With the fast-paced ever-evolving lives we lead, it’s becoming harder and in some instances less desirable to sit down and dedicate 2-4 years of your life to earning a college degree in a traditional campus setting.
With the continued maturation of online college programs, there’s never been a better time to jump in and start earning your degree on your terms.
What should you look for when trying to find the best online college programs? There are three main factors to consider: accreditation, a proven track record, and affordability.
Let’s dig into each of these a bit further.
In order for your degree to be taken seriously after you graduate, you must find an accredited school. This ensures that some basic levels of quality and outcomes are being maintained.
Unfortunately, the mere presence of an accreditation alone is not enough to ensure quality. Accrediting agencies do not always uphold their standards, and in rare circumstances can be stripped of their authority. This happened recently with the agency known as ACICS.
So what to look for?
As a general rule, regionally accreditation is better than national accreditation. Regionally accredited schools have to meet stricter standards and are generally more receptive of accepting credits from each other. A regionally accredited school, however, may not accept credits from a nationally accredited school.
In addition, some fields require a specialized accreditation. These include degrees in health, law, veterinary science, and some other subjects. It is VERY important to find out what types of accreditation are required for the specific program you are interested in. If you sign up for an online program in nursing but your school isn’t accredited by the appropriate agencies, you will not be able to get a job in your chosen field without additional schooling.
Proven Track Record
Does your online college have a proven track record for success in your program? Find out what the graduation rates are and perhaps more importantly, what the employment rates are after graduation. If the graduation rate is exceptionally low, you may want to ask why the rates are so low or consider a different college.
Be up front when talking to colleges about your prospects after graduation. Ask about how well the program is respected out in the working field. Some schools are well-known in specific areas, but not in others. Just because the school has an excellent nursing program, for example, doesn't mean their engineering program is any good. Check around to see whether the graduates of the specific program are doing well in their fields.
Note that some fields require internships or time spent in the field. This is very typical in medical subjects such as nursing. If the online program does not include field hours it may not be considered credible by the majority of employers.
Ask about what type of career services are provided. Will the college help you both short and long term after graduation? Do they help you with finding a job? If the college doesn’t discuss in detail the support you’ll receive after graduation this could be a red flag.
One of the biggest misconceptions about online colleges is that they are cheaper than traditional colleges. Some online programs are cheaper, but some are not. Find out what financial aid is available to you that can make it affordable, and don't sacrifice quality for lower prices as this backfires in the long run.
It's safest to choose a school that accepts federal financial aid. Not only will this help you pay for school, it also ensures that they pass some sort of quality bar enforced by the government.
Make sure you realistically plan out how long it will take you to complete your degree. Most online students take longer than the standard four years. Is the tuition still affordable when you consider your degree may take you 5-6 years or longer to complete?
Other Criteria to Consider
One of the biggest advantages of attending online college is the flexibility it can give you in terms of scheduling and attendance. Make sure the options the college gives you work with your schedule, including instruction times and that the overall length of the program works with your plans for graduation.
See if any credits you have earned previously can transfer to the online school. This can give you a head-start to earning your degree. See if the school accepts credit for classes taken on the job or in the military.
If you think you may transfer at some point in the future look into how easily your credits earned at this school will transfer to another school.
It may benefit you to attend an online school that also has a physical campus. These tend to be looked on more favorably by potential employers. However, this perception may change as online instruction becomes more widely adopted and programs mature.
Looking for colleges with flexible options for non-traditional students? You should look at these rankings for Returning Adults.