What to Look for in an Online College

TBS Staff Writers
Updated December 12, 2023
Prospective applicants should always research a program's curriculum, graduation requirements, and online course options before applying to an online college.

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Prospective online students should closely examine schools’ program offerings before committing.

In 2021, nearly 9.4 million students enrolled in online courses, and more than one in three college students take distance education courses as part of their degree. The pandemic pushed most schools into online learning formats. In response, more students are now pursuing online college degrees after the pandemic.

But what should you look for in an online college? What do you need to know before pursuing an online education? And how can you make sure you’re applying to one of the best online colleges? After all, many diploma mills promise online degrees that take little time or effort, but ultimately aren’t worth much. How can you avoid them?

This guide explores the indicators of a high-quality program, warning signs to avoid, and how to find an online program that fits your needs.

A School That Fits Your Needs

Even the best online colleges might not offer the best fit for every student. Considering factors like program format, graduation requirements, transfer policies, and cost can help prospective enrollees identify the right fit for their unique needs.

Online program formats vary widely, and prospective students can often choose between fully online programs or hybrid options. An individual attending a local school may prefer some in-person classes, while others need courses to be fully online.

Similarly, online programs can include synchronous or asynchronous coursework. Synchronous means that classes meet at a set time on a regular schedule, while asynchronous means students complete requirements on their own schedules. The structure of set meetings benefits some students, while others — particularly working students — prefer the flexibility of asynchronous classes.

Finally, ask yourself: What graduation timeline fits your schedule? Do you want to complete your degree as soon as possible or at a slower pace? Online learners can typically enroll part-time, full-time, or at an accelerated pace, so you can choose the option that best fits your timeline.

Prospective applicants should always research a program’s curriculum, graduation requirements, and online course options before applying to an online college. In addition to checking whether the school offers your desired major, also consider the diversity of available courses in your area of interest. Some programs allow enrollees to customize their degrees through specializations or electives, while others offer a set curriculum with few opportunities to take classes outside of the program.

It’s also important to consider whether the program requires an internship, lab courses, or practicum hours. If so, research how online learners meet these in-person requirements — especially how the school supports distance learners.

Students with prior college experience should also research transfer credit policies. By transferring credits, learners can save time and money on their degrees.

The cost of online college varies depending on the institution, the student’s residency status, and local state policies. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average in-state student at a public school pays around $9,000 per year in tuition and fees, while out-of-state students pay $25,600 per year. Meanwhile, private schools charge over $30,000 in tuition and fees.

However, many enrollees pay less than the listed tuition price. Prospective students should ask about tuition discounts for online learners, including paying the in-state rate regardless of residency status. Also make sure to inquire about financial aid, payment plans, and scholarship opportunities.

Finally, compare cost across several online colleges to be sure you understand your options. Remember to factor in tuition, fees, and any other expenses when calculating the total cost.

Online Student Checklist

Successful online learners come to college prepared to learn. Here are a few items students need to succeed in online learning.

  • checkComputer: Most online colleges require a computer that meets certain specifications to access coursework. Students often prefer the flexibility of a laptop rather than a desktop.
  • checkStable Online Connection: You’ll need internet access to stream synchronous lectures or complete group projects. A fast, stable connection is a must for online college.
  • checkTime to Complete Classes: Plan to spend several hours per week for each credit you’re taking — or more, if you’re in an accelerated program.
  • checkAbility to Focus From a Remote Setting: Succeeding as an online learner requires self-discipline and organization.

For more, check out our expanded list of essential tools for online college.

Indicators of a Quality Online Program

Before you apply to an online college, look for signs that the school or program follows education best practices. In particular, look for things like accreditation, qualified faculty, and robust online student resources, which all signal high-quality institutions.

What to Avoid

Some schools prey on degree-seekers, particularly those who have access to federal financial aid. When should you not apply to an online college? If you spot any of the following red flags, consider not applying: These warning signs will help you spot potential diploma mills.

Frequently Asked Questions

The best online colleges offer high-quality education in an accessible format. Prospective students should check the school’s accreditation status, graduation rates, and available student services before applying. Make sure to keep an eye out for red flags like fake accreditations, excessive fees, and high student loan default rates among graduates. If you can’t find any of that information, that’s a sign that the school has something to hide.

For some students, the flexibility and convenience of online learning fits their needs better than in-person college. Working professionals and students balancing school with other responsibilities often prefer an online format. Learners can also attend top programs without having to relocate. Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of preference; both formats can result in a quality education.

In short, no. Accredited online colleges meet the same high standards as in-person programs, and many of the best online colleges are also brick-and-mortar schools and grant the same diplomas to both online and in-person students. As a result, most employers view online bachelor’s degrees in the same light as on-campus degrees. Your diploma likely won’t even say that you earned it online.

Online college classes can cost less than in-person classes. Distance learners may benefit from tuition discounts, including access to in-state tuition rates for fully online students regardless of where they live. However, online programs can sometimes accrue extra fees for things like distance learning support services, so it’s best for prospective online students to research tuition rates at potential schools before enrolling.

Header Image Credit: Deagreez | Getty Images

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