Congratulations! You are about to embark on an exciting adventure. It's one that can help you prepare personally and professionally for the next chapter of your life. While we often think of new college students as recent high school graduates, freshmen classes include a significant number of adults. In fact, 37 percent of college students are age 25 or older, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Lumina Foundation.
Maybe you took time off after high school to work or start a family. Or perhaps you earned a certificate or diploma and now want a degree. Regardless of the reason, if you have your sights set on an online college, this guide is especially for you. If you've already started a degree program and are ready to pick up where you left off, our Ultimate Guide for Transfer and Returning Students may have all the information you need.
You're in good company too if you're choosing an online college. A third of college students took at least one online course in 2017, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those, 15 percent were taking online classes exclusively.
However, before you can start classes, you need to complete online college applications. That may seem like a daunting process, especially when you consider some top tier schools accept less than 10 percent of their applicants. Don't despair though. There are plenty of schools that admit most, if not all, who apply.
To maximize your options, you should apply to five to eight institutions, according to The College Board. Aim high and include a couple of dream schools, even if they are more selective. Then, once you get your acceptance letters back, you are likely to have a number of choices from which to make your final decision.
If the thought of applying to that many schools feels overwhelming, keep reading. We've broken down the process of how to pick a college, as well as getting started at an online college where you're a first-time student. Here's what you need to know to find an online school that can best meet your needs.
How to Pick a College
If you're still in high school, your guidance office may be able to help you work through the process of how to pick an online college. However, if you decided to take a gap year (or two or more) before heading to college, you're likely on your own. In that case, here's what you should look at before applying to an online college.
1. Check for signs of quality
College is a big investment, and you don't want to waste money on an education that isn't going to further your career goals. Research colleges and universities just as you would any large purchase. Specifically, check for markers that indicate a school offers quality academics and is financially stable. Not sure what those markers are? Don't worry. We've got more on those below, as well as additional tips on how to choose an online college.
Make sure it's accredited
Start here. An accredited school is one that meets specific standards set forth by a reviewing agency. If a school isn't properly accredited, you can't be assured you're getting a good quality education. Even worse, your degree might not be recognized by other institutions or professional organizations. This can be a problem if you are trying to gain an industry credential or want to transfer credits to another school or program.
We have a full guide on accreditation, but briefly, accrediting agencies are private educational associations recognized by the federal government. Traditionally, schools have pursued accreditation from a regional accrediting organization. Depending on its location, that means a college may be accredited by one of the following:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission
Of course, fully online schools aren't located in a specific region, so they may utilize a national accreditation or be accredited for a specific type of learning program.
WARNING: Be aware there are some less-than-credible accrediting organizations out there. If you don't recognize the name of an accrediting body, visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and make sure it's listed there.
Look for student success rates
Once you know a school has proper accreditation, you need to see how well it succeeds in its mission of preparing graduates to enter the workforce. Colleges and universities may publish testimonials from graduates that extol their virtues, but you should dig deeper than that. Look for measurable data that provides a clear picture of student success. Specifically, check the following:
- Retention rate: This number refers to the percentage of freshman who return to the school the following year. Nationwide, 62.1 percent of full-time students enrolled at public institutions in 2016 returned to school for the 2017 school year, according to the Department of Education. That percentage was 66.7 percent percent at private, nonprofit colleges and universities. A significantly lower number than average could indicate there is an issue at the school that is resulting in students not returning.
- Graduation rate: To determine the graduation rate, schools calculate the number of students who earn their degree within 150 percent of the expected time. In other words, for a bachelor's degree, the graduation rate is the percentage of students who graduate within six years. The average graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate students who started a bachelor's degree in 2010 and completed it by 2016 is 60 percent, according to the Department of Education.
- Graduate outcomes: Graduating from college is one thing; starting a career in the field of your choice is something else. Ask colleges how many of their graduates went on to full-time employment or pursued additional education after earning their degree to help determine whether the school is likely to help you achieve your goals.
Information about these factors may be available on the school's website, but you can also check it here at College Scorecard: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/
See how well a school is ranked
Not everyone can (or wants) go to an Ivy League school, but you do still want to make sure you're getting a quality education. And plenty of online schools can provide it.
School rankings are popular, but be careful about using only them to draw up your list of target schools. Their one-size-fits-all approach may not focus on factors that are important to you. And before you give too much credence to any top college list, be sure to review the methodology to see how those rankings were determined. For instance, is the ranking based on objective data from the U.S. Department of Education or other authoritative sources? Or is it based on unscientific surveys of students or graduates?
You can search OnlineColleges.com for schools by state, type of degree or field of study. You'll be able to easily see the features of the top online schools in the nation based on your preferences, such as type of degree, tuition amount, and whether you're looking for faith-based schools or ones that give credit for military training. Visit our rankings page to browse our latest college and university ranking lists.
Consider the school's reputation
While objective rankings are vital, they should be used in conjunction with student and graduate feedback. No one can provide more insight into a school than those who have first-hand experience with its programs. Check social media sites for student comments or search the internet for reviews to get an indication of a school's reputation. (Keep in mind, though, that unsatisfied students are often more likely than satisfied students to post comments.)
Look for patterns in reviews about positive or negative aspects of the school rather than being swayed by one particular person's experience. For example, if every negative review is complaining about a different aspect of the school, then it's more likely that the reviewers are reporting flukes of their own experience, which may or may not apply to you. However, if every negative review calls out the same flaw in a particular school, it may be worth paying more attention to their warnings.
Research longevity and financial health
Although it's not common, schools can close, which leaves students scrambling to transfer credits and finish their education elsewhere. While there are no guarantees, you can minimize the chance of this happening to you by selecting a school with a proven track record and strong finances.
Large universities with long histories aren't likely to shut down any time soon. Neither are public schools that receive state funding. But if you're interested in a smaller private institution or a school that was recently formed, it's worthwhile to investigate its financial standing.
The U.S. Department of Education issues financial responsibility composite scores for all institutions that participate in the federal financial aid program. Schools scoring lower than 1.0 are considered financially irresponsible; those with scores between 1.0 and 1.5 require additional oversight; and those with scores above 1.5 are deemed financially responsible. A spreadsheet of scores can be downloaded from the government student aid website.
2. Consider the location
You might wonder why location is important if you're studying online. That's a great question, and for some people, it might not be a consideration. However, 21 percent of online undergraduate students say proximity to campus is a main consideration when selecting a school, according to the Online College Students 2019 report from Learning House, a Wiley brand and provider of education technology solutions. In fact, two-thirds of online students in 2019 live less than 50 miles from their college, and 44 percent live within 25 miles.
Learning House notes local schools may have greater connections with area employers, which can be beneficial for students seeking jobs after graduation. Students may also appreciate being able to access campus facilities and amenities if desired, or having the ability to take part in the graduation ceremony.
One of the most important reasons to consider the school's location is that some online programs may also have on-campus requirements. Typically known as a "hybrid program" or a "blended program," this learning model can be found in many fields of study but is particularly common in programs such as healthcare, where hands-on experience is essential. Medical assisting, nursing and health information technology programs are just a few examples of when online classes may be combined with on-campus labs. Externships and internships are also part of the curriculum for some programs, and living near campus may make it easier to locate employers willing to sponsor these opportunities.
Even if your program doesn't require on-campus classes, you may find you want to take them. Taking a class in-person lets you connect with other students, meet professors or otherwise enhance your college experience.
3. Check amenities for online students
Online students may not be on campus often, if at all, but that doesn't mean they are on their own when it comes to their education. Many online colleges offer tutoring, career counseling and other amenities to distance learners.
For instance, schools may assign an academic advisor to guide students through the process of selecting and registering for classes. This person can be an invaluable resource when getting started at an online school. Meanwhile, the career counseling office may be able to facilitate internships, offer resume writing tips and/or conduct mock job interviews over Skype or FaceTime.
Tutoring services and writing centers are often found on campus. Inquire into whether these services extend to online learners as well. Can you receive academic support through live chats or web conferences? Are the school library's resources accessible remotely? If online resources are limited and you live near campus, find out whether night and weekend tutoring might also be available as an alternative.
Don't forgot to check technical support services too. Ideally, there is phone or internet support available 24/7 in case you have trouble accessing your online course.
Bottom line: make sure the school you choose offers the services you need to be successful.
4. Make sure you can afford it
This is important, right? After all, if you can't afford a college, you can't attend it. Don't make the mistake of relying too heavily on student loans, either.
Student loan debt has reached crisis levels in recent years, with Americans owing a combined $1.49 trillion in the first quarter of 2019, according to the Center for Microeconomic Data at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System found the average payment on loans being repaid was between $200 and $300 in 2017.
Being smart about where you go to school and what you study can help you avoid the debt trap. That means considering not only the cost of a degree but also your return on investment. The return on investment -- or ROI -- refers to how much you can expect to make with your degree. Paying $100,000 for a degree that will net you a $40,000 job is a poor ROI. It would be better to spend $40,000 and get a $100,000 job. The lower your education cost and the higher your salary, the better your ROI.
The employment website PayScale issues an annual College ROI Report. It breaks down the average return on investment by school. You can also search by major to determine which institution offers the best ROI for the program you'd like to study.
When reviewing an online college's tuition costs, keep mind there is a sticker price and an actual price. The "sticker price" is the amount tuition would cost without any financial aid, while the "actual price" is the average of what students end up paying once their aid is factored in.
All colleges and universities should have their tuition costs listed on their website, but if you want to quickly compare multiple schools, you can go to the College Scorecard run by the U.S. Department of Education. As you review the information on this site, pay attention to the financial aid section on each school's detailed page. In particular, take note of the typical debt after graduation and the percentage of students paying down their debt. If a low percentage is paying down their debt, it could be a red flag that students are having difficulty finding adequate employment after graduation.
For additional insight, visit the OnlineColleges.com How to Pay for College section. There, you'll find specific help like:
Not only can these guides provide specific advice for each financial aid category, they can point you to state-specific resources as well. But probably the most important step you need to take is to fill out and submit your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And make sure you submit it in a timely way!
Don't forget to check each of your prospective schools' websites for their tuition calculator and any school-specific financial aid programs they may have available. They are also likely to have financial aid counselors on hand, so don't hesitate to reach out to them if you have any questions or concerns.
How to Choose Your Major or Program Type
In addition to picking a college, your other main task before filling out applications is to pick the right program. While all college students need to pick a major, online students have the added step of picking the right program type as well.
Choose your major
One of the most important components of your education is selecting the right major. Your decision determines the classes you take and helps to set the course for your career after college. While you can certainly choose or change your major after you start classes at many schools, you can save time and money by settling on a major in advance.
You can start by visiting your state's page on OnlineColleges.com to see what industries and occupations are popular where you live. You can also use the "Search by Program" option at the top of any page on OnlineColleges.com. There you'll find a comprehensive set of resources to help you understand what each major covers, as well as common careers for graduates of that major. You'll also see a ranking of online schools for that particular major.
How much time can you spend on school?
If you're choosing an online college because you think it'll be easier than a traditional degree program, think again. Online courses often follow a similar syllabus to what is used in on-campus programs, and they can require a significant time commitment. A 3-credit hour online class held over a 16-week semester requires nine hours of study per week, according to SUNY Genesee Community College.
Be realistic about how much study time you can schedule around your work and family obligations. Trying to squeeze a full class load into a crowded schedule may be a sure way to experience burnout and see your grades suffer. A better option would be to enroll on a part-time basis.
Decide on a program type
Not all online degree programs are structured the same way. Colleges may have several different types of programs. Some of the types you should be aware of are as follows:
- Hybrid: As mentioned previously, these programs use a blended learning model that combines online coursework with on-campus requirements such as labs or presentations. They may follow a traditional semester schedule or an accelerated format.
- Accelerated: Accelerated classes teach more material in a shorter period of time, often running half the length of a traditional semester. They may be fully online or hybrid classes. Accelerated learning is ideal for those who want to complete a degree faster than usual.
- Competency-Based: This is an innovative learning style offered at some colleges and universities. Competency-based learning allows students to earn credits for material they have already mastered through previous education or employment. Then, they may be allowed to move through additional classes at an accelerated pace. At some competency-based schools, students take one course at a time. When they have passed an exam proving their competency in that area, they can move on to the next subject. There is no required minimum course length. This allows students to quickly bypass topics they know well and spend more time on new material.
In addition, online classes can be structured using one of the following learning methods: synchronous or asynchronous.
- Synchronous learning requires students be logged in at a specific time of day. It is similar to on-campus programs in that you have a set class time, but you can participate virtually from wherever you are.
- Asynchronous learning allows students to study whenever and wherever they want. While there are deadlines for assignments and assessments, there is no set time to log in and review course materials.
Most online colleges use asynchronous learning, particularly at the undergraduate level. But some may still have a few synchronous requirements. Check to make sure you fully understand the program you're considering and whether its requirements fit your schedule.
There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to which program you pick. Your decision will rest largely on your course of study, schedule and personal preferences. You may want to spend some time weighing these options so that you are less likely to waste time (and money) later by applying to a school that does not match your interests or plans.
What to Expect on a College Application
The process of working on your college applications can vary slightly depending on whether you're applying to a fully online college or to an online program at a traditional school.
This table provides a brief overview of how the two applications may differ.
|Application Item||Fully Online College||Online Program at a Traditional School|
|High School Transcript|
|College Specific Assessment Test|
|Interview with Admissions Counselor|
|Letters of Recommendation|
Requirements vary by school, but regardless of whether you're applying to a fully online college or an online program at a traditional school, be prepared to complete an application form, pay a fee and send in your high school transcript. Highly selective campus-based schools may also ask for a personal statement or resume of extracurricular activities. Some online schools have begun waiving the fee, but you should expect to pay an average of $43, according to a 2019 U.S. News & World Report analysis.
Fully online colleges cater to diverse students, so their application process may be designed to determine whether the school is able to meet each applicant's needs. As part of this process, you may be required to take a specialized assessment test to determine your best placement within a program. In addition, fully online colleges typically like to speak directly with applicants to discuss career goals and other objectives. These admissions interviews can be done over the phone or via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom in some cases.
You'll likely need to figure out whether you need to take the ACT or SAT, so be sure to read up on the differences with our Guide to the SAT/ACT. Here are some additional application tips:
- Don't wait to get letters of recommendation: If you plan to ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation, talk to him or her early. Teachers can get dozens of requests from students, and they may not be able to help if you wait until the last minute to ask.
- Confirm transcripts and test scores are sent to the right place: School names can be similar, so double-check that your documentation is being sent to the right institution.
- Proofread everything: Better yet, ask a parent or teacher to review your application. Pay particular attention to your admissions essay, where sloppy mistakes can undermine your entire message.
- Make a copy for yourself: Keep a record of all your application material. If a school says it didn't receive your documentation, having your own copy makes it easier to check and find what's missing.
When to Apply to College
As with the application itself, the best time to apply to college can vary depending on whether you are interested in a fully online college or an online program at a traditional college.
Rolling or multiple start dates: Self-paced programs at fully online colleges are often designed so students have flexibility on when to begin classes. Rather than having to wait until the start of a new school year, online students at these institutions may have the option to begin working on their degree at any time. As a result, these schools may have rolling admissions, meaning you can apply whenever you want.
Traditional start dates: However, the situation can be different if you are applying for an online program at a traditional school. Colleges and universities may have very specific timelines for when they accept, review and respond to college applications. If you miss the window, you could be locked out and need to wait another year to apply.
But before we can talk about specific deadlines, you should understand the two following terms:
- Early Decision: By applying for early decision, you are affirming that a particular school is your number one choice. You are obligated to attend the school if accepted, so applying via early decision is not something to be done lightly. The only way to opt out of an early decision after acceptance is if the school's financial aid package is too low to make tuition affordable.
- Early Action: Early action is another way to indicate to a college that it is one of your top choices. The difference between this and early decision is that by applying through early action, you are not obligated to attend if accepted.
Applications for early decision and early action are typically due in November, while those for regular decision may have January deadlines. Some schools accept late applications even into the spring months. Still, you should apply as soon as possible to maximize your chances of acceptance at your top school choices.
College Application Checklist and Timeline
It's never too early to start thinking about college plans. Even if you don't think you'll be ready to begin classes for a few years, it can be a good idea to start narrowing college choices now. Then you can be ready to quickly move through the application process once you decide the time is right.
When it comes to the actual process of filling out an application, submitting it and waiting for a response, it can take several months at some traditional schools. Fully online colleges seem to have shorter turnaround times, and some institutions may return their decision in less than four weeks.
Tips for High School Students
- Meet with your school guidance counselor early. These professionals can be a wealth of knowledge about how to conduct your college search.
- Request letters of recommendations from teachers well in advance. Remember, they may be getting requests from many students, and you don't want yours lost in the shuffle.
- Keep an admissions calendar. Write down deadlines for all your top school choices, including their early decision, early action and regular decision due dates.
Tips for Adult Learners
- Ask your employer if they have a tuition reimbursement program. They may require you attend a specific institution to be eligible.
- Contact school admissions offices. Some colleges and universities have dedicated staff that help walk adult learners through the application process.
- Find a trusted friend or family member to proofread your application and any required essays. Spelling and grammatical errors are not the way to make a good first impression!
For planning purposes, here's how some students map out their time leading up to the application deadline. However, your timeline may look different depending on the schools and types of programs you pursue. According to the Learning House report, 90 percent of online college students fill out their first application within three months of starting their search process. As such, it's very possible to compress this timeline into a much shorter time period, according to how quickly and precisely you can fulfill the various requirements. Generally speaking, though, this how to apply to an online college or traditional university.
1-2 Years Before Application Deadline
- Research majors and related career choices
- Attend college fairs
- Schedule campus visits or calls with admissions counselors at schools of interest
- High school students: Meet with your high school guidance office to check that your junior and senior class schedule can support your college application goals
1 Year Before Application Deadline
- Begin search for private scholarship and grant sources
- High school students: Register for the ACT or SAT, if needed
9 Months Before Application Deadline
- Narrow list of schools to which you'll apply
- Confirm application deadlines and requirements
- High school students: Decide whether to pursue early decision, early action or regular decision at those schools
6 Months Before Application Deadline
- Identify teachers, employers, colleagues or others who could provide letters of recommendation
- High school students: Retake ACT or SAT if needed
3 Months Before Application Deadline
- Write admissions essays, if needed
- Gather supplemental material
- Request letters of recommendation
1 Month Before Application Deadline
- Complete application forms, including supporting documents, and mail or email them to schools
- Apply for a major, if needed
- Schedule interviews, if needed
- Complete FAFSA and request it be sent to the schools
- High school students: Confirm ACT, SAT or AP scores have been sent to the schools
After Application Deadline
- Review acceptance letters and financial aid packages
- Notify schools of your decision
- Enroll in classes
Now that you know how to get started at an online college, it's time to do it yourself. You can begin by reading more about higher education options, including the top schools, in your state. Or, if you already have some schools in mind, use our College Comparison Tool to see how they stack up against each other. Then, it's time to request information from your top picks and begin the application process.
Don't let anything hold you back. Follow your dream of a new career and a new life!