsive to quickly changing workforce training needs.”9

The article notes that many of the highest-growth employment sectors for online college graduates are those in which web technologies have become an inextricable part of everyday work. This includes fields such as healthcare, energy systems, broadcasting, and marketing.10 Students of online colleges often have regular contact and familiarity with technologies that the average student does not require. This may serve as a distinct advantage with employers who are seeking demonstrable experience with certain computer-mediated operations.

This is also true for those professions that allow or even require some degree of telecommuting. The “modern workplace” is, in some ways, a figurative term that, like the web itself, transcends the boundaries of time and space. With a mobile phone in every employee’s pocket and wireless web access in most corners of the globe, the workplace is everywhere. For positions where travel is required, where working from home can help to offset small business costs, or where one must be accessible at all hours of the day, the skills gained through an online education will be directly applicable.

What About Cost?

College is expensive, usually in money and always in time. Certainly, this has been a major area of concern over recent years among lawmakers, within the media, and even in the nation’s highest executive offices. Students are leaving college and graduate school saddled with staggering loan debts and in spite of hand-wringing at the highest levels of government and educational leadership, relief from rising tuition rates does not appear to be on the near horizon.

Therefore, it falls upon you, the student, to make informed and intelligent decisions about the wisest way to invest in your education. According to an article published by Money Crashers (2014), the College Board reported that “the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2012–2013 school year was $8,655 for state residents attending public colleges, $21,706 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, and $29,056 for students attending private colleges.”11

The article points out that these figures do not include the also considerable expenses of housing, food, personal needs, transportation, campus services, and other incidentals related to campus life. Given that the tuition figures cited above will likely only continue to rise, defraying these costs could be a game-changer for many prospective students. Students studying exclusively through online colleges enjoy a university-level education without the traditional expenses associated with the college experience.12

Some online courses also provide their own internal, web-based texts to students. This is perhaps more valuable than one may at first realize. The College Board reports that the average student actually spends an estimated $1,200 per year on books and supplies, a figure that reflects a meteoric 82% rate of inflation between just 2002 and 2013.13 In fact, says an article by CNBC (2014), the cost of textbooks is so high that in a recent survey of roughly two thousand students from across 150 different campuses, 65% indicated that they had opted out of purchasing a required text because its cost was too great.14

Textbooks Online colleges present a far better alternative to simply opting out of crucial classroom material. To many critics of the academic publishing industry, the digital texts used routinely by online colleges point toward a far more equitable textbook market. Accordingly, consumer advocates have called for an expansion of the “open textbook” market, where faculty-composed and peer-reviewed materials are available freely online to students. CNBC reports that a number of major universities have invested in the development of open textbooks, but that uptake remains minimal.15

Ultimately, though, this trend gives us cause for optimism that the approach taken by online colleges toward open and accessible digital course materials may actually have a positive and catalyzing impact on traditional education. The innovations that have been born by necessity through online education may actually lead to greater access and lower costs for students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Finally, you also want to take a close look at the cost of the class itself. Most colleges don’t charge a different rate for distance learning classes than they do for face-to-face classes, but some colleges that exclusively offer distance learning courses will offer financial aid programs that have some serious repercussions on your credit rating and your finances, especially if you plan on taking out loans to pay for the courses. Because many for-profit colleges offer distance learning degrees exclusively, and for-profit colleges are responsible or a larger share of students who default on their loans, proceed with caution before committing to any loan package you sign in order to pay for a distance learning course. Make sure you understand who is responsible for the loan if you end up dropping the course; you aren’t expecting to do this, but things do come up, and you need to know what you are committing to.

Indirect costs

When considering the costs of distance learning, there are some direct expenses to consider, as well as some indirect ones. If you find you need a hardware upgrade, or you need to improve your Internet speed in order to participate in the video requirements of the course, those costs can add up, especially if you have to put the purchase of a new computer on monthly payment plans, or your monthly Internet bill goes up based on the type and quality of the data feed you are using.

One of the biggest appeals of distance learning is the ability of students to take classes without having to move or change jobs, but that doesn’t mean the student won’t have to make any lifestyle choices. Most distance learning classes are built on the same study schedule face-to-face classes are built on, where students will have to spend anywhere from three-to-four hours a week in class work for every class credit the course is worth. As an example, if a student is taking a distance learning class that’s worth three credits, that student can count on spending nine-to-twelve hours each week reading, studying, participating in threaded discussions, writing papers, and taking assessments.

This can lead to changes in your life that have different costs associated with them. Needing more time for class may mean having to cut back on hours at a second or primary job, cuts that directly affect a student’s economic picture as surely as moving to campus would. This is why students are strongly urged to start a class by setting more time aside to study than they think they will need.

In addition, students may decide that the best way to find more study time is to cut back on social commitments or family time. The costs associated with these decisions are less economic, and more holistic. If the balance of work/school/family/friends tilts too much to school and not enough on the restorative elements of family and friends, the extra time devoted to studying may be less effective, simply because the student doesn’t have enough opportunity to refresh their energies and focus.

Quality Control

The quality of education, in all its forms and in spite of price tag and name, is highly variable. This is true whether you choose to study at a community college, a private university, or a vocational institute. The array of courses offered, the qualifications represented among educators, the cultural atmosphere, and the general reputation of any educational institution will figure into the value of its degree. The same is true of online education offered by organizations and institutions both storied and recent, venerable and disreputable, defined by educational excellence and by the pursuit of profit.

As with any college application process, what is accessible to you and appealing to you defines your search for the right online college. Make sure you conduct due diligence when researching the quality of the degree program that attracts your interest. It is easy to find accessible online courses offered by highly reputable and respected places of higher learning. But it is just as easy to invest in an online degree program that has little or no practical value. Sadly, the same is true for many traditional degree programs.

In any case, the onus is on you, the prospective student, to seek out an online college that is at once compatible with your needs and worth the money you intend to invest. No matter how affordable your online education is, your degree is only worth as much as the knowledge and skills you gain and the respect that the degree from that college or university commands, especially in the workplace.

This is not to say that a university’s reputation is the prime factor of importance when it comes to quality of education. In many instances, the degree that you earn will take second seat to the skills you attain during your course of study. If this is true for you, then you need to seek an online college with a positive track record in its quality of instruction. Consider conducting some research on the employment rate for those who have previously graduated from a given online college program. Evidence that graduates are enjoying gainful employment in their chosen field of study is usually a good indicator of an online college’s relative quality.

Is the Online College Accredited?

As you navigate the challenges specific to selecting a college that suits your needs, one important issue you must consider is accreditation. Accreditation is the educational stamp of approval that guarantees your selected academic institution has attained certain standards of operational, procedural, financial, and academic practice.16

Accreditation is critical as evidence that a degree-holder is properly credentialed in his or her given field of study. This makes accreditation an important part of turning your degree into employment and subsequent professional growth. Accreditation is also an equalizer among academic institutions, so that degrees, credits, and prerequisites allow one to transfer between accredited institutions. The flip side is if you get course credits or a degree from an unaccredited school and then try to transfer them to an accredited school, you may have your work at the unaccredited school refused.

Accreditation can tell you a great deal about the quality of the college or university of your choice and the value of the degree you seek. Therefore, before we continue our discussion of the online college search process, it is appropriate to spend some time defining and discussing accreditation.

The importance of accreditation

There are particulars that you must understand regarding accreditation if you are to effectively differentiate between a reputable college and a college more commonly referred to as a “diploma mill.” Diploma mills are low-quality and sometimes even fraudulent educational companies that prey on prospective college students.

Because there is little overarching or central authority presiding over the American system of higher education, colleges exist across an incredibly broad spectrum of quality and credibility. The accreditation system gives you at least one instrument for determining where a given college falls on this spectrum. That said, the quality and credibility of an accreditation can itself vary as a consequence of the reputation of the accreditation agency. Not all agencies are regarded with equal esteem, a fact that must figure into your search for the right college.

U.S. Department of Education At the very least, the college you are considering should be accredited by an agency that is recognized both by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and/or by the Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).17 These entities are the closest equivalent in our existing system of higher education to central authorities; their recognition should therefore be considered the bare minimum for determining an accrediting agency’s credibility.

Another matter of critical importance relates to financial aid. In order to receive federal financial aid, a student must be attending a college or university accredited by a USDE-recognized institution. Similarly, employers who exercise tuition reimbursement programs for employees engaged in ongoing education usually require that the schools their employees attend be USDE-recognized.

Regional accreditation

Regional accreditation is the most rigorous and most highly regarded form of accreditation.

As you seek the right college or university for your intended course of study, find out if it has received regional accreditation from the above agency corresponding to a given region. If you are considering a set of colleges in Massachusetts and Connecticut, for instance, seek out the New England Association of Schools and Colleges seal of approval.

According to this association, regional accreditation agencies are responsible for reviewing and certifying the quality of “research universities; community colleges; liberal arts colleges; state colleges; religiously affiliated institutions; special-purpose institutions in the arts, sciences, and professional fields; military academies; historically black and Hispanic-serving institutions; and tribal colleges.”19

This association goes on to note these regional agencies provide this quality assurance in the public, private, profit, non-profit, secular, religious, urban, and rural contexts. Such agencies also provide accreditation regardless of age or student body size.20

National accreditation

National accreditation agencies are often less rigorous in their standards and less beholden to Department of Education oversight. A great many nationally accredited schools are for-profit or vocational institutions. The variance in quality is far greater among institutions that hold only national accreditation without additional regional accreditation. Be sure that you understand the difference between regional and national accreditation agencies and, further, that you know which national accreditation agencies the U.S. Department of Education recognizes.

Accreditation agencies not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are often shell organizations created to facilitate accreditation for otherwise disreputable schools.

If you desire that the school you attend have one of these national accreditations, you will be wise to focus only on those schools that also include the geographically pertinent regional accreditation. Indeed, these distinctions are critical as you navigate the broader system of higher education, particularly as you move between institutions (transferring credits and degrees). Typically, a regionally accredited university won’t accept credits from an institution with lesser accreditation. You are likely to run into the same difficulty if you attempt to enter a master’s program at a regionally accredited institution using a bachelor’s degree from an institution with only national accreditation.

Online accreditation

Brick-and-mortar colleges, exclusively online colleges, and colleges with a campus but also offering online education all face the same basic accreditation hurdles. Courses and degree programs need to deliver measurable learning outcomes, and these outcomes apply to online education as much as traditional education. In particular, online courses go through the exact same review process and must meet the same standards as traditional courses. But note, for online education there may be additional conditions simply for verifying the identity of online students.22

For institutions that provide the majority of their courses (i.e., 51% or more) through the online medium, they can supplant regional accreditation with accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). DETC has received recognition from both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council For Higher Education Accreditation for accrediting institutions that provide the majority of their courses online.

Specialized accreditation

In addition to regional and national accreditation, which you can use to evaluate the quality and credibility of a chosen college or university, there are numerous levels of accreditation you can employ to evaluate a degree program that attracts your interest. Most reputable schools hold a wide range of specialized accreditations in addition to regional recognition.

Specialized accreditation may be important if you are pursuing a degree program from which you anticipate continuing on to graduate school or to a profession. In either event, specialized accreditations can help you to determine how graduate school admissions officers or future employers will look at your degree. The Department of Education recognizes about forty specialized accrediting agencies, while the Council For Higher Education Accreditation recognizes about sixty agencies.23

Examples of leading specialized accreditation agencies include the Council of Occupational Education, the American Bar Association, the American Dental Association, and the American Psychological Association.

How schools earn accreditation

According to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), regional accreditation “is a self-regulatory process based on rigorous standards.”24

Accordingly, academic institutions receive accreditation based on internal evaluations conducted by colleges and universities and in accordance with such rigorous standards. Once self-review is complete, accrediting commissions call for a peer review of the applying university or college. Following these steps, a commission within the agency determines an institution’s accreditation status. This process should also conclude with a concrete plan of action for subsequent review of accreditation status in the event that consequential changes take place in the way the institution operates.25

Schools not awarded accreditation status at the end of this process often receive counsel and support from the accrediting agency so that they can make the changes and improvements needed to merit accreditation.26 For instance, the accrediting agency may identify lapses in quality or consistency of academic programs, and set out a course of action to redress them before the school can reapply for accreditation. Institutions with accreditation may lose this recognition due to a decline in quality or a problematic change in operations.

The Real Campus Experience

Distance learning classes have been praised for their easy access and flexibility. This makes them easy to add into the demands and commitments already made in our lives. But in creating that flexibility, distance learning classes have also been criticized for lacking the social component a face-to-face class has. Is it really possible to have a discussion-thread replace the value of an in-class discussion? Can online group work really replace pulling an all-nighter over pizza and Mountain Dew to make sure your presentation poster-board is done right? And what about football games and concerts? Can distance learning students really enjoy the full campus experience of college while laboring behind a computer screen?

Leaving the Nest For some students, the campus experience is an absolute necessity. Indeed, college is the first time that many young people will venture out from under the wing of a parent or legal guardian. To a significant extent, this will mark a first attempt at independent living, at managing one’s own schedule and personal affairs, and at balancing freedom with responsibility. Campus life is a remarkable educational experience that the online medium cannot replicate.

Stated simply, if you consider this experience to be a necessary part of your personal education, online college is probably not for you. This does not preclude you from taking some online courses from the comfort of a dorm room or off-campus housing facility. However, it does suggest that you are an unlikely candidate for earning a degree exclusively through an online college.

Lecture Hall Another drawback is the difficulty of replicating the dynamic experience of being in a classroom or an interactive lecture hall. According to U.S. News & World Report (2015), a 2013 study released by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that online students consistently lag behind their counterparts in the university’s brick-and-mortar classrooms. In many instances, respondents cited a lack of direct interaction with their fellow students as a major reason. Humans are social beings, and education thrives through social interactions.

One of the features that make college attractive to the inquiring mind is the extent to which it promotes the exchange of ideas and the engagement of discussion that is only possible in a room full of keen fellow learners. For many, the asynchronous rhythm of an online bulletin board system that online colleges provide simply doesn’t do enough to simulate as well as stimulate that experience. Though small group interaction is possible through video-conferencing, no technology yet exists that can facilitate the type of rapid-fire exchange and engagement that occurs in the physical classroom.

Making Friends in College The same disintermediation can impede the ability of students and educators to develop a constructive working relationship. Without seeking direct engagement, a student may find this mode of communication decidedly more impersonal than even a large lecture hall. When it comes to these features, your personal preference will play a significant part in your final decision. How much you need or desire face-to-face interaction will be a strong determinant of how satisfied you are likely to be with an online education.

If online colleges are your only option and you have limited background with web-mediated education, prepare yourself for a more solitary learning experience. Moreover, if you feel that you would benefit from real, face-to-face interaction, contact others in your class who might be interested in creating a local study group. Meeting with classmates at a coffee shop or library to discuss course content — or simply to become better acquainted — can be a great way of overcoming the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies online education.

The answer to all questions about the campus experience and distance learning is, It Depends. While the social component of college, or of taking a class, may be important to some students, other students are quite content with the life they are living, and the friends they have. This doesn’t mean they will be cold and indifferent to their fellow distance learning students; it means that the primary reason they are taking the class is to obtain the knowledge or to earn a credential, and any social benefit to the class is secondary to them. On the other hand, students looking for the give-and-take of class discussion may be satisfied with the interactions of threaded discussions or real-time class activities offered through distance learning classes that feature teleconferencing.

Distance learning students certainly may qualify to purchase student-priced tickets for campus events, and that’s something to investigate if that is of interest. But just like some students are perfectly content to spend Saturday night in their dorm room, some distance learning students are taking classes to fulfill goals in their life that aren’t social.


For many students, the greatest virtue of online education is the ability it affords one to learn, study, and even communicate from the comfort and privacy of one’s own home. For as many others, however, this is actually its biggest drawback. The absence of face-to-face interaction with professors or classmates can deprive students of the academic and emotional support that these relationships often foster in an on-campus setting.

But distance learning also has some advantages over face-to-face classes in networking. Many students take courses to expand their professional contacts; this is especially true for older students who may already have a basic degree or certificate, and are taking distance learning classes to advance their careers. When this is the case, students are more likely to find peers in their distance-learning classes with goals similar to theirs. If their mutual goal is to expand their network of contacts, that goal can be realized through a distance learning course as easily as it can be in a face-to-face course. Since many professionals taking distance learning courses work full time, and in different parts of the country, it could be argued that distance learning courses will expand professional networks more successfully than face-to-face classes. After all, it isn’t easy getting to know all 350 people in a large face-to-face lecture class that’s held on campus. In that respect, distance learning makes networking easier.

Concerns about the absence of socialization opportunities in distance learning classes have made improvements in this area a high priority among distance learning professionals and accrediting bodies. As these efforts move forward, it’s important to remember that the basis of strong socialization in any class is having a common goal among the students, and opportunities for students to work together to achieve that common goal. Distance need not prevent that from occurring in a distance learning class.

One of the best steps that you can take to improve your online educational experience is to use the technology in your hands to create real and meaningful connections. Establish a personal relationship through correspondence with your instructor. Create an open pathway for communication so that you will feel comfortable asking questions or seeking assistance should the need arise.

Be sure to avail yourself of the talents and knowledge of your instructor, even if you never have the opportunity to sit in the same room together. If you have never forged a constructive long-term working relationship via web communication, you might be surprised at how strong a communicative bond you can form. This is a powerful remedy against the isolation that often complicates online learning for some students.

You can achieve the same remedy when you make an effort to interact more closely with your fellow students. Become a regular and active contributor to bulletin board discussions and peer review sessions. You should also consider reaching out individually to online classmates in order to create either virtual or physical study groups, or even to plan casual social meet-ups just to blow off steam. Even if you aren’t sharing campus space, you and your classmates are sharing the challenges of navigating course material, working independently, and balancing personal responsibilities. Making a few friends could go a long way toward feeling part of a real class.

Graduation and Completion Rates

In addition to considering the job placement rate of each online college, you are wise to be wary of those online colleges with low graduation rates. For-profit colleges, on average, have more student turnover than non-profit colleges.

In this connection, an editorial in the New York Times (2013) cites a five-year study released in 2011 that monitored the progress of 51,000 students attending Washington State community and technical colleges. The study determined that students who were enrolled in more online as opposed to brick-and-mortar classes were substantially less likely to earn a degree or move on to a four-year college.

The reason offered by researchers is that too many students begin their college education lacking the basic learning skills needed to succeed in college: from independent time management and healthy study habits to competence in compositional English and research capabilities. This is true of students attending both traditional and online college classes. But it means that many students beginning their college education genuinely need the assistance, support, and motivation often found on campus, either through faculty, college counselors, existing student services, or one’s classmates. Without access to such a support network, ill-prepared students run the risk of struggling with their academic and personal responsibilities.

This means that in deciding to attend an online college, you need to give very serious consideration to your preparedness to take on its inherent challenges without the support that students attending brick-and-mortar schools are more likely to get. If you feel that you would benefit in a significant way from this support — and for some, such support may mean the difference between graduating and dropping out — online college is likely to present some daunting challenges — indeed, challenges that may hinder you from obtaining a degree.

What Are the Job Prospects for Online Graduates?

There is a justifiable concern for many prospective students that some employers view online education with suspicion. Even as online degrees proliferate and gain increasing mainstream credibility, some employers remain skeptical of their value relative to the traditional degree earned by attending a physical campus.

Still, an article in U.S. News & World Report (2012) notes that increasingly employers are less concerned with the medium through which individuals receive a degree than with the institution that bestowed it. The article goes on to say, “hiring managers understand that online courses from top programs, such as Harvard Business School, are credible, according to [Brad] Remillard [cofounder and executive recruiter at IMPACT Hiring Solutions Executive Search in Orange County, Florida]. ‘If Harvard puts this on, it’s probably a high-quality program, he says.”27

This is to say a degree earned online from a truly venerable institution has the same respect as a traditional degree. Today, employers are accepting online degrees with an increasing sense of normalcy. They are, however, looking over carefully the online colleges which award these degrees.

This is truly the burning question when it comes to online education: Will I be able to get a job with my online degree?

This front has mixed news. Some employers still have reservations based on the high variability in academic quality that exists in the online education sphere. Adding to this skepticism is the pervasive tendency among many employers toward conservative hiring practices, preferring a traditional campus-based education for employees to an online education.

However, this skepticism and conservatism are starting to give way as a generation of business leaders raised on web technology increasingly assume control in the private sector. Indeed, an article in Time magazine (2012) reveals that “According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers views of online education have improved over the past five-to-ten years. More than half of human-resources managers SHRM surveyed for an August 2010 report said that if two applicants with the same level of experience were applying for a job, it would not make a difference whether the job candidate’s degree was obtained through an online program or a bricks-and-mortar university.”28

Job Interview The article goes on to point out that 75% of those surveyed indicated that they had in fact hired at least one applicant with an online degree in the previous twelve months.29 That said, the very same survey indicates that 66% of respondents felt online degree-holding applicants were not viewed as favorably as those with degrees earned in a traditional setting.30

Managing these conflicting findings can be a challenge. On the subject, cofounder and executive recruiter at IMPACT Hiring Solutions Executive Search (Orange County, Florida), Brad Remillard, offers a sound piece of advice to those seeking employment with an online degree. There is no need, nor is there any law, nor is there any ethical standard that requires individuals to indicate they earned their degree online. To the contrary, one’s résumé must only identify the university that awarded a degree. In most cases, there is no special notation indicating an individual earned their degree through an online college.31

This underscores the recommendation to exercise discretion when applying for a job. There is never a reason to specify on your résumé whether you earned your degree online or in a traditional classroom setting. Increasingly, students are experiencing higher education through a blended course of study that includes some combination of online learning and physical class time. Thus, the perceived dividing line between these two modes of education is becoming increasingly blurred to prospective employers. As online education continues its expansion into traditional institutions of higher learning and becomes a necessary part of the course catalogue for major colleges and universities, employers are becoming less apt to scrutinize the medium through which your degree was earned, though perhaps increasingly likely to place greater stock in the reputation of the college or university from which you earned it.

Some employers may even place a higher premium on prospective employees who have demonstrated the ability to manage their own education, to work well with others from a distance, and to operate on a flexible and non-traditional schedule. Indeed, the same skills that one might exercise to successfully complete an online education are highly adaptable to a wide array of 21st century jobs.

Still, for all of these gains, there are employers who may view online education as subject to too great a variance in quality. There are employers who, if pressed to choose between two worthy candidates, will instinctively choose one with a brick-and-mortar education over one with an online degree. Some employers are just plain old-fashioned.

The recruitment and interview process may reveal an employer who is receptive to or even places greater value on the online educational experience. As a future job-seeker, it is best to use your judgment when deciding to articulate or omit information regarding the medium through which you received your degree. Ultimately, as we have noted throughout this discussion, the institution from which you earn your degree and the applicability of the skills you have gained there will be of the utmost importance to employers. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to once again stress this point:

In choosing an online college, cast a wide net, carefully sift through your options, and exercise all due diligence!

Your Mileage May Vary

At the heart of your search for the right online college is your own level of compatibility with web-mediated education. One of the key differences with online colleges is that in many ways you are truly on your own. Much of your research will have to be self-guided. Your ability to maintain an effective study schedule will be up to you. You will have limited access to campus personnel, guidance counselors, and faculty. Therefore, before determining whether online college is the right path for you, make sure you can properly deal with this type of independence.

One of the valuable aspects of campus life is that there are many services and personnel close at hand to help you ease into your course of education. Such services can help you locate academic assistance, plot out your path of study, select your major, and participate in meaningful campus activities. You must do much of this navigation on your own when you attend an online college. This can make for a difficult adjustment period and one that can interfere with your studies.

This is not to say that online education is completely lacking in support services. All online colleges will have some support services. Yet, as with all other aspects of online education, the support services offered will vary from one school to the next. Before beginning an online degree program, make sure that the school in which you are enrolling offers a range of services commensurate to your needs and expectations.

If you feel comfortable flying solo — and many students are more than prepared to do so — an online degree program may be right for you. If this is your first attempt at managing your educational affairs without the assistance of parents or teachers, make sure you are up to the challenge, that you are using all the support services available to you, and that you have somebody in your corner, be it a family member or a professional tutor, to help you through the early stages of transition and hold you accountable.

As an editorial from the New York Times (2013) points out, your performance at an online college is determined in large part by the way that you have historically approached education. The editorial observes that “courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed.”32

It is important that you, as the college applicant, know into exactly which of these categories you fall. For some enrollees, compatibility will require the adoption of improved study habits, better schedule management, and a stronger work ethic. Of course, the positive offshoot is that if you can successfully make this transition, you will also be gaining absolutely essential life skills. These skills won’t just help you to succeed in your online education; they will make you more valuable to prospective employers.

That said, high rates of non-completion are rampant in online education and suggest that one must be realistic about one’s abilities before deciding to go this route.

Return to the top…

A History of Distance and Online Education

It should come as no surprise that educators have tried for centuries to create tools for learning that reduce or eliminate distance as a barrier to learning. We are used to thinking the best way to do that is through the computer, with its immediate access to people and resources throughout the world, but it’s important to remember that distance learning goes back hundreds of years, well before computers were even included in the most cutting edge science fiction, let alone as an essential part of education.

The history of distance and online education gives us some important insights into the assumptions and practices used today in this ever-growing field. Just like the American school system is shaped in part by its history of giving students the summers off so families could go on vacation and avoid the heat, distance and online education is affected by its own history, and the history of education in general. The ability of online and distance learning to break through the barriers those traditions create is a rich part of its history, but many parts of that history still shape our attitudes and practices, at least for now.

The Beginning

The idea of using available technology to create new learning opportunities has been with us since the invention of the wheel, when something as simple as a wagon or coach allowed some students the opportunity to attend classes in person, where walking the distance proved to be too great of a burden. That same technology of horse and wagon (or horse and chariot) led to the development of the first postal delivery services, enabling people from afar to communicate in an organized fashion for the first time. The creation of the first formal postal system in England in 1660 meant that the delivery of messages and letters was now more uniform, and relied less on the goodwill of neighbors willing to deliver a letter on their travels, or the availability of servants, who would deliver letters on behalf of their employers.

Pony Express Statue England may have developed the first postal system, but the first distance learning course is generally recognized to have started in its colonies in 1728, when an American shorthand instructor named Caleb Phillips thought to offer instruction by mail in Boston. The idea of waiting days to receive assignments and return them is something today’s distance learning student can barely comprehend, but in the absence of computer, telephone, and even telegraph, the ability to learn through the postal system was a real head-turner at the time.

England later realized the potential of learning by mail, when the innovation of standardized penny postage in the United Kingdom made distance education a reality.33 In the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman needed just three years to parlay this innovation into the Phonographic Correspondence Society and, thereafter, Sir Isaac Pitman’s Correspondence Colleges.34

As is the case with technological developments, it didn’t take long for the idea of distance learning, or correspondence school, to catch on. Distance learning opportunities were soon created for foreign language instruction in Germany, and mining safety in California. The University of London created what some believe is the first university-based distance learning program in 1858. This is an important development for two reasons. First, this is the inaugural effort to use distance learning as a substitute for a comprehensive college experience. Until then, distance learning had an emphasis on discrete topics, with a particular focus on development of a skill, like shorthand. The use of distance learning to help with career training is an ongoing theme, but the University of London’s program advanced the idea of distance learning by trying to emulate more of the dimensions of a traditional well-rounded education through its program.

University of London’s program is also an important milestone, based on its success to innovate and expand its offerings. Its distance learning program reaches thousands of students in 180 countries, offering over one hundred credentials that can be obtained completely online. This advancement would only be possible with continued expansion of the mission and vision of the purpose of distance learning, as well as the incorporation of the latest technology.

Distance learning gained ground with educators throughout Europe as the nineteenth century wore on. According to Distance Learning, the late 1800s saw the emergence of several leading distance education institutions, including Edinburgh’s Skerry’s College in 1878, London’s Correspondence College in 1887, and, in Sweden, the influential Hermod’s, which was officially established in 1898.35 Newly established institutions like the University of Chicago making correspondence education a major part of their educational arsenal as early as 1890.36 Within the decade, major distance education institutions had emerged in Boston and eastern Pennsylvania as well.


As with online colleges today, early distance education was greeted with mixed feelings. According to Distance Learning, correspondence education “was designed to provide educational opportunities for those who were not among the economic elite and who could not afford full time residence at an educational institution. Many saw it as simply a business operation, and viewed this alternative as inferior education. Moreover, these distance opportunities extended education potential to the masses, an extreme departure from the undemocratic educational system that characterized the early years of U.S. history.”37

Distance Learning posits that in spite of the reservations of its critics, distance learning spread thanks to a cultural push for more equal educational access in the U.S. In a similar way, this account will demonstrate that online colleges today are very much affected by the same mixed bag of support and criticism that impacted distance education in its earliest incarnations. That is, the desire for equal educational access continues to collide with questions of quality assurance all across the online college industry.38

The mission and outreach of distance learning received a significant boost in 1873, when Anna Ticknor founded a correspondence school designed by women, to educate women. This informal network aimed to provide access to at least some of the elements of education women were regularly being denied, as only a handful of colleges and universities were admitting women at the time. 1873 was a breakthrough year in another respect, as the first correspondence college was developed in Cape Town, South Africa.

Early Radio Another common feature of distance education throughout its history is that technological innovation has often been the force to spark its evolution. With the proliferation of radio in the earliest 20th century, a number of the first regularly broadcast programs incorporated educational instruction coming from universities and other places of learning. In 1922, Pennsylvania State University partnered with Westinghouse Electronic to develop the first radio-based classes. This simple advancement would significantly improve the quality and efficiency of distance learning. Instructors in subjects like music appreciation would be able to use live musicians to supplement their teaching, while language instructors would now be able to use “call and response” techniques to help students practice their listening and speaking skills. This would also increase the pace of learning, since instructors could give assignments orally over the radio. Students could still submit their work by mail, but general feedback could be given by radio, allowing the courses to move at a faster rate.

Penn State’s development of radio-based courses also turned out to be an innovation way ahead of its time. Access to all radio communication was open to everyone who was within the station’s broadcast range who had a radio; there were no fee-based radio services at the time, nor were listeners required to submit a password or access code in order to listen to the courses. This means that, at least in some respects, the Penn State courses were predecessors of MOOCs, or the free Massive Open Online Courses used by millions of students today. The scope of the audience to the Penn State classes was limited to those living within the broadcast area, and knowledge of the courses was limited to those who knew of their existence either through randomly scanning radio stations or through the college’s promotion of the courses. Still, it is important to recognize that the current movement to provide more people with access to high quality learning experiences has deep roots in the distance learning movement, roots that surpass the invention of the computer.

In many developing nations, call-in educational programs remain an important channel for teaching otherwise remote, isolated, or impoverished populations.39

By the late 1930s, television was beginning to supplant radio as the preferred medium for broadcast correspondence education. The University of Iowa first used television in its educational programming in 1934, an important addition to the array of teaching techniques, with their success limited in part by those who had access to this “modern” technology. The role of TV in distance learning grew as the overall use of the technology grew. The University of Houston presented the first televised courses in 1953, as part of the broadcasts of the first public television station. Most of these courses were broadcast at night, a scheduling decision designed to meet the needs of working adults who were looking for easier access to courses for college credit.

Efforts to use TV as a method of instruction took a big step forward in 1953, when a group of television stations was created for the sole purpose of offering college classes. The Instructional Television Fixed Services system was run on a microwave frequency, and was less expensive to maintain than conventional broadcast channels. These initial efforts later spread to include the broadcast of high school courses, and would prove to play an important role in creating opportunities for viewers to engage their distance learning instructors in real time — something no one could have envisioned in the 1950s. New York University, which adopted the approach, offered “Sunrise Semester” courses through a partnership with CBS from 1957 to 1982.40

Synchronous Distance Education

What most separates this earlier form of distance learning from its present online incarnation is asynchronicity. That is, traditional modes of distance learning have relied on correspondence with transmission inherently delayed or — to say it simply — out of sync. This means lapses of time necessarily interrupt the cycle of instruction, inquiry, response, assignment submission, assessment, and feedback. Though asynchronous distance learning historically overcame the physical limitations caused by spatial distances, the challenge of temporal lag or delay always limited its dynamism and appeal.

In addition, the goal of distance learning has always been to increase the quality of instruction available to students who are not directly in front of their teachers, and the introduction of TV went a long way towards that goal by introducing an active image of the teacher. The efforts to create a close learning relationship between instructor and student had come a long way from the efforts of Anna Eliot Ticknor, whose goal was to create a “warm correspondence between woman teacher and woman learner.” Now that students could put a face and a voice to the words offered by their instructor, the human element of teaching was present in distance learning as never before, as gestures, inflections, and facial expressions made the experience even more like a classroom experience.

The next logical step in reproducing the classroom environment was the addition of the ability for students to interact with the instructor in something close to real time — or, at least in a shorter period of time than submitting papers, questions, and tests through the postal system. Part of this goal was realized with the introduction of the telephone as an educational tool, when Wisconsin introduced professional development for physicians warm correspondence by telephone in 1965. With the support of written materials and television images, telephone instruction offered an opportunity for student-teacher interaction to occur as never before, even if this greater quality of interaction required the simultaneous use of several technologies.

Greater attempts at overcoming this obstacle took the form of two-way audio communication between students and educator, not much different from a multiperson telephone conference. By the end of the 20th century, media such as open broadcast cable and “interactive instructional TV” (ITV) would combine this audio communication with video. This approach to televised live lecturing became increasingly popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, many early-adopting U.S. state governments employed ITV in order to establish statewide distance learning networks with considerable success.

World Wide Web Of course, many of the technological challenges were overcome with the advancement of the Internet. Initially developed in 1969, the Internet benefited from several important advancements in technology, particularly the personal computer and the development of the modem, that made its use in distance learning available to a much broader range of students.

One of the first organizations to utilize these advanced technologies was the Computer Assisted Learning Center (CALC) in New Hampshire. Starting with a presence on closed communication networks, CALC developed a series of non-credit courses in 1985, complete with tutoring services for students needing support outside the time the class was offered. These course were all offered in real-time, where students were all required to be online at the same time each week, making the structure of the course similar to face-to-face classes.

These efforts took on new dimensions with the spread of email in 1994 and 1995, when the Internet became available to a much larger audience; more important, email made communication between student and teacher as immediate as the telephone, but based on the same computer technology used to deliver course content. It would only be a matter of time before programs were developed to combine instruction and feedback methodologies, including grading. These online learning platforms had an impressive growth spurt in 1997–2004, when Moodle, Blackboard, and the free platform SAKAI were developed for instructional delivery.

These courses not only expanded the audience of students who could participate in distance learning; they advanced the idea that not all students needed to be learning the same material at the same time, and the idea that not all learning had to occur at the same time. The development of chat rooms, discussion threads, timed tests and assignments, and video lessons made it possible for instructors to create classes based on asynchronous learning, where instructors would upload a week’s worth of lessons on, say, a Monday, and students could engage in the learning activities at any point during the week, or whenever the due date came for the completion of specific work. The integration of discussion threads makes it possible for students to engage in virtual discussions about a topic as if they were talking in the same classroom, but this discussion can be completed over a period of days, thanks to asynchronous learning.

In the mid-1990s, as household web usage became increasingly standard, its synchronous, multilateral education capabilities began coming into focus. The web had made the immediate transmission of video, audio, graphical, and compositional content considerably easier, more reliable, and more accessible. In 1996, Jones International University became the first online university in the United States to receive full accreditation, when it gained recognition through the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.41

By the start of the new millennium, online colleges moved from the educational fringe to center stage as one of the fastest-growing forms of education in circulation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “from 2000 to 2008, the percentage of undergraduates enrolled in at least one distance education class expanded from 8% to 20%, and the percentage enrolled in a distance education degree program increased from 2%to 4%.”42

Prevalence Today

Today, online education occupies a place of great importance in the grander scheme of higher education. In spite of concerns over the business imperatives that sometimes drive this educational sector (an issue discussed at length throughout this account) and in spite of some early skepticism over the instructional quality distance education can achieve, it is now clear the benefits of online education far exceed its drawbacks.

In an overview of distance learning, an associate professor and Director of Business Education from the University of West Georgia (2007) surmises that “Several changes have taken place in online education over the years. Online education has moved from a minor alternative role of ‘learning by correspondence to the center of life at most universities. The Internet has played a significant role in these changes because it has assisted instructors to more effectively respond to the limitations often cited regarding online education and it has been used to deliver instruction to students and employees at remote sites.”43; references omitted

As the benefits have become self-evident, so too has the prevalence of the online college industry. Universities and private enterprises alike have substantially increased their investment in online colleges over the last decade or more and have, in turn, enjoyed broader enrollment capacity and greater revenues.44

Both by way of traditional universities and for-profit corporations, online colleges have become a largely entrenched dimension of America’s broader educational strategy. An article in EdTech Magazine (2012) offers a set of statistics illustrating not only that online colleges are an important part of education, but also that web-mediated distance learning has actually replaced the brick-and-mortar classroom experience for many students. For still other students, online education has forged and widened a previously non-existent learning space, one that makes higher education accessible to those who might otherwise remain disenfranchised.45

According to EdTech Magazine, 65% of students consulted in 2012 had taken some online classes. A nearly identical 64% of full-time faculty at community colleges taught through some form of online distance education.46

The Magazine goes on to report that 60% of four-year private schools and fully 90% of four-year public colleges offer online classes to their students. For two-year colleges, the number is 91%.47

Also, as of 2012, 58% of all colleges and universities offered degrees for which every bit of coursework could be completed online.48 Statistics also reflect a shared and growing perception among students, faculty, and college administrators that online education is an essential part of the future of education and that the increased accessibility and flexibility that it facilitates is improving educational opportunities in far-reaching and profound ways.

U.S. News & World Report tells that 2012 marked a tenth consecutive year of growth for online colleges, with more than 6.7 million students having taken at least one online university course through the previous year.49 Moreover, Babson Research reported that in 2013 this number exceeded seven million. This represents a remarkable pace of growth from just 1.6 million students in 2002.50

Researchers say that online colleges reached their peak rate of growth in 2005 with a massive 36.5% increase in enrollment over the previous year. Growth has slowed substantially since then, with online colleges recording a 9.3% rate of growth over the previous year in late 2011. Researchers largely attribute this slowed pace to the fact that so much of the student population has already adopted online education. For this reason, a plateau in growth may be approaching eventually. Still, at this juncture, the new annual crop of college and post-graduate aspirants keeps the number of online students rising — a trend that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.51

Additional advances in technology continue to widen the audience for distance learning, while also increasing access to distance learning for all users. The development of cell phones and phone applications makes it easier for students to engage in an online course as part of a busy schedule, while teleconferencing takes the educational experience to a larger scale, allowing students in the same online class to confer with one another in global study groups.

A distance learning tool that is still in development finds its roots in Penn State’s development of radio-based courses in 1922, when courses were open to everyone who could tune in. By developing computer-based MOOCs, platforms like Udacity and EdX are partnering with colleges like Harvard and MIT to create classes that are available for free to anyone who has access to a computer or smart phone. The creation of MOOC-based degrees is a likely next step for distance learning, but when considering the quality, breadth, and accessibility of these courses, it is clear that the early goals of distance learning are being realized in ways the founders of the movement could not possibly imagine — but in ways those founders would doubtlessly find great delight.

Research on Distance Learning

The development of distance learning as a teaching methodology has led to a related academic field focused on the effect of distance learning, and the development of best practices in the field of distance learning. While there are a vast number of studies hoping to identify specific strategies and formats that create more effective distance learning environments, the general themes of this research are still being developed. Until a stronger consensus can be reached on the best practices of distance learning, the following five areas of focus provide some guidance in analyzing the key components of distance learning courses:

Course preparation

Many of the best practices in distance education are shared with all methods of instruction. Successful teaching starts with a course that is well developed in both scope and sequence, attempting to provide the student with as comprehensive a view of the subject matter as the time of the course will permit, while arranging the course so the concepts are presented in a way that makes them easy to integrate, contrast, compare, and analyze. A wide variety of teaching techniques should be employed in order to give students a full understanding of each idea, and to keep the teaching fresh. Where possible, many of these techniques should include student participation as part of the learning process; leaving student involvement to an end-of-unit test or assessment leads to students that are less engaged in their own learning, a quality that can often create distance between the student and the subject matter that impacts the student’s ability to comprehend the material.

Creating a good social climate in the course

This can be a particular challenge for distance learning classes, where students are less able, or less inclined, to engage in conversation or contact outside the required class assignments. Students in face-to-face classes have the benefit of getting to know more of their peers through whispered side conversations during lecture, or during the more detailed small group discussions that occur in face-to-face classes, when compared to those online. Similar socialization can occur during breaks in face-to-face classes, or as students leave or enter the class, opportunities not readily available to distance learning students.

Distance learning instructors can create discussion threads and assignments where subgroups of students work in smaller numbers (even in pairs), creating an opportunity for students to get to know each other better. This strategy may realize even greater benefits if the distance learning course involves teleconferencing, where students can see and communicate directly with each other in real time, coming as close as possible to replicating the social dynamics of a face-to-face course.

The role of the instructor

As is the case with all learning, the role of the instructor is a key component in understanding the success of a distance learning class. Early approaches to online instruction often included a limited role for the instructor; once the course was formatted with required discussions and activities, many distance learning courses were run with little feedback from the instructor, except in times of formal evaluation.

Now, there is a general acceptance that the instructor plays a vital role in setting both the academic and social tone of a distance learning class. By participating in threaded discussions, and regularly posting updates and announcements to the class Website, the instructor is demonstrating the frequency, duration, and quality of thought and work students are expected to emulate in the course. In addition, offering words of encouragement by email can offer the same kind of support for a struggling or inactive student a professor can offer to these same students in a face-to-face learning environment. Numerous studies have long pointed to the importance the focus, interest, enthusiasm, organization, and expertise of an instructor can add to a learning experience. While the research on this topic is early in distance learning, the results are strikingly similar.

Encouraging true collaboration

This area of study builds on the idea that the structure of a distance learning course can often make the student feel they are learning on their own, without genuine contact or support from the instructor, fellow students, or the institution offering the course. While some students welcome the opportunity to take a course that is largely self-paced, or where the students teach themselves, many other distance learning students are looking for a course that offers greater flexibility in when students can learn, while offering very similar avenues of support and encouragement as those found in a face-to-face class.

By creating a learning atmosphere conducive to social support, and designing a curriculum rich with opportunities for students to share their insights and experiences with one another, distance learning instructors are designing a course that is rich with cognitive and affective engagement of students, both with the class material and with one another. Add in some online social activities from the institution (or ways to be engaged online in social activities held on campus), and distance learning programs are well on their way to creating an atmosphere that includes the vital sense of “us” that leads to better learning, better teaching, and better memories of a student’s college experience.

The effective use of technology

This may seem like a given in the development of a distance learning course, but evaluating the ways technology is used is important for two reasons. First, instructors unfamiliar with all facets of existing distance learning technology may unwittingly limit their courses by using a technology that is underpowered or dated, making it difficult for students to interact in the course in a meaningful way, or causing them to lose interest in the course simply because they don’t know what to do.

Second, instructors who understand all facets of the technologies used in distance learning run the risk of finding their understanding dated as well if they fail to keep up with the ever-developing technologies rolled out in distance learning platforms, and in technology in general. The asynchronous chat room that was a staple in distance learning just a few years ago may still be the best place to discuss academic questions that require research and individual preparation, but teleconferencing offers a discussion opportunity that can strengthen the social dynamics of a distance learning class in ways few other technologies can. Changing technology strategies merely for the sake of using something new is an approach to learning that has never been successful, but regular review of current practices, combined with staying on top of the latest tools in technology, keeps the instructor and the course fresh and relevant in the eyes of the students.

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It’s Decision-Time

At this point, you should have a pretty good understanding of both the benefits and drawbacks of an online education. You also probably realize that you don’t necessarily have to choose between online and traditional education. The facts and findings outlined in the above sections suggest that a majority of students today are taking a blended approach to education, balancing both traditional and online classes in order to complete a given course of study, earn a professional certification, or pursue an advanced degree. How you approach your online education is largely up to you.

So, now that you understand what to expect, how do you get started?

In the sequel, we offer a few basic tips that will make you a savvier online college applicant and a better online student. As you seek out the school that’s right for you, arm yourself with information, approach with enthusiasm, and proceed with caution.

Make an Informed Decision

We can’t stress enough the importance of doing your research before you choose an online college. Affordable or not, you need to know that you be getting the most out of your investment. Know the difference between online colleges that provide a quality education and those that exist solely to turn a profit.

According to a 2012 study from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE), the quality of online colleges is inconsistent and variable because of the fast growth and deep entrenchment of certain online colleges whose main interest seems to be turning a profit rather than academic excellence. The study identifies “a group of institutions that give post high school degrees or credentials and for which some of the legal” constraints that bind traditional schools do not apply. For instance, the report notes, these institutions “can enter the equity market and have few constraints on the amounts they can legally pay their top managers.”52

In this regard, the CAPSEE study has its sights especially set on for-profit online colleges. At TBS, we know of for-profit online colleges that offer a fine education and we also know of well-regarded non-profit online colleges that leave much to be desired. Moreover, it is simplistic to see for-profit colleges as motivated purely by money and non-profit colleges as motivated purely by academic excellence. For-profit colleges must provide a good product for the marketplace, and thus have an incentive to achieve academic excellence. On the other hand, an unscrupulous non-profit college might rely on its non-profit status, milking the government for student loans in order to cover rising tuition costs. Virtue and villainy are thus distributed throughout both the for-profit and non-profit online educational sectors.

Still, the CAPSEE study is right to underscore that the rate of default on student loan repayment at for-profit institutions is nearly twice that for students attending public institutions. According to CAPSEE, the two-year cohort default rate for students from for-profit schools (whether graduating or dropping out) was 11.6% in 2008. (Compared to a mere 6% rate at public universities and a 4% rate among those who have attended private non-profits.)53

Accordingly, the CAPSEE study draws concludes:

“For-profit institutions account for a large and rising share of federal financial aid. For-profit students have much higher default rates and account for 47% of defaults today. Default rates have been rising in recent years particularly for the for-profit chains and beyond what can be accounted for by basic student characteristics.”54

But don’t limit your search to non-profit schools. Some for-profit schools have had truly remarkable success forging corporate partnerships and helping employees of corporations advance their education. Like villainy and virtue, stories of success also cover the entire gamut of American online education.

What this all means is that in searching for the right online college, you need to be thorough, exercising due diligence, and leaving nothing to chance. It should be your objective to weed out any potential colleges that have historically performed poorly where certain key indicators are concerned. Specifically, you will want to avoid enrolling in online colleges that have high rates of non-completion; colleges whose former enrollees have experienced a higher than average rate of student loan repayment default in the years after departing school; and colleges whose graduates have struggled to find or maintain suitable employment.

Moreover, you want to check out the relative performance of those online colleges that offer courses in your area of interest. Search for rankings through sites like to determine how the online colleges on your list rate. Make sure that before you enroll in an online college, you have conducted a thorough survey of its educational offerings. Be sure that it has everything you need, including a strong track record where educational outcomes and degree credibility are concerned.

On this last point, reputation is a significant factor. If it is your goal to earn a degree from your online college and to subsequently present that degree to a prospective employer, be sure that the school in which you plan to enroll is one that your future employer is likely to take seriously. Avoid online colleges who have earned a public reputation for producing lackluster curricula, mediocre instruction or, in some cases, even dishonest business practices. It is always a wise move to cross-check your intended online college against a Google search of pertinent news articles, scholarly journal pieces, or large-scale research reports. These may help you to differentiate credible online colleges from those that have a history that is less than savory.

As we will discuss further in the section below on securing your future place in the job market, your choice of online college is a critical one to employers. According to an article produced by CNN (2010), an Excelsior College and Zogby International poll found that 61% of American small business owners and CEOs said that they were familiar with the concept of online education.55

The article goes on to note that of these business owners and CEOs, a compelling 83% said that they viewed an online degree to be equally as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. According to CNN, “employers said such factors as the accreditation of the college or university, the quality of its graduates and the name of the institution awarding the degree were among other things they considered to make an online degree more credible.”

Learn which online degrees employers hold in esteem and use this knowledge to guide your online college search. You may even want to conduct your own survey among local small business owners and CEOs. Make some phone calls or send some emails to local leaders in a field that interests you. Before you begin your search for the right online college, ask how receptive these employers have been in the past to hiring employees with online degrees. You may even consider inquiring about a few specific online colleges that have produced employees for these hiring firms. This could prove a strong starting point for your search and can also afford you a stronger understanding of the features that future employers are looking for in an online degree.

Bear this in mind as you approach your enrollment decision: You will carry your school’s reputation into the job market with you.

Become an Independent Learner

As noted earlier in this account, one of the greatest challenges that many online students will face is that of adapting to true independence. For those who are self-motivated, who learn quickly on their own, and who have a demonstrated ability to manage a work and study schedule with balance, online college will make for an easy transition.

This is not true for everybody, however. If this level of independence is new to you, prepare yourself for what is ahead. In order to succeed in an online degree program, you must forge effective study habits, well-honed research practices, and a homework routine that works for you. Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to initiate your online college experience very gradually. You don’t necessarily have to launch headlong into a multi-year degree program from the start. You could consider taking only a single class or just a few manageable courses as a practice run, perhaps through a local community where the cost per credit hour tends to be very low. Once you see how well you are handling one or two online courses, you will be in a better position to decide whether you are ready to handle a bigger course load.

You may find that you are a natural when it comes to managing your own schedule and working at your own pace. On the other hand, you might find that success in your chosen field of online study will require you to become a better researcher, reader, writer, and tech-user. You must get organized to succeed as an independent learner. Keep a calendar of your courses and assignments handy. Maintaining both a digital and a handwritten calendar can help to remind you of responsibilities and reinforce scheduling commitments. Use these instruments to plan ahead and to realistically balance your personal and academic responsibilities.

To-Do List Making daily “to-do” lists is also a constructive way to keep yourself on track. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are new at this. Seek advice from friends, relatives, and others who have been down the same path. Once you get into a good working rhythm, you should be ready to take on a full online course load.

Other Options in Distance Education

After considering their goals for taking the class; the discipline and flexibility needed to take a distance learning class; the technological needs required to fully participate in the class, and the positive and negative costs (economic and otherwise) associated with the class, some students are still unsure if distance learning is for them. If that’s the case, students may want to try these “sample” distance learning experiences before making a commitment to a full distance learning course.


A number of companies offer online seminars as a way of education employees and potential customers. While some of these seminars are designed to be presentations only, others include the technology and opportunity to ask questions, engage in threaded or live discussion, and interact with other participants as well as the instructor — and many of these seminars are offered at little or no cost. Check with your employer to find if they participate in any distance learning professional development programs, or investigate free online seminars like these to see how it feels to be a distance learning student. Many of these seminars or short courses are also available through colleges. Before you try a long distance learning class, think about trying a short one.

Hybrid Classes

Other students who are eager to begin earning a credential may not have the time or interest to try out a distance learning course, since doing so would take time and resources away from their learning goals. For these students, a hybrid course may be a better introduction to distance learning techniques. Designed to give students the best of both a face-to-face and a distance learning class, hybrid courses generally meet as a physical class for a certain number of class periods, but fewer total periods than a traditional face-to-face class. The balance of the instruction is then given through distance learning activities, offering students the flexibility to complete the course at a time and place that best suits them.

The combination of face-to-face and distance learning contained in each hybrid course varies greatly. While some hybrid courses will alternate weeks between the two formats, some will feature all of the face-to-face instruction at the beginning, and offer the distance learning component at the end, while others will be predominantly distance learning, saving the face-to-face components for assessments, like tests.

Students looking to take hybrid courses to get a taste of distance learning will want to look at each hybrid course closely, making sure they are comfortable with the amount of distance learning the course requires, and the interval between face-to-face sessions. With some careful investigation, every student can find a hybrid course that will provide the right introduction to distance learning that will guide their selection of future learning experiences.

Non-Internet-based courses

If you don’t have the hardware or interest to take a distance learning course online, don’t worry. Some colleges still offer correspondence course, where interaction and communication with the instructor is limited to viewing information on a Website and emailing assignments, if that. These programs are more difficult to find, and are often nestled in with online courses in their description, but this list can get you started in exploring the possibility of learning at a distance without excessive reliance on a computer.

Now that you have a better understanding of online education, you should be ready to choose the best online college for your needs. You should also have a stronger sense of the steps you must take in order to be ready for the challenges ahead.

We invite you to apply this knowledge as you begin the process of choosing an online college, online course of study, and online degree program. We also offer a few useful points of entry. The first place to look is our ranking at the start of this article: The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019. In addition, see our analysis of The 25 Best Online Degrees in today’s job market as well as our breakdown of The Best Online College in Each of America’s Fifty States.

We wish you the best of luck in your search for the right online college!

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