14 Tips to Finding A Great Online Degree Program

All online degree programs are not created equal. The technology is still pretty new, and each delivers education in a slightly different way. Are you looking for an online degree program?

Your first step will be to find an online degree program in your desired major. That’s hardly the only step though. Here are some other important factors for you to consider.

1. The Credibility of Online Degree Programs

Online learning continues to become more popular and accessible. It’s no surprise then that there are now hundreds of options. One key measure of credibility is experience. You can check a school’s “About Us” page to learn how long a school has been offering online classes as one way to gauge their level of experience.

Accreditation is the second key ingredient in evaluating credibility. Accreditation ensures that a school meets a recognized set of educational standards. Degrees from an accredited school will be considered more valuable.

In an article for US News & World Report, Susan Aldridge – senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities – noted that state universities and private nonprofit universities earn desirable regional accreditation statuses. On the flip side, students at nationally accredited schools can encounter difficulties when they try to transfer credits to a regionally accredited institution. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institution Search is the best way to find out a school’s accreditation status.

DSST institution search, online degree programs, credit by exam

2. Career Resources

Career resources are incredibly important for distance learners and other nontraditional students; maybe even more so than for traditional students. Finding a school with an online degree program AND access to significant career resources can make all the difference in achieving your long-term goals.

Fortunately, many online degree programs serve particular fields and industries. As a result, their alumni networks in those fields are often very strong. That’s why it’s so important that you pick a degree program and an institution that is right for you.

3. Tech support

online degree programs, tech support

Tech issues seem to only and always arise at the worst possible times, like when the deadline to submit your final is approaching.

If you choose a school that only provides mediocre tech support to its students, you might be setting yourself up for frustration. The most popular online degree programs, such as University of Phoenix, provide students with 24/7 tech support that’s only ever a phone call away.

4. Tuition costs and fees

As with their traditional counterparts, your online tuition bill can vary widely. Some of the variance depends on your school and degree program. You also should be aware that many schools, although transparent in their pricing, structure their tuition into tiers, most often based on the number of credits you’re taking.

rising tuition costs, online degree program

Photo via New America Foundation

Fees are another factor that can vary widely from school to school. You might be faced with everything from graduation fees, to technology fees.

There are a handful of other fees to bear in mind, too. Technology costs might come up if, for instance, you would need to pay for WiFi access that you wouldn’t otherwise have. If you would need to upgrade your computer so that you can do coursework from home, that’s also a cost you should factor into your decision-making.

5. Feedback policies

professor feedback, online degree programs

Photo via University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business

The instructors at any school offering an online degree program will be available for office hours. However, there is little consistency between institutions when it comes to how much time they’re required to set aside for advising students. By email or in person, getting feedback from instructors and teaching assistants is a great way to improve your grades. For advice on getting instructor feedback as an online learner, check out point #6 in this post.

6. Class schedule

Finding a class schedule and course type that fits your life means you will be choosing between synchronous and asynchronous classes. Synchronous classes are taught in “real-time.” This means that even though it’s an online course, you will be expected to attend class at a specific time via live online chat.

On the other hand, asynchronous classes carry no schedule commitments. The trade-off is that you will have to meet discussion and assignment deadlines on your own in order to stay on track. Only you can determine which option is truly best for you.  

7. Courses offered

It seems counterintuitive, but just because a school offers the degree you want doesn’t mean that the courses themselves are a good fit for your long-term career goals. An online course catalog is a great place to start. If you can’t track down the catalog for a degree program you’re interested in, you can contact the school directly to request one.

8. Current student reviews and rankings

Reputation matters. You can decide whether you place more emphasis on student reviews or on value and ranking. Either way, there’s no shortage of online resources you can access to assess the reputation of a school you’re interested in.

9. Faculty

As at a traditional school, you absolutely should research the instructors of the courses you plan to take. Some questions you might want to ask: What kinds of relevant experience do they have? How long have they been teaching? Have they previously taught online classes?

10. Financial aid packages

It bears repeating: tuition and fees can vary by a lot. One way to take the bite out of those bills is to look high and low for scholarships and grants. If you're considering attending a community college, whether as an online student or in person, there are a lot of unique funding opportunities available.

In addition, in 2006, Congress lifted a requirement that stated a school must conduct more than 50% of its teaching in a classroom setting to be eligible for federal financial aid distributions. That’s been great news for students of all types, and now online students can begin the financial aid application process with the same FAFSA form that traditional students use.

Here are some great next steps to take once you’ve considered all of these factors. Each of these can help address certain concerns you might have about your top two or three choices.

1. Research credit transfer requirements

Applying credits you’ve already earned toward your online degree is a great way to keep costs down. Doing so will also shorten the time it will take you to graduate. However, every school has different credit transfer criteria. Don’t position yourself for an unfortunate surprise. Before you commit to a school, make sure you get an official transfer estimate from them.

2. Find out if you can earn life credits

life experience credits, online degree program

More and more schools are beginning to award credits to adults for work experience in their desired major or career field. Even if there’s a cap on the number of credits awarded – usually around 25% of the total required for your planned degree – it’s still well worth pursuing. The best first step is to contact a guidance counselor at the institution for help preparing the required information.

3. Take a demo online course

If you have the option and the time, a demo course can be a great way to assess whether a school is right for you. Completing a demo course will expose you to the technology that school uses, the teaching style, and the quality of the course itself.

4. Find out the strength of your preferred school’s alumni network

An alumni network can be invaluable (so valuable that we’ve listed it twice in this post!). There are a lot of ways to check the size of a school’s network. The simplest method is to search LinkedIn for alums, and to see if they’re in fields and positions you’d be interested in.

You can also engage with alums during your research process. They can be invaluable in answering any questions you might have about the quality of education, the job prospects you can expect upon graduation, and the type and depth of support that the institution provides to both current students and alumni.

alumni network, online degree programs

Selecting an online degree program is a big choice. It’s worth taking the time to get it right. Following the steps laid out above will help you make an informed decision. And don’t forget to consider any factors not discussed here that may be important to you. For instance, some schools are more accommodating of military veterans, others cater to working adults, and still others focus on providing students with the quickest path to a valuable degree.

No matter what choice you make, credits by exam can and should be a key component of an education plan that gets you to your dream career as quickly and affordably as possible. One last step to take is to research whether an online degree program accepts DSST credits by exam.

Have additional tips or advice for finding a great online degree program? Tell us in the comments!

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