How to Judge the Quality of an Online Program

How to Judge the Quality of an Online Program
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on March 2, 2021

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The fact that you must find a high-quality degree program is a no-brainer, but what does that mean exactly in the context of online education? Comparing schools is an important part of your research as a prospective student, and finding information about program quality can be challenging.

Fortunately, you can start your research with just a handful of key questions.

Is the Online Program Accredited?

As described by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, "accreditation is a major way that students, families, government officials, and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education."

The accreditation process ensures a basic level of quality in areas such as institutional finances, student support, curriculum development, and faculty qualifications. Accreditation reviews typically take place every 5-10 years.

Here's an overview of the different types of accreditation you may see:

Regional vs. National

A school may be accredited by either a regional or national accrediting organization, with both checking for quality in similar ways. If you need to transfer coursework to a new institution, regional accreditation is sometimes preferred.


School vs. Program

In addition to regional or national school accreditation, some (but not all) academic programs are accredited by groups that focus on a specific area of study. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology are just two examples.


Online vs. On Campus

Online programs go through the same accreditation process as campus-based programs. Enrolling in an online program that's not accredited can negatively impact your ability to receive federal financial aid and transfer credits to another institution.

How Do Students Interact Online?

The online learning experience should be more than simply logging in, completing some tasks, and logging out. High-quality online programs include plenty of opportunities for you to interact in different ways with the course materials, your instructors, and your classmates.

Sample Courses

Many schools offer the opportunity to explore a sample online class. Doing this gives you hands-on experience with the online learning management system and a clearer understanding of how the course is structured. Take a look at examples from the University of Iowa, Portland Community College, and Colorado State University Global.

Engaging Activities

Expect high-quality courses to connect you with the material and your classmates beyond reading and discussion forums. This connection often happens through interactive strategies, such as problem-solving activities, live meetings, and student presentations. Depending on the subject and level of the course, you may also conduct science experiments, work on group projects, and/or participate in simulation learning.

Will the Program Help You Meet Your Career Goals?

BestColleges' annual survey of online students finds that many people decide to enroll in an online program with specific career goals in mind. If career development is important to you, consider how courses and services could help prepare you for your next move.

Career Services

Career counselors, coaches, and advisors can assist you with career planning and decision-making, and help you in your job search process. A school's career center may also track alumni employment rates and graduate salaries.

Real-World Learning Opportunities

Look for ways you can get practical experience in your field of study while enrolled. Internships, in-person or virtual, are one option. You can also ask about how course assignments and activities encourage career exploration and development.

Networking Events

High-quality online programs often help connect current students with alumni and potential employers. Mentorship programs may also be available.

What Support Services Are Available?

As a prospective student, you'll typically interact with admissions and financial aid offices while conducting your research. But these offices are just the beginning — you'll need support throughout your entire journey, from enrollment to graduation.

Make a list of the support you already know you'll want and need, such as math tutoring or disability accommodations, and find out whether and how those services are offered to online students.

Academic Support

For some students, finding assistance with their coursework is a primary concern. Look for remote options for tutoring, math and writing center sessions, academic advising, and online library access.

Career Planning

In addition to the career services outlined above, other online career development opportunities might include virtual career fairs, employer information sessions, and help establishing your professional web presence.

Financial Support

Federal financial aid is one of the first topics you'll likely discuss with admissions counselors. Follow this up with questions about grants, scholarships, and how the school ensures continued financial support for enrolled students.

Health and Wellness

Many college students struggle with stress management while in school, and online students are no exception. Look for mental and physical health support for online students through services such as counseling, classes, and access to medical care and wellness facilities.

How Was the Program Developed?

You can tell a lot about the quality of an online program by how it was built and how it is delivered. Effective online classes take time and resources to create. This usually includes a team of instructional designers, multimedia specialists, writers, editors, graphic designers, IT specialists, and quality assurance testers, all working with faculty experts to develop a high-quality learning experience.

Quality Standards

Many schools use a specific set of established standards to ensure their online courses are high quality. Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium's Quality Scorecard are just two examples, and some schools develop their own proprietary quality standards.

Faculty Development

Do the instructors at your school of interest receive training in how to teach effectively online? Many programs use rigorous certification programs, required orientations, and ongoing professional development to prepare instructors for online classes.

Find a Mentor and Ask Questions

Identify mentors who can serve as sounding boards and guides in your search for a quality online program. Former teachers, employers, co-workers, and friends who've experienced online education themselves often provide the best advice and assistance.

Finding evidence of quality indicators can be difficult. But any school you might want to attend should be able to provide answers to your questions about all of these areas. Don't hesitate to contact a college or program office directly to get more information.


Feature Image: AJ_Watt / E+ / Getty Images

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