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How to Choose an Online College

Sep 17, 2015

Q: I'm looking to transition my career and have my mind set on returning to school. I've applied and been accepted to two online colleges, but now I'm not sure which school I should choose. Can you offer some advice on choosing an online college?

How exciting! Congratulations on making your decision to go back to school! Selecting a college is a very personal, important decision. I do have some advice that might help you to make that decision. I suggest you make a sort of spreadsheet, with each of the two schools heading up its own column and a checklist with the following criteria:

Accreditation:

  • Not all schools are accredited equally. One may be regionally accredited and another nationally. Many online colleges aren't accredited at all, which can put your degree at stake. Some say they're accredited by certain entities that aren't legitimate. The bottom line is, perform due diligence when picking a college. Consult the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator for detailed information about any school, including its accreditation.

Degree Alignment:

  • By this I mean, what does each program offer in terms of its degree and course offerings? Which one is best suited to your career goals? Do they offer a few choices, or just one?

Tuition:

  • Don't discount the importance of cost. If one is considerably more expensive than the other, then, all other things being equal, perhaps the tuition should be the deciding factor. Also, look into how it's handled. For example, some charge by the credit hour, while others ask for a lump sum. And be sure to determine what your options are in terms of financial aid. (See: Cheapest Online Colleges for more information).

Speak to Faculty and Staff:

  • How rigorous is the course load? What kind of support services will you have access to? What qualifications do the faculty possess? What unique learning opportunities can you take advantage of? Faculty, academic advisors and counselors can all provide enormous help in answering your questions and helping you make your choice.

Speak to Students:

  • While you're at it, is it possible for you to speak to students at both colleges? Online review sites are also a good place to start, but don't expect to find 100-percent-reliable information there. Perhaps the colleges have student representatives that can speak to you?

Check Statistics:

  • What's the school or program's graduation rate? How's their student retention? What about placement rates for graduates? Make sure you're selecting a school that wants students to succeed, that is well reputed, retains a large percentage of its student body and helps students search for jobs.

Go With Your Gut:

  • When it comes to how to pick which online college to go to, you should ultimately listen to that inner voice, the compass that guides you. You may have always had your heart set on a college in Louisiana, but you can't fake it if it doesn't feel right. When I toured my college, I knew the minute I stepped onto campus, before they ever told me a thing, that I wanted to go to school there. If it feels right, that's important.

Finally, here is another good resource on this topic:

"Online Degree Programs: How to Tell the Good From the Bad," U.S. News & World Report (full link below in "Additional Resources")

Good luck choosing an online college! For more tips and insights about teaching and learning online, follow me on Google+ or keep reading here at OnlineColleges.com. And don't forget to submit your questions. Thanks!


Related Resources:

"Online Degree Programs: How to Tell the Good From the Bad," U.S. News & World Report, Kelse Sheehy, Nov. 9, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2012/11/09/online-degree-programs-how-to-tell-the-good-from-the-bad

College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/


Additional Tips Courtesy of Online Colleges

Get started today.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions of your life, so don't rush it. Get started early so that you can be 100 percent confident you've explored all your options before choosing a school.

Consider your priorities.

A number of factors influence your choice in a college, including: affordability, location, prestige, competitiveness, programs offered and student amenities. You may not be able to find a school that meets all your preferences, so consider your priorities early in the game.

Research, research, research.

If you're sick to death of looking at college brochures and websites, you're onto something. When it comes to choosing the right school, you just can't skimp on the research.

Consider your learning style.

If you're a very hands-on learner, not all online colleges can accommodate you. Likewise, if you learn best when you're able to move at your own pace and review materials or lectures as many times as you want, online colleges might be just what you need.

Think outside the box.

Do you need a big name campus school? Have you considered community colleges, career schools or online degree programs? When it comes to choosing the right college, be sure you've considered all of your options.

Go beyond the classroom.

Academics are important, but there's so much more to the college experience than lectures or lab work. When choosing a school, consider your financial aid options, what it would be like living in that community and even what career services each college offers.

Don't be afraid to change your mind (again and again).

As you begin to research colleges, your life or priorities might change. Don't be afraid to change your mind, even if you've already bought a couple sweatshirts from your previous top pick.