Schools in the USA

Choosing an Online College

Choosing your university or college is a big decision--perhaps the biggest choice you've had to face in your life so far! If you've decided on an online college, that's one decision made...but there are more to go, since there are lots of online options in the US. For instance: Are you looking for an undergraduate degree, baccalaureate completion, graduate, or postgraduate degree? Or are you filling in career gaps with individual courses and/or professional certificates? Do you want the prestige associated with an elite school---as well as the cost--or are you satisfied with a large online university? While you should choose carefully, the decision doesn't need to be overwhelming, especially if you break it down into smaller categories to help guide you, like the following:

  • Credentials/Degrees Offered

  • Programs Offered

  • Cost

  • Entry Requirements

  • Quality/ Accreditation

  • Student Support

  • Your Gut Feeling

  • Credentials/Degrees Offered
    Some people know right away what they want to do as a career, while others don't know what they want to do but know what they enjoy studying or are good at. Both of these senses of yourself can help decide the kind of education and the type of credential you might want to pursue--which, in turn, can influence your choice of online university, community college or career college. For example, having an idea of your career goals--even just knowing the type of degree(s) your potential occupation will require--may aid in narrowing down your choices. Likewise, knowing what subjects interest you and how much time you want (or don't want) to spend in school will narrow down which kinds of credentials are available in that area of study, since different credentials of different lengths are offered in different areas of study.

    The key to making choices is knowledge. So here is a brief introduction to the kinds of credentials offered at the various online colleges and universities in the United States.

  • Bachelor's degree: At a traditional university, this is a 4-year undergraduate degree, although time is not as rigidly specified at online institutions. A bachelor's degree gives you broad academic knowledge of a particular area of study (for example history, computer science, business, nursing, etc.) and isn't necessarily designed to prepare you for particular jobs, although some do. Other bachelor's degrees are primarily gateways to graduate level study. These degrees therefore have a lot of flexibility in terms of helping you keep lots of doors open for the future.

  • Associate's degree: At traditional colleges, this is a 2-year academic degree (but again, time constraints do not figure at online colleges). There are two main kinds of associate's degrees: some are fairly general, such as the Associate of Arts or Associate of Science; others are more specialized, such as the Associate of Fine Arts or Associate of Applied Science. Associate's degrees can be terminal degrees in their own right or used for credit transfer to a bachelor's degree.

  • Diploma/ Certificate: These are shorter credentials credentials, sometimes leading to professional certification, sometimes used for fulfilling pre-requisites for associate's or bachelor's programs. Online college certificates can be as short as a few months.

  • Programs Offered
    Zooming in closer, knowing the kind of program area you are interested in (such as criminal justice, liberal arts or medical technology) will help you to find criteria to evaluate when looking at the different online college and university offerings. If you genuinely don't know what to study, scan an institution's list of degree and certificate programs to explore your options and stimulate your imagination!

    Once you have a sense of your desired program, you can look at the department's or program's website to examine things like the concentration options and level of specialization of the department. For instance, if you want to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, you might ask yourself the following: Who is giving the courses? Does the program specialize in areas that are of interest to you? What credentials do the professors have? Have they published books and/or articles in their specialized areas? What is the student/ faculty ratio?

    In terms of programs offered, you should also look at how transferable they are. You may want to continue your education down the road, so check out any online institution's articulation agreements, which specify exactly how transfer credit will be accepted from one institution to another.

    The three biggest university costs are basic living expenses, tuition fees and the cost of books and other supplies. Choosing an online college eliminates residence fees and most textbook costs. However, tuition remains. Find out the cost of eachonline institution you are considering and compare them. Be sure to explore your options for any scholarships and financial aid avialable because every little bit helps--even if it is just $500 here, $300 there. Alternately, have you discussed finances with your parents? Maybe they plan to pay for tuition. Will you need a student loan? A job? Are there added or "hidden" fees for things like registration, technology, or early course drop? Make sure you know ahead of time what costs you will have to cover with each of your options, so that you can factor them into your selection process.

    Entry Requirements
    Make sure you know what the entry requirements are (and ensure that you meet them) for each of your potential online colleges and universities. As well, online degrees require students to have at the very least a computer and Internet access. Further technological requirements are dependent on the institution, the type of program delivery and type of degree and coursework. Do you have the skills and equipment necessary? Will you need to upgrade before you can begin?

    Quality/ Accreditation
    Every student hopes to get a "good" education, so there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure "quality." Some of these have been touched on implicitly, such as looking into the professors' backgrounds. An online institution's website may have a Faculty Profiles section: look at it to check whether they are, in fact, industry-experienced and professionally credentialed. Other aspects to investigate are accreditation (at the institutional and/or program levels; see the section on Online College and University Accreditation for more details) and the resources available at the school. What kind of library resources are there? What is the availability? Institution websites may also offer information and statistics on acceptance rates, graduation rates and graduate career placement rates: these can be read and compared as indicators of an institution's quality.

    Student Support
    Distance learning can be a little bit isolating, and what happens if you have questions? An online institution should make clear what kinds of support is available for students. What kind of technical support do they offer? How often are professors accessible? Is there academic advsing? financial advising? Things like the financial aid and job placement assistance offered by each institution can also be compared to help you make your choice of the online college that will serve you best.

    Your Gut Feeling
    In addition to weighing the pros and cons and costs of each online college, put some stock in your gut feeling about each--especially if you can talk to a representative. Sometimes your intuition or gut instinct about a school can assess it more accurately than a list of its facts and figures. You are a consumer essentially shopping for a professional service, so treat the process as you would any other major investment of time and money. If you still have doubts, contact your Better Business Bureau or state attorney general's office to make sure the school is operating legally in a state and to see if anyone has filed a complaint.

    Make the most of this exciting time, wherever you choose to go. Don't fret or obsess about "what ifs" once you finally decide: if you ultimately find you are very unhappy with your decision, you can always transfer. Online colleges in the US are there to make education accessible for you!

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