How to Choose an Online College

We’re a big advocate of online learning, realizing that for many adults getting to a brick and mortar campus building isn’t first choice for them. Balancing work, family and personal responsibilities leaves little time for pursuing a degree, something that is made all the more difficult if prospective students need to slog to class one to three times each week.

But, obtaining that elusive degree is a must for many working professionals. After all, if you want to move up at work you may need to demonstrate that you’ve made an investment in advancing your education. One way to do that is to take classes online and on your own schedule.

Online learning has been around for many years and has gotten a lot of attention due mostly to the influence of one school — the University of Phoenix. This school, which has been offering online classes since the 1980s, has hundreds of thousands of students enrolled. Hundreds of other schools also provide distant learning instruction, creating a valuable option for students.

Before you sign up for classes you’ll want to keep some things in mind. Not every school should be on your short list of possible places to study and we’ll give you some reasons why if you read on.

Accreditation — This is a biggie when considering any online school. Yes, virtually every school claims accreditation, but not all accrediting agencies are on par with those recognized by academia. For example, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) sounds legitimate and it is, but does it carry the same weight as regionally accreditation awarded to colleges and universities who meet certain academic criteria?

Among the regional entities are the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, among others. Oh, by the way, the U.S. Department of Education does recognize the ACCSC in addition to several national and regional accrediting bodies.

Courses — Lots of schools offer a wide variety of courses, but do these courses meet your personal requirements? Take the time to evaluate each class – that information should be available online. Compare classes offered at College A with College B (and so on) to see how each one stacks up. Similar names may mean entirely different courses.

Contact — Colleges and universities offering online education options should also be readily accessible to prospective students. But be careful – the so-called “adviser” may be getting paid to steer you to their school and to specific classes. Ask your contact if they are receiving a commission. If possible, meet face-to-face with a school representative. You’ll also want access to a faculty adviser after you enroll – what sort of help does the school promise?

References — Knowing someone already enrolled in a particular school is helpful. If you don’t know someone, ask for references. Visit message boards, forums and blogs visited or managed by students already enrolled. It isn’t hard to uncover information online by googling for help. Read student comments carefully, but also be prepared to separate the whiny complaints from the legitimate gripes.

Enroll — Now, for the tricky part. Enrolling should be fairly easy, but you may need to submit references, test scores, an essay and other materials just as you would if you were attending college for the first time as a young freshmen. Follow the college’s enrollment layout precisely. And, ask if your credits can be transferred to another institution. Be mindful of application fees, tuition costs, semester fees and graduation and other fees. Some of those costs may not be reimburseable from your employer while others may be waived if you ask.

Lastly, apply for scholarships to defray some of your costs. Online learners are eligible to apply for most scholarships.

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