Consider These 11 Factors When Choosing an Online College

Earning a college degree online is more convenient and accessible for some people than earning it in the traditional way. Besides figuring out which online degree you want, it’s also important that you pick the right online college. Because of the many factors to consider, choosing the right online college for you can be easier said than done.

When choosing a good online college pick the one with the right accreditation, experience, and specialization. Transfer and life credits are helpful for students with prior college and work experience. Also, check rankings, such as the U.S. News Best Colleges report to compare the schools and majors.

Continue reading if you are in the process of looking for an online college to apply to.

Here are the characteristics of a good online college:

checklist
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Experience Providing Online Education

Since experience is considered the best teacher, it’s generally a wonderful idea to choose from among today’s online colleges with the most experience. This is why one of the things you should look for when researching an online school is the year when it came into being.

Online learning is a form of distance learning, and distance learning has been around since the late 1800s.

Back then, distance learning was conducted purely via mail. Thanks to the dawn of the internet, distance learning has undergone a facelift in the late 1990s.

It’s because of this why you may come across online colleges that have been around for hundreds of years already. For instance, the College of William & Mary, located in Williamsburg, Virginia, was founded way back in 1693. Of course, back then it didn’t offer distance learning, by mail or the internet alike.

There are a couple of things about an online college operating for a while now that make it reliable:

  • Experience. Offering education, especially online, for years already allows a school to figure out which works and which does not, thus allowing it to offer the best kind of online education.
  • Stability. If an online school established many years ago were a sham, it would have stopped operating by now because everyone would have discovered the fact that it’s not a legit institution.

However, it doesn’t mean right away that the older the school, the better. Besides the founding date, you will still need to consider other things, such as the ones we will talk about below.

Regional or National Accreditation

The US Department of Education once said that accreditation aims to confirm that education provided by colleges and universities meets or even surpasses acceptable levels of quality.

It’s due to this why checking that the online college you are about to apply to is accredited is a must.

When researching a school’s accreditation, you will come across two accreditation types: national and regional. Both of them are provided respectively by national and regional accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the US Department of Education itself.

Generally speaking, going to an online college that’s regionally accredited is a better idea than attending one that’s nationally accredited, and it’s because of a few reasons:

  • Its accreditation is considered the more prestigious and widely recognized type.
  • It accepts credits from both regionally and nationally accredited schools.
  • It’s more selective during the admission process, allowing it to meet a certain level of standard.

But just because an online college says it’s accredited doesn’t mean that it’s accredited the right way. For instance, many diploma mills claim to be accredited. However, upon closer inspection, the accrediting bodies that gave them accreditation are bogus — they are not recognized.

Here’s a list of the seven legit regional accrediting bodies in the US:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

Examples of schools with regional accreditation: UMGC and University of Phoenix.

Above Average Rankings

Many students (and parents, too) who are on the hunt for good schools often turn to college and university rankings. It doesn’t come as a surprise since it allows them to quickly and easily have an idea of where the schools on their list are at when compared to others.

College and university rankings, as the name suggests, are rankings of higher education institutions that have been ranked based on a combination of different factors.

For instance, the US News and World Report, which is a US-based media company that publishes rankings of various colleges and universities in the country and reaches over 40 million people a month, used a total of 17 different indicators of academic quality in coming up with its Best College Rankings for 2021.

Here are the criteria used by US News and World Report ranking schools recently:

  • Alumni giving rate average
  • Class size
  • Faculty salaries
  • Faculty with a doctorate or terminal degrees
  • Financial resources
  • Expert opinion
  • First-year student retention average
  • Graduate indebtedness total
  • Graduate indebtedness proportion with debt
  • Graduation rate average
  • Graduation rate performance
  • High school class standing
  • Pell Grant graduation rates
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance
  • The proportion of full-time faculty
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Student-faculty ratio

But before you apply to an online college because it’s a high-ranker on a ranking list, there’s one very important matter you need to know about college and university rankings: they are subjective. That’s because they use different indicators of academic quality when ranking schools.

It’s due to this why an online college may rank high on one ranking list and rank low on another.

The Number of Courses and Majors Offered

Obviously, one of the most crucial things you need to check before applying to an online college is the availability of the course you would like to take, which is key to reaping the career of your dreams.

Remember to read the course catalog carefully. If it’s not available online, don’t be too shy to get in touch with the school and request a copy of it. Checking out the course catalog is of utmost importance. It will let you know about the objectives, goals, level of difficulty, materials needed, time requirements, and many others.

It’s not enough that the online school offers the course you want. It’s also important that it’s known for that course.

Are you dreaming of becoming an accountant one day? It’s a wonderful idea to apply to an online school known to offer the best bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Some of them are:

  • Keiser University
  • Southwestern College
  • Thomas Edison State University
  • Maryville University of Saint Louis
  • Bay Path University
  • Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College
  • Eastern New Mexico University

And if, for instance, you want nothing but the best bachelor’s degree in information technology, earn it from one of the country’s online schools known to specialize in it.

Some common examples include:

  • Florida International University
  • Columbus State University
  • North Carolina A&T State University
  • CSU Global
  • New Mexico State University
  • California Baptist University
  • Santa Fe College

Different online schools are known very well for some of their degrees. It’s a great idea to earn the degree you want from a college or university specializing in it to make sure that your future employer will be impressed.

Acceptance of Transfer Credits From Other Schools

The majority of students attending online schools have attended other colleges and universities, online and traditional alike, beforehand.

If you are one of them, you need to ensure one very important matter before you apply to an online school. And it’s none other than whether it will allow the transfer of credits you earned earlier.

Whether you seek a master’s degree or have an associate degree but would like to take it to the next level by getting a bachelor’s degree, it’s of utmost importance for the online school to accept credits from your previous school.

Otherwise, you will have to retake them, which can take up precious time and money.

This is when the importance of choosing regionally accredited schools comes in.

Whether online or physical, regionally accredited schools are more likely to accept credits earned from other regionally accredited institutions. Of course, it would help a lot if the very first college or university that you went to has regional accreditation.

Before sending your application to an online school, check that it’s regionally accredited. It’s not only to make sure that the school is legit but also to check that it will accept your previously earned credits.

Acceptance of Life Credits

It’s not just credits you earned inside a classroom, virtual or physical alike, that an online college may accept. It may also accept credits you earned from living and learning from it, too.

These days, more and more colleges and universities, including online ones, are giving out credits to adults who have related experience or knowledge in their intended major.

It’s due to this why the majority of schools accepting life credits are those that tend to attract working adults who would like to earn a degree, such as online colleges.

What’s really nice about life credits is that it’s possible to earn an entire degree based solely on them. In other words, the more life and work experience an applicant has, the less time he or she has to spend studying — and also the less amount of money to shell out to get his or her hands on a college diploma.

However, there’s a catch: getting a full degree based on life credits alone is extremely rare.

That’s because most colleges and universities, in particular regionally accredited ones that accept credits from regionally and nationally accredited schools alike, tend to limit the number of life credits to 30 only per academic year.

Below are some of the most common ways to get life credits toward a college degree:

  • Proving your competency by taking a test.
  • Creating a portfolio that documents your work.
  • Having awards, credentials, and professional licenses.
  • Providing references from co-workers or people familiar with your work.
  • Having military training and experience.
  • Undergoing competency-based education.
  • Going through corporate training or various seminars.

Asynchronous Learning and Hybrid Classes

Not all online classes are the same.

Some of them take place virtually alright, but all of the students should be logged in on the internet at the same time to participate in discussions and other activities that would normally take place in a physical classroom. So, in other words, these online classes happen at predetermined times.

Then there are also online classes that happen only when you are available to sit in front of your laptop. It’s what’s referred to as asynchronous learning, and it’s perfect for working adults with hectic and unpredictable schedules.

What’s so nice about asynchronous learning is that you get to earn your degree at your chosen pace.

If you are not in a rush, you will find this type of online class to be extremely flexible and convenient.

It doesn’t come as a surprise since you can read materials, watch videos, consult professors and participate in real-time discussions only whenever you are available or can focus on your studies the best.

Another wonderful thing about going to an online college with asynchronous learning is that you can get your degree as fast as you want, unlike in a traditional setting or non-asynchronous learning approach where all the students earn their college degrees at the same time, which can take anywhere from two to four long years.

With asynchronous learning, you can earn an associate and even a bachelor’s degree in just one year!

Technical and Student Support Availability

Refrain from assuming that you are completely on your own when earning a degree via the web. Many online schools offer student support, just like traditional colleges and universities, albeit facilitated digitally.

No matter if you are technology-challenged or your brain isn’t working like a well-oiled machine all the time, check that the online college you are about to apply to offers support. You can do this by talking with the admissions counsellor of the school or checking out student reviews in cyberspace.

Ensure that the following types of support are available from the online college:

  • Technical support. A lot of things could go wrong when using a computer that’s hooked up to the internet. Whenever you cannot seem to submit a report before the deadline or participate in a real-time class discussion, the availability of technical support on a 24/7 basis can be highly beneficial.
  • Student support. College classes are more difficult than high school classes. Period. Luckily, most online colleges have student support services that help make it easier for the students to earn their degrees, especially those who are accustomed to traditional learning and having a hard time adjusting.

Before you enroll, see to it that the school has accessible technical and student support services, especially when you need a helping hand technology- or academic-wise.

High Graduation Rate

When looking for colleges and universities to apply to, one of the things that many students check out is the acceptance rate. Schools with high acceptance rates are not selective, which increases the chances of students, including especially those with low GPA and SAT or ACT scores, of getting admitted into them.

Instead of the acceptance rate, it’s a much better idea to take a look at the graduation rate.

Put simply, the graduation rate refers to the time in which a student enters a school and then completes a two- or four-year degree. You can use a school’s graduation rate in gauging its quality.

A low graduation rate can speak volumes about an online school. Suppose the number, which is usually expressed in percentage, is simply too low compared to the graduation rates of other schools.

In that case, it should leave you wondering why not many students who applied to the school ended up earning their college degrees from it.

Here are some of the possible reasons for an online school’s low graduation rate:

  • The students are unhappy with the experience of learning online.
  • The students are not satisfied with the faculty and staff.
  • The students do not obtain the academic support they need to graduate.
  • The students are unable to pay the fees.

As a general rule of thumb, a graduation rate of 70% to 90% is a good number.

Affordable Cost of Attendance

Earning a bachelor’s degree online can cost anywhere from $38,496 to $60,593 in total. So, in other words, it doesn’t come cheap.

In some instances, going to an online college is more expensive than going to a traditional school.

It’s because of this why you should opt for an online college that you can afford.

When comparing different schools, don’t just look at the sticker price, which is what you will find on the websites and brochures of schools. You should also consider the net price, which is the price for tuition and other fees minus aids, grants, and scholarships.

Speaking of which, earlier, we talked about the importance of choosing a regionally accredited school.

Here’s one more reason why you should apply to an online school with regional accreditation: most of the time, the presence of regional accreditation is a telltale sign that the college or university participates in financial aid programs that can help make the cost of getting an online degree easier on the pocket.

While checking the school’s accreditation, it’s also a good idea to take a look at the availability of merit- and need-based scholarships, especially if you are on a budget.

Here are some of the cheapest online colleges in the US and the net price of attendance for one academic year:

  • Palm Beach State College: $3,064
  • St Petersburg College: $3,477
  • California State University – Los Angeles: $4,403
  • Eastern Florida State College : $4,408
  • Dalton State College: $6,484
  • University of Florida: $11,313
  • Arkansas Tech University: $11,674
  • Indiana University-Bloomington: $11,931
  • The University of Texas at Austin: $14,156

Student Feedback on Online Forums

Earlier, we discussed college and university rankings.

If you feel that they cannot help you make the right choice since every ranking uses a different set of criteria anyway, you may consider looking at student reviews instead. This will allow you to have some sort of firsthand experience with going to a school without actually attending it.

Refrain from making a decision based solely on student reviews on the online school’s website itself.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that reviews posted on the website of a college or university are carefully chosen and even edited to make the school appealing to applicants.

The good news is that there are many sites on the internet where you can read school reviews coming from actual students themselves. You don’t have to stay up all night to read all of them. Only read a handful of positive and negative reviews to have a general idea of what the students think about their alma mater.

Still, you should take things with a grain of salt — some of them may just want to get back at their schools!

Earlier, we also talked about accreditation and why it’s a wonderful idea to opt for a school that’s regionally accredited. Well, there is another accreditation that you may look for when on the hunt for an online college school you can trust. It’s none other than accreditation by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

When searching for reviews of online schools on the BBB’s website, you can choose to take a look only at colleges and universities with BBB accreditation.

Just Before You Apply to an Online College

Refrain from assuming that all online colleges are the same because all of them enable you to earn a college degree without stepping foot outside your home.

One online college is different from the other in terms of many things. They range anywhere from experience, accreditation, courses offered and specialization. They also differ from one another in terms of cost of attendance, transfer credits accepted, support provided, grants and scholarships offered, graduation rate, and rankings and reviews.

Before you submit your application to an online college, ensure that you have spent enough time reading its course catalog, breakdown of expenses, student feedback and others that can help you choose a school well.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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