Colleges online allow adult students to get a college degree. Even without going to in-person classes, they can become college graduates.
But applying to an online school also requires much consideration as applying to a traditional college.
Make sure that the online college is fully accredited. Check if you can afford the cost of attendance and see if the classes are flexible enough to fit into your everyday schedule.
Of course, determine whether or not the school has the degree program you need to meet your goal, be it to get a job promotion or for career advancement.
Looking for help in navigating the online college application process?
1. Check Online College for Legitimacy
Not all schools conferring online degrees are the same. Some award degrees that are worth something and thus accepted and respected by employers, while others hand out completely worthless degrees.
Before signing up for any online college, make sure that it’s legit.
If the online school is the virtual campus of an actual college or university such as Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Florida State University, UCLA, GIT and the University of Texas at Austin, then you can rest assured that it’s not a diploma mill — the online program you will pay and work hard for will result in a legitimate degree.
Also, note that many traditional colleges offer online options nowadays. For example, read our reviews of:
- University of Florida Online
- Penn State Global Campus
- Drexel Online
- Indiana University Online
- UCF Online
- ASU Online
- University of Massachusets Online
- Colorado State University Global Campus
- Oregon State University Ecampus
- Purdue Global
Figuring out whether or not the online college is accredited is a smart move, too.
In order to check for accreditation, all you have to do is count on Google.
But refrain from assuming that just because an online college claims to be accredited means that it’s 100% legit.
Many diploma mills out there claim to be peer-reviewed by an accrediting agency, but the accreditor turns out to be totally fabricated.
Obtain the name of the online college’s accreditor and check whether it’s recognized by the US Department of Education (USDE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
It’s a good idea, by the way, to enroll in an online college that’s regionally accredited. However, it’s also fine to attend one that’s nationally accredited as most schools on the web are.
2. Review Offered Programs
A lot of online colleges have physical campuses. While they offer both on-campus and online degree programs, it’s not all the time that their traditional offerings are also available via the internet.
Prior to enrolling in an online school, check that it offers the program or courses you want.
It’s a good thing that taking a look at the degree programs an online college offers is not that difficult — in many instances, the school’s website has a page devoted to them.
Also, it’s not uncommon for its degree programs to be grouped into associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs.
One of the reasons why many individuals prefer to attend online colleges rather than traditional ones is that they don’t have all the time in the world to work on a degree.
That is why you should also check how much time it will take for you to be able to complete the degree program of your liking at the online school you are eyeing.
If you are in a rush to become a degree holder, consider opting for an accelerated online degree program. Such can be completed faster, especially with enough transfer credits.
Besides degree programs, many online colleges offer non-degree programs, too.
Online certificate programs, for instance, are designed to provide knowledge or skills in specific subject areas. Many of them can be completed in a year or less.
Related Article: Top 12 Online Schools for Psychology
3. Examine College Admissions Process
In terms of admissions, you can be certain that different online colleges have different processes.
One of the most important things you need to research before placing an online school at the top of your college list is the set of admissions requirements.
Some online colleges require applicants to submit only a few documents, while others require applicants to get their hands on and provide a lot.
Many online colleges make it so very easy for first-time, first-year non-traditional students to apply. This is especially true for those with an open admissions policy.
It’s not uncommon for open admissions online schools to simply require a high school diploma or an equivalent.
For transferees or those who have already completed an associate or bachelor’s degree, the admissions process can be a tad more complicated.
That’s because it’s almost always for certain that the online colleges they are planning on applying to will require them to submit all kinds of documents.
Transferees, for instance, may be asked to provide an honorable dismissal.
At Hampton University Online, which is ranked #202 in National Universities by US News, for instance, transfer students applying for advanced standing must submit an honorable dismissal from their previous colleges.
The same is also a requirement for transferees at Lee University Online, which is based in Cleveland, Tennessee.
4. Verify Online Application Deadlines
Graduating high schoolers applying to their top-choice colleges and universities have to act fast in filling out applications and obtaining all kinds of support documents in order to beat application deadlines.
Early decision I, early decision II, early action, priority deadline, regular decision — there are lots of dates to remember!
It’s a good thing that many online colleges accept and review applications on a rolling basis.
So, in other words, they have a rolling admissions policy where they welcome applications all year round or until the next rolling admissions cycle if there are no more available classes to fill.
Some online schools offering rolling admissions include:
- Arizona State University
- Arkansas State University
- Bellevue University
- Benedictine University
- Clemson University
- Colorado State University Global
- Creighton University
- Everest College
- Florida Institute of Technology
- Grand Canyon University
- Indiana University
- Iowa State University
- Kean University
- Loyola University – Chicago
- Michigan State University
- Northeastern University
- Pacific University
- Penn State World Campus
- Purdue University Global
- Texas A&M University
- University at Buffalo
- University of Maryland Global Campus
- Western Governors University
If the online school at the top of your college list has an open admissions policy, it’s a good idea to apply ASAP.
This is especially true if it has a priority deadline, which can increase your admissions chances and odds of having the best possible schedule (if classes are synchronous) and financial aid awards.
Applying priority deadline is also recommended if the online degree you want is a competitive one.
5. Calculate Tuition and Other Costs
A handful of reasons exist why some degree-seeking individuals attend online colleges rather than traditional ones. One of those is that, generally speaking, earning a degree online is cheaper than in the customary fashion.
Based on data from the Education Data Initiative, an online degree program offered by four-year public colleges or universities, on average, is cheaper in tuition and fees by $10,776 than a traditional counterpart.
On the other hand, it can be up to nearly 50% less at four-year private non-profit institutions.
One of the main reasons why online schools offer online programs cheaper is the lower overhead costs.
Then there’s also the fact that working on a degree through the internet eliminates all kinds of expenses associated with attending a college. They include room and board, transportation and, in many instances, textbooks and supplies.
Different online colleges charge their students differently.
For instance, although it’s true that the vast majority charge per credit hour, some charge more for those who apply part-time — students who take less than 12 credits a semester.
But then there are also those where both part-time and full-time students pay the same rates.
And then there are also public online schools that charge in-state and out-of-state students differently.
So, in short, it’s a must that you carefully check out an online college’s tuition and fees page and do the math before you decide to apply to it, especially if you are on a tight budget.
6. Research Financial Aid
Earlier, it was mentioned that you must check whether or not an online college is accredited. This is important not only to establish legitimacy but also to make sure it is eligible for financial aid.
And, generally speaking, regionally accredited schools operating online have easier access to financial aid.
Even though it’s true that an online degree is typically cheaper than an on-campus degree, it’s still possible to bring down the costs further by applying for financial aid, which usually starts by filling out the FAFSA form.
However, it’s a must to note that part-time students generally receive less aid than full-time ones.
There are some online colleges that offer all kinds of financial assistance for various types of students, so make sure that you check which ones are available at your top-choice institution.
At the University of Maryland Global (UMGC), for instance, you can receive financial aid if you take a course at another school and then transfer the course as well as credits earned back to UMGC.
Such is made possible through what’s referred to as a Consortium Agreement between UMGC and a partner school.
UMGC also offers a Completion Scholarship, which is for students who wish to turn their associate degree from a Maryland community college into a bachelor’s degree for $12,000 or less.
7. Determine the Number of Credits Needed
Speaking of turning an associate degree into a bachelor’s degree, students who have already completed a degree program or earned some credits from their previous schools can save not only time but also money if they enroll in online schools accepting as many transfer credits as they possibly can.
If you are a transferee with a fully completed or partial associate or even bachelor’s degree, the importance of checking how many credits an online college will accept cannot be stressed enough.
Many online colleges follow the 90/30 rule when it comes to accepting credits.
Simply put, it means that they will accept up to 90 previously earned credits and transfer students will have to complete 30 more credits at them in order to earn all 120 credits that comprise an online bachelor’s degree.
But some colleges will accept only up to 60 transfer credits, requiring online students to complete 60 more credits at them.
So, when building a college list, it’s a good idea to consider adding in it those that are known to be transfer credit-friendly in order for you to be able to get your hands on a degree quickly and cheaply.
Here are some online colleges that are known to have generous credit transfer policies:
- Colorado Technical University
- Excelsior College
- Florida International University
- Grand Canyon University
- Liberty University
- Post University
- Purdue University Global
- Southern New Hampshire University
- Strayer University
- Walden University
- Western Governors University
But please take note that it’s not uncommon for most online colleges to accept transfer credits only if they’re from classes with a particular grade, usually a minimum of 2.0, and the courses are similar in terms of content and scope.
Needless to say, you should carefully read the fine print in order to avoid unnecessary frustrations.
8. Check Types of Classes Available
One of the various things that make attending online colleges perfect for non-traditional students with hectic everyday professional or personal timetables is that they offer flexible schedules.
Without having to step foot inside physical classrooms all the time, working adults, parents and other non-traditional students can work on their respective online degree programs.
Thanks to online education, it can be so much easier to juggle work and family and other commitments for those who need some balance and order in their lives.
But, as expected, not all online classes are the same.
Prior to enrolling in an online college, see to it that there is a class type that will go very well with your needs and preference. Otherwise, you might find yourself dropping out of online school in no time.
Some online classes are synchronous, which means that you will have to attend virtual real-time classes together with your classmates and instructors.
Typically, synchronous classes are held in the evenings for the benefit of online students who are working full-time. Also, in most instances, they take place once a week only.
But then there are also asynchronous classes where you can go online at a time you find convenient to watch pre-recorded lectures and carry out assignments and projects.
However, at many online schools where classes are the asynchronous kind, students have to beat deadlines. This is especially true if the degree program has to be completed within a set timeframe.
And speaking of which, some online degree programs are not 100% online. For instance, majors with lab components, such as biology, nursing and engineering, will require online students to attend in-person classes from time to time. In this case, choosing an online school with a satellite campus near you is a smart move.
9. Assess Available Student Support
Just because you are an online student doesn’t mean that you have to be alone in your academic journey.
As a student at an online college, chances are that you will encounter all kinds of problems, from coursework to synchronous class schedules and from logging in to your online account to submitting an assignment.
This is when the importance of the presence of superb student support comes in.
Before you fill out that application form, check the kind of support the online college has in store — the presence of one that you will be able to count on each time can make online learning go smoother.
For instance, at Arizona State University Online, there is a 24/7 help center with live chat available for students who encounter problems when they least expect it.
The online school also provides its online students access to counseling and personal care services.
When applying to traditional colleges and universities, many graduating high schoolers also consider things such as the number of students per class and the student-to-faculty ratio.
Many online schools indicate how many instructors are available — the more are around, the better your chances of getting personalized learning and attention.
But just because an online college doesn’t seem to have reliable student support doesn’t mean right away that you should cross its name out of its list. If it has the kind of online degree program you want exactly and offers the most flexible schedule you can find in cyberspace, you may still push through with your plan to attend it.
However, when online learning-related problems come into being, chances are that you will be on your own or it may take a long time before you hear back on your query or cry for help.
10. Compare Online Colleges
Don’t just research about one online college and enroll in it as soon as you feel that it’s a good learning institution. Although it’s completely fine to attend a good online school, it’s totally great to be a student at the best.
Because of this, it’s a must that you check out several different ones and compare them with each other.
US News says that degree-seeking students should have anywhere from four to eight schools on their college list.
Even if you are a non-traditional student, it’s a good idea to follow suit in order for you to be able to find an online school that perfectly suits your academic and career goals in all aspects.
Comparing different online colleges allows you to find which one offers the best degree program, admissions plan and process, cost of attendance, financial aid award, credit transfer policy and student support.
It’s a good thing that many online colleges, as mentioned earlier, have a rolling admissions policy — you have plenty of time to compare and make up your mind since there are no hard application deadlines to beat.
But this is not an excuse to procrastinate since time waits for no one and many superb online schools have priority deadlines!
How to Enroll in an Online College: Summary
Generally speaking, an online degree is cheaper and more convenient to earn than an on-campus counterpart. However, choosing an online college should be taken just as seriously as when applying to a traditional one.
Above, we talked about the steps on how to enroll in an online college.
It’s also a good idea to check out reviews online, although you should take everything with a grain of salt and trust your research skills and instinct more.
You may also consider getting in touch with the online school on your list and ask an admissions officer or advisor some of your most pressing questions.
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.