What are Online Colleges?
Some online colleges and universities are traditional learning institutions who have adapted curriculum to make their degree programs accessible to more students. Others are modern operations with no campus center. In fact, you may want to choose a college or university that has a well-established identity and reputation that has been administering online programming for several years, rather than choosing one that is still experimenting. You could feasibly take online classes out of state, or even log into online college courses at midnight if you are a night owl. You could even consider trying self-paced online courses and learn at your own pace. An online college degree is one that may be earned without, in some cases, setting foot on campus, though 75% of students select a campus within 100 miles of their home.[i]
Take away: Some online universities are traditional learning institutions that make their degree programs available through web-based technology and digital tools.
Who Attends Online Universities?
With the growing popularity of online universities the number of online degree programs continues to grow. People who may find attending an online college best for them are likely people who need flexibility and have other life responsibilities to tend to, which makes an online education a wise choice for them.
- Currently working professionals
- Those who want to upgrade their skills
- An adult learner with family
- A young student wanting a potentially cost-efficient education
- Someone who cannot relocate
DID YOU KNOW? 90% of students feel their online education is “about the same” or “better” than their past classroom experiences. AND more than two-thirds of online students feel their online college program was worth the investment of their time.[iii]
Distance Learning Defined
Distance learning uses technology to “free learning from the limits of time or space”[iv] to make college education available to more people. Is there one set format for distance-learning? No, but here are some potential features of online schools:
- Asynchronous Learning: Online courses are pre-recorded (think MP3) or video recorded versions of live lectures. These are posted to a web-based course management system. Students may access them 24/7. Possible benefit: Self-paced study.
- Synchronous Learning: Online courses are live-streaming at specific time that you join via computer, with the possibility of participating. Possible benefit: Experience the classroom.
- Technological Tools: Online courses are delivered through the worldwide web which means you need some type of computer device, but not necessarily a table top computer (think laptop, mobile device). You may correspond through emails, standard mail, telephone, IM, special software, video conferencing and online group discussion forums that are available through your school’s e-learning platforms. Possible benefit: Portability and convenience.
- 100% Online vs. Partially Online: Some online colleges offer ‘fully online’ degree programs where student and instructor are in different places. Partially online college degree programs (hybrid format) require on-campus intensives, meetings or courses. This is often found in human-centered disciplines or ones where you need the in-class demonstration or supervision. Possible benefit: access to laboratory or other campus facilities, face-to-face instruction, interaction, team-building.
Choosing an Online College: Getting Started With Online Colleges
Several factors are important in choosing an online university. You may need to look at things such as how to:
- Understand accreditation
- Find legitimate online schools
- Figure out financing an online education at online colleges
- Assess online universities
You may wish to pursue an online education for the convenience of learning via web-based technology, using your computer instead of being a regular commuter. You wouldn’t be alone. Recent reports indicate that today’s student is deliberately choosing distance-learning as their modality of choice.[v] But apart from that you want to make sure that the college education you receive is quality, so make sure you find out the above.
A is For Accreditation: Find Accredited Online Colleges
If you are wondering whether an online university is legitimate (everyone has heard of "degree mills") you are already on track to researching accredited online colleges. In general, accredited schools may be widely accepted by employers but don’t “give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers”[vi] (per the U.S. Department of Education). In regulated professions (e.g. counseling, psychology, education, accounting) where you might need to sit for state licensure exams, you usually need to show that you earned your degree at an accredited online university (i.e. reputable).
This is certainly the case with accreditation for engineering schools and programs[vii]. ABET accredits engineering and engineering technology degree programs, and most employers say they prefer to hire those who have come out of an accredited degree program. In fact, people pursuing a career as a licensed professional engineer must—in most cases—have earned a degree from an ABET-accredited degree program, according to the U.S. BLS.
Take away: Search for online accredited colleges to verify whether your online college degree may be legitimate
What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation is like a stamp of approval that means an institution maintains standards “requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice”[viii]. The goal is quality control. Accreditation in the U.S. is carried out by private, nonprofit organizations. Since an institution needs to upkeep their accredited status, you are always better off doing your due diligence by looking on an official database rather than checking a prospective online universities website.
How Accreditation Works
Essentially, accreditation is at 2 levels: the schools and the programs. Colleges, universities, and specific programs (not people) are accredited. In the United States, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined are reliable authorities in terms of quality of education and training[ix]. The database of accredited institutions and recognized State authorities (accreditors) is available on:
- The U.S. Department of Education website. The USDE primary purpose is to assure that federal student aid funds are purchasing quality courses and programs.
- The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website. CHEA’s primary purpose is on quality improvement for courses, programs and degrees.
Different Types of Accreditation for Online Colleges
There are 3 main types of accreditation in the United States:
- National Accrediting Organizations operate throughout the U.S. and review entire institutions. Nationally accredited colleges are usually focused around a single area of study and the majority are non-degree granting, for-profit schools.
- Regionally Accrediting Organizations operate within specified boundaries in six regions throughout the U.S. accrediting agencies and review entire institutions. About 98% of regionally accredited online colleges are degree-granting and nonprofit.
- Specialized Accrediting Organizations also operate throughout the country a review specific programs and some single purpose institutions. Usually this applies to an evaluation of professional programs, department or schools that are parts of an institution. AACSB[xiv] (business), ABET (engineering) CAEP (educator preparation) are some examples.
8 Tips for Financing Your Degree at an Online University
Accreditation may even play a role in receiving financial assistance since only a USDE-recognized accrediting organization is eligible to receive federal financial assistance for their students.[xvii] If you have checked that box and found an online university, there are different options you might consider for covering tuition costs (scholarships, grants, loans). Applying for financial aid may vary between schools so here are 8 tips to help you navigate financing your online education.
- Don’t wait, start before you need to because the financial aid process may take time;
- Take note of application deadlines on a spreadsheet or put them in your digital diary;
- Accumulate info from prospective online colleges or universities by speaking to a counselor at the school who is savvy about all things tuition based;
- Check out the USDE for programs that provide financial aid;
- Fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid);
- Keep a paper trail of everything you do so you have your own records;
- Be real both in terms of honesty on applications and the amount you borrow (loan=repayment)
- Apply for our exclusive $1000 Online College Essay Scholarship
Assessing Online Universities
Choosing an accredited online universities that meets or exceeds your expectations may take a little virtual legwork. Here are 7 points you may wish to clarify with prospective online schools.
- Experience in Online Education
Some universities offer an online college degree program that mirrors its residential one, meaning same faculty and courses but delivered through current education technology and online instruction methods. There is often a section “about” the institution that will have this information.
- Formats and Flexibility
Review the actual format of the online degree program you are considering. Sometimes a school will offer an online degree but there are on-campus requirements or a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. If you have a busy schedule you want to make sure the program is flexible enough for you, for instance, makes use of virtual lectures, electronic textbooks, adaptive learning systems.
- Orientation and Advising
Earning a degree online is not the same as face-to-face learning where you can stay after class and talk to your professor or teacher’s assistant. Many online universities support students transitioning to distance education by assigning them an enrollment advisor. Some online schools, some online colleges, may also have an orientation for online learners or a trial period where you may try out online learning at a school without committing.
- Program Diversity and Availability
Online schools may offer a broad range of programs which may mean you get to choose from a variety of electives or seamlessly switch majors if your goals change. Some online schools also offer full degree paths (associate-bachelor-master-doctorate) or certificates where the credits might be transferred later. You do want to make sure that you don’t lack access to classes required for graduation so speak with an enrollment advisor to create a roadmap of courses.
- Student Support and Resources
You may want to evaluate online universities based on its student support services. This means technical support teams, academic support, online library tools, and career counseling. Some schools have internship or study abroad features as well, so get a clear sense of what it means to be an online student at a few prospective schools.
- Learning Environment
Earning a degree online does not mean that your education will be easier. Set yourself up for success by checking into the online college's technology to see if using their online learning environment makes sense to you or is well-explained. You may want to look for schools with web platforms where it is intuitive how to interact with classmates and professors, and some online colleges do offer mobile access. While you may have to purchase some software or a digital camera, you want to make sure you aren’t going into it frustrated.
- Transfer Credits
If you plan to transfer credits from another college, make sure prospective online colleges will do so. Sometimes you may need to make up some course requirements so remember to stay prepared and inquire early.
Lists, Rankings & Ratings: Comparing Online Schools
Internet searches for an online college for nearly any degree you can earn at online colleges is likely going to lead to a slew of “best” “top” “rankings” and other lists where schools are rated. This may be a useful tool for you if you are interested in their methodology. As with anything, there may be a good take away about student engagement, faculty, student services, and overall reputation.
U.S. News and World Report may be worth checking out but you also may glean something useful by using our “request info” tab. Certainly you are interested in a responsive school where someone is there to answer emails.
Search Our Site: How Find Accredited Online Colleges
You know now what to look for in online colleges, so take that next step with us. Search our site for sponsored colleges and universities, organized alphabetically. Alternatively search for online programs by selecting a category (e.g. business, criminal justice, fine arts, computer science) which will prompt a list of subjects and refines your search. Get matched! It’s that convenient to find online colleges on eLearners.com.
[i] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.9. | [ii] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.10. | [iii] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.14. | [iv] bls.gov/careeroutlook/2001/Summer/art01.pdf | [v] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.7. | [vi] pe.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx | [vii] bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm | [viii] ope.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx |[ix] ope.ed.gov/accreditation/
Additional Sources: chea.org, ed.gov, fafsa.ed.gov