What to Look for in an Online College | TheBestSchools
Updated April 18, 2023
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Prospective online students should closely examine schools' program offerings before committing.
In 2018, nearly 7 million students enrolled in online courses, and more than one in three college students take distance education courses as part of their degree. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most schools into online learning formats. In response, more students are now pursing online college during 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.
Computer: 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.
Stable 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.
Time 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.
Ability 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.
Colleges measure their success rates using metrics like graduation rates, employment outcomes, and student loan default rates. You can also use these statistics to identify first-rate schools.
For example, the average six-year graduation rate for four-year colleges in the United States is 60%. If a school has a much lower number than that, it might indicate trouble. High student loan default rates can also indicate poor job prospects for gradates. In 2016, 10.1% of new federal borrowers defaulted on their loans. Default rates between 30-40% can cause schools to lose eligibility for federal student aid programs.
Accredited colleges and universities must meet high standards for academic excellence to maintain their status. Accreditation comes in several forms, including regional accreditation, national accreditation, and programmatic accreditation. The best online colleges hold regional accreditation, which means students can transfer credits to other institutions, meet professional licensure and certification requirements, and qualify for federal financial aid.
Before you apply to an online college, check its accreditation status in the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
In addition to accreditation, a school's reputation can help prospective students assess its quality. Signs of a reputable school include high college rankings, how well known the school is on a local or national level, and its track record in academic communities.
Reputation means more than a ranking number. It also includes the school's placement record, alumni network, and student satisfaction rates. Learn more about how to interpret college rankings and then check out the best online colleges for 2020.
The best colleges rely on quality faculty members to deliver content. When considering online programs, applicants should also look for faculty who have specific training and experience in online instruction, either through their school or through an outside program in distance learning.
It's also helpful to know the difference between an adjunct instructor, a visiting professor, and an associate professor. For more, check out our piece on professor ranks.
Professionally Produced Courses
Quality online programs will offer professionally produced courses specifically designed for distance learners. In these programs, students interact with course materials using professionally designed learning management systems like Canvas or Blackboard. High-quality programs also rely on modern tech tools, like interactive polls, discussion boards, or collaborative tools.
Prospective students should research each school's interface and tech tools before applying to online colleges. Similarly, applicants can browse a college's website to see whether its programs use the latest technologies in the field.
Student Support and Resources
In addition to information about the program, prospective students should also research a school's student support resources. Robust online tutoring, career support, and mental wellness resources can help students focus on their studies and succeed in online programs.
If a program includes in-person components, applicants should also research their options for meeting those requirements. For instance, can students take labs at a local school or complete internship requirements at a business close to home?
Some of the best online colleges also offer the option to sample a class and get a feel for the online learning environment before committing to a degree.
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.
Vague or Missing Information
Many online schools offer testimonials from satisfied students, but vague or misleading information tells you a lot more about what a program is offering. An above-board program will clearly provide information on their instructors, whether they offer courses synchronously or asynchronously, course requirements, tuition rates, and the length of the program for full- and part-time students.
Other missing information, like the lack of a business address or no way to verify graduate employment outcomes, is another red flag. Once you've researched a few online programs, you'll develop a sense for what's normal and learn to quickly detect bad warning signs.
Accreditation is a marker of academic excellence, but unaccredited schools may claim fake accreditation to impress candidates. For example, unapproved accrediting agencies may hand out accreditations to schools that do not meet high standards.
A fake accreditations may sound impressive, but they're one of the easiest red flags to recognize: All you have to do is check whether the school or program holds accreditation with an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Too Good to Be True
If a program appears too good to be true, trust your gut. Does the school offer tuition for pennies on the dollar when compared to other schools? Does the program claim students can earn a degree with little time or effort? Are the online requirements virtually non-existent compared to an on-campus version of the same degree?
Diploma mills promise to hand out degrees at a heavy discount with few requirements for anyone willing to pay the fee, but they don't help students advance their careers. Earning one of these overnight degrees can often hurt your professional trajectory.
The best online colleges use specialized learning management systems, like Blackboard or Canvas, to deliver content to their students. These systems provide a professional, easily navigable atmosphere in which to complete coursework. Schools that offer classes through informal web conferencing platforms or via YouTube links have not invested enough time or resources in their online programs and do not meet professional standards for online learning.
When researching schools, look up what learning management system the school uses, and then do a little research on that system. If it's legit, you're probably looking at a good school.
Lack of Qualified Faculty
Accredited institutions live and die by the quality of their faculty. Prospective students should research who teaches classes at any school they are considering to ensure that the professors and instructors there meet high academic standards.
For example, consider the number of faculty members who have terminal degrees in their field and the number of adjunct professors. Schools that rely on a high number of adjunct professors often do so because it is cheaper -- but not as good for students. Plus, it might be an indicator that they are cutting corners in other ways.
Low Graduation Rates
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public institutions report a 60% graduation rate in six years, while private nonprofit schools report a 66% graduation rate. Meanwhile, at private for-profit schools, only 21% of incoming students earn a bachelor's degree within six years. A low graduation rate like that indicates a school that does little to support its enrollees.
Excess or Upfront Fees
Some online schools charge excessive fees on top of tuition, including high technology costs, distance learning charges, or a graduation fee. While it is normal for schools to charge some fees on top of tuition, extremely high fees are a warning sign.
Similarly, schools that charge a lot of money up front rather than collecting tuition each term are probably not a good investment. These schools might be banking on students dropping out before the program is finished rather than investing in their success.
A pushy marketing strategy can also raise red flags. If a school constantly bombards visitors with pop-up ads or multiple emails per day offering discounts, that's a major warning sign. Similarly, if staff strongly pressure you to enroll immediately without doing more research, look elsewhere.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Should I Look for When Choosing an Online College?
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.
Is Online College Better Than Traditional College?
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.
Do Online Bachelor's Degrees Look Bad?
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.
Are Online College Classes Cheaper?
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.
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