Since the advent of online education, enrollment in online courses has increased every year. Currently, more than 7.1 million students are taking at least one online course, according to the Sloan Consortium's 2013 report on online education in the U.S.
What might account for such dramatic growth year after year? In a word: flexibility.
Flexibility Is King
In a 2012 survey by Aslanian Market Research and LearningHouse, 32 percent of students cited "ability to work when and where I want" as the greatest advantage of studying online, 17 percent cited "flexibility to study around work obligations," and 13 percent said the "ability to study at my own pace" was the biggest perk.
Online programs are created with this flexibility in mind:
- They're often more affordable than classroom-based programs.
- They can be completed when and where it's convenient for you, and there's no need to limit yourself to colleges located nearby.
- Many programs can be self-paced, so you progress at a comfortable speed.
- Unlike traditional colleges, flexible online colleges usually offer several versions of each class on a rotating schedule, so if you have to sit a few weeks out, it won't interfere with your program.
- Online degrees can often be completed more rapidly than traditional ones, cutting your time to completion down by months or even years.
Steps for Finding a Flexible Online College
Retention in online college programs is consistently lower than that of face-to-face programs. Students whose programs don't fit their needs may be more likely to quit. And that's a shame, considering that the majority of students who completed online degrees in 2013 secured new jobs, got full-time jobs or received raises or promotions, according to the Aslanian Market Research and LearningHouse report.
So how do you make sure that you're selecting the right college to meet your needs? Follow these five steps:
1. Carefully consider your goals.
Make sure that any college you consider can help you reach your goals. Ask the following questions:
- What degree do I want to receive, and where is it offered?
- Am I aiming for a promotion, a raise or a complete career change?
Explore colleges that can truly help you reach those goals, and begin assembling a list of potential programs. Be sure that any college you're considering is accredited, which is essential to your degree's usefulness and credibility. You can search for accredited colleges using OnlineCollege's Top Online Colleges tool.
2. Determine your specific educational needs.
Start weeding out schools that aren't flexible for your needs and making a short list of potential schools by asking yourself:
- How much time can I devote each week to my coursework?
- Will I be able to complete more than one class at a time?
- What kind of study schedule can I create that balances work and family obligations?
- What can I afford?
- Do I have former college credits that I hope to transfer to my next school, or am I hoping to test out of some courses?
3. Conduct extensive research.
Now you should do some in-depth research:
- Visit each school's website.
- Talk to professionals in your chosen field and ask what school, program or feature they would recommend.
- Research the faculty to determine their quality.
- Read reviews by former students.
- Talk to academic counselors, and ask how you can contact former students, who will usually offer unbiased, helpful information. Ask them about the amount of work necessary each week to complete the course and what resources are available to help you with your studies.
- Hunt down statistics about former students' retention and job placement rates, and explore each school's financial aid and payment options.
4. Do a test run.
Get some experience with online learning before committing to a program. Consider an online course at a community college, or even take a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which enables you to take a college-level course in almost any subject, for free and with no threat to your academic standing. See how well you can manage the schedule and complete coursework, and what technology you'll need, before making a full commitment.
5. Get your systems in place.
Create or purchase a good calendar or electronic scheduling program, and design a schedule for yourself that effectively balances your home, work and school schedules. Be sure that your family, friends and coworkers support your efforts, and that all systems are go for you to embark on this journey!
After you've taken these steps and determined with school(s) meet your needs and pique your interests, begin applying. This level of preparation and research can help improve your chances of reaching your goals with degree in hand.
1. Allen, I. Elaine and Jeff Seaman. "Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States." January 2014. Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium. https://jfe.qualtrics.com/form/SV_9RG72TKFeL2mXA1
2. Aslanian, Carol B. and Dr. David L. Clinefelter. "Online College Students 2013: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences." June 2013. Aslanian Market Research and LearningHouse. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CFQQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.learninghouse.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2013%2F06%2FOnline-College-Students-2013_Final.pdf&ei=O6CxU82oF8rdoATphIDwCQ&usg=AFQjCNEMthrvsRVWkxaK6GlZq3DBTdVx1g&sig2=NqciqJCmOGWE-4VTCkFCIw&bvm=bv.69837884,d.cGU
3. The College Board's Big Future College Search tool, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search
4. Haynie, Devon. "Take 4 Steps to Find the Right Online Degree Program." May 7, 2014. U.S. News & World Report, Online Education. http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/05/07/take-4-steps-to-find-the-right-online-degree-program?page=2
5. Lytle, Ryan. "10 Tips for Deciding Whether Online Education is for You." Nov. 19, 2012. U.S. News & World Report, Online Education. http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/slideshows/10-tips-for-deciding-whether-online-education-is-for-you/1
6. National Center for Education Statistics, "College Navigator," http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/#sthash.lFn2wIoT.dpuf
7. U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. "Learning at a Distance: Undergraduate Enrollment in Distance Education Courses and Degree Programs." http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2012154