Learn the Quality, Pros, Cons & Costs of an Online Education
Choose an Online College
Earning a degree from an online college is one of the best ways to get the education needed to land your dream job, but where do you start? How do you know where to apply, what to look for, and if the college is even trustworthy? This guide covers seven steps you must take before enrolling in an online college, but first let's define what qualifies as an online college.
An online college is an institution that provides accredited education remotely. This can be an extension of a brick-and-mortar college (the vast majority of on-campus schools offer online courses), or a college based 100% online. Online schools offer the same degree options (typically) that on-campus colleges offer, from associate's up to Ph.D., as well as trade certifications.
If you are looking for a flexible way to earn a degree, consider pursuing a degree at an online college. The online option might be the best choice for earning a degree while working full time. This guide will walk you through what to consider before enrolling and will help you decide if getting your degree online is the best fit for your situation.
Step 1 - Is Online College Right For You?
I can set aside time each week for my online coursework (at a minimum of 10 hours per week, or more, depending on the coursework)
I am self-motivated. I find it easy to complete tasks on my own and avoid distractions
I find it easy to learn by reading, such as learning from a book
I typically complete tasks on-time or early
I feel comfortable communicating through e-mail, including sending or opening an email attachment
I am willing to discuss issues and ask questions in an open forum
I feel comfortable connecting to website URL's and performing a basic online search using a search engine
I have a computer running Windows, Mac OSX or Unix/Linux. My computer has no problems running a web browser and playing online videos
I have a broadband internet connection (cable or DSL)
I want the freedom to choose when I am able to study and when I attend class
Step 2 - Choose a Career and a Major
To get started, just like with a traditional college, you will want to narrow your focus by choosing a career and then a major. This is important because it sets the foundation for all your choices moving forward.
Choose a Career
If you are new to the workplace, or if you are looking to change careers, picking the right career starts knowing what you are passionate about. One of the best ways to find this out is by writing out a list of things you will still enjoy doing if money was no object. Pretend you have $10 million in the bank: What interests would you pursue?
At this point you should now have a few ideas about what you enjoy doing, you just need to pair those with a career that relates. Start by searching through the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) site for the fastest-growing careers. You can drill down into the details of each career, including what the median annual salary is, the entry-level education required, the number of jobs in that field, and the job growth outlook. It will also give you details of what is involved in that career day-to-day, what the work environment is like, and how to qualify for the job. If the top growing careers list does not have one that fits your requirements, you can search through the entire list of occupations.
Once you have a short list of careers you would like to pursue, you'll want to put them in order from highest priority to lowest. This will help you when making the decision on which major to pursue.
Choose a Major
Once you have narrowed your list and have your top career choices, it's time to look at choosing a major. This is where your data from the earlier exercise comes in. Take your top career choices, look for the BLS section labeled "How To Become a _____", and click through for more details. This will give you the exact degree and field required to qualify for the position. For example, to become a Nurse Practitioner, the requirements state "must earn a master's degree from an accredited program" and "must also be licensed registered nurse in their state and pass a national certification exam."
Your major may be broad enough to capture a few of your top choices, but ensure it works best for your top career choice. See the Resources below for more places to search for career information.
Step 3 - Learn if Your Major Is Offered Online
Now that you've picked your major, you will need to find if it is offered online. Though many careers can be taught through an online college, there are still those that require a real-life classroom and in-person learning. For example, if you want to be a diesel mechanic, medical doctor, or chemist, it's unlikely you will find a program to learn these hands-on areas of study online.
If the major you chose is online, you should be able to search and find it through an online search. Once you see what schools are coming up in your search results, you can visit the school websites to ensure they offer your major online and that they are accredited.
This gives you a great overall idea of what options are available in your major as well as how competitive each school is. Select a few schools as your top candidates to find if they fit your needs.
Step 4 - Identify Your School Options
Ask some of the most essential questions to your future education (see below). Ultimately, you will have the ability to make a more informed decision about the online school that fits your personal, educational, and professional needs.
Do credits transfer?
For example, if you are thinking about enrolling in an online associate degree program and later hope to earn a bachelor's degree, how likely will your associate degree credits transfer? Ask about any existing credits you might have that you want to transfer to the program. And ask about their transfer "maximum" to ensure you can transfer all the credits you have earned.
Learn what you can about the faculty
- What degrees do they hold and from what institutions?
- What experience have they had "in the field"?
- How long have they been teaching?
- Have they had prior experience teaching online classes?
What is the average class size?
Ask about the average class size for your program. A smaller classroom allows for more instructor/student focus and can help facilitate success in the program.
How easy does a college make it for you to contact your instructor?
Ask specifically what technologies are in place to reach out to the instructor with questions (phone, online forum, email, etc.). Also, ask about the instructor's response time to inquiries. For example, if you submit a question, how soon will the instructor be required to respond? 24 hours? Two business days?
Is admission rolling (ongoing) or follow a set schedule?
- What are the dates for enrollment if on a schedule?
- If not on a schedule, what is the average time to complete each unit of study?
Are your candidate schools accredited by an organization approved by the Dept. of Education?
See the Dept. of Education Universities and Higher Education Accreditation page to learn if your school candidates are accredited by an approved organization.
How much is tuition?
- If tuition is shown as a cost per credit, how many credits are required to graduate?
- What is included in tuition? Books, lab fees, etc.?
- Are there discounts for enrolling as an in-state student?
- What are the payment plan options for paying tuition? Ensure you understand all the payment plan options.
- What is a realistic cost to complete a degree program?
What type of financial aid is available to qualified students of this school?
- What is the process for applying for financial aid? What are the deadlines for financial aid applications?
- What are the student loan default rates? (percentage of students who attended school and were unable to pay back student loans)
What percentage of graduates from this school find employment in their field of study?
- What is the average amount of time for job placement for graduates?
- What is the median salary for graduates after 10 years?
How often is the curriculum of each major reviewed for effectiveness and real-world application?
Your candidate schools should disclose how often the curriculum is reviewed. Look for some type of advisor committee made of up of industry practitioners that review the program periodically.
Step 5 - Project How Long it Will Take to Complete Your Degree
When planning your schedule to pursue your degree, you will want to ensure you have a realistic timeline for how long it may take to complete your program. When interviewing the school, ask them how long, on average, students take to complete the program you are applying for. Also ask how much time, per week, is required to complete all program coursework. This will give you a realistic timeline to work from, and help set expectations when comparing online schools.
Many online schools offer "accelerated degrees" programs, which allow you to take additional courses to earn your degree in less time. For example, a typical bachelor's degree program at a traditional campus will take you four or five years to complete on average. But taking an accelerated degree program online will give you the option to complete your bachelor's degree in three years or less.
Online schools are all about flexibility, and offer programs to fit your lifestyle. How long it takes to get your degree is commensurate with the amount of time you are able to put into the program. Be sure to ask about all program options so that you can fit your degree into your existing lifestyle.
Step 6 - Tally the Cost of an Online Education
Pursuing a college degree online has the advantage of saving students significant money by eliminating the costs of campus transportation, fuel costs, campus housing, and meal plans. However, tuition costs may not vary much compared to the tuition cost of attending a brick-and-mortar college.
When looking at school options, be aware that a public institution will cost much less than a private institution (both non-profit and for-profit). Also, attending a college in-state can still be much cheaper than an out-of-state college, even though you will be attending all classes online.
As you look at the costs of attending, be sure to understand all costs associated with the program you choose, not just the tuition. Additional costs can include the below:
Some schools give you a better rate when enrolling for more credit hours per term. Enrolling in only one or two credit hours per term may cost you more.
Almost all schools required a "technology fee" when enrolling in online courses; some even make you pay the fee per course.
Some courses require an assessment fee used for placement exams. These exams are used to put students in the proper course level.
When totaling the costs, note that a higher price does not necessarily guarantee high quality. The most important thing is to find a degree and school that fits your needs and will help you in your future career.
Cost of Online vs. On-Campus Schools
Public Annual Tuition
Private Annual Tuition
Two-Year Degree at Brick-and-Mortar College
Community colleges and trade schools offer a significant value compared to four-year institutions. Sometimes saving as much at 50% in tuition costs
Four-Year Degree at Brick-and-Mortar College
Though the tuition cost per credit is lower, brick-and-mortar colleges can cost significantly more when factoring in books, lab costs, cafeteria plans, and campus housing.
Four-Year Online Degree
On average, an online degree from an in-state public school racks up considerably more in fees than one from a brick-and-mortar college.
Step 7 - Determine How You Will Pay For an Online Degree
When looking to finance your online education, you have virtually all of the same options as you would attending a brick-and-mortar college. Of first importance is to fill out your FAFSA Application to qualify for financial aid. This form is used to determine the amount a family is expected to pay toward the cost of a post-secondary education. The results from the FAFSA are used to determine the amounts for student grants as well as work-study and student loans. It is critical that the FAFSA is filled out accurately and on time for the best results and access to the financial aid you need.
Once you have filled out and submitted the FAFSA, and have received a response, you will have a good idea of how much you will need to borrow for your online school. The next step is to reduce your borrowing costs by applying for as many scholarships as possible! Your best bet is to use the U.S. Department of Labor's scholarship search tool. Make it your part-time job to find and fill out at least one application per week. This can net you thousands of dollars in financial aid, lowering your student loan burden and setting yourself up for success. Note: You must fill out the FAFSA application each year you wish to continue receiving financial aid.
To find online colleges that offer the best financial aid packages, you can search using the tool on the MoneyGeek.com Financial Aid for Online Colleges page. This will give you an idea of which institutions offer the financial aid you are looking for. Also on that page is a list of student loan types, including student requirements, maximum loan amounts, and average interest rates. Study this table, as your last piece to the financial aid puzzle is ensuring you understand all the terms and conditions of your student loans.
A quick note on private student loans. Private student loans are available once all public funding is exercised. These loans typically have fewer protections and less flexibility than other loans, and you should use this option very carefully. Lenders use your credit score to determine interest rates, and interest rates are typically higher than federal student loans. Be sure to ask all private lenders about their repayment options and postponement or forgiveness options because it is likely you will need them.
Learn More About Choosing a College
Here are a few additional resources to study when looking to apply for your online degree.
Finding a College or Career School
Dept. of Education web page that focuses on the Dept. of Education's College Navigator, a tool designed to help potential students find on-campus schools.
VA Choosing a School
Factors veterans and their dependents should use when choosing a program that complies with the GI Bill®.
Dept. of Education College Scorecard
An online search tool that focuses on on-campus schools. The tool reinforces the idea that students should look critically at schools, and weigh their options using objective measures.
Dept. of Education's free financial aid calculator that gives you an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid.
State and Local Departments of Education Contacts
Contact information for state departments of education, including adult ed, arts, child care, higher ed, humanities, libraries, PTA, special ed, tech-prep, vocational rehabilitation, vocational-technical, or other education office in each US state.
GI Bill is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site.
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