Choosing where and how to attend college is a major decision. Many students may be deciding between traditional, on-campus programs and flexible, online degrees. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the number of students taking online classes continues to grow, but as a prospective student, you may be unsure whether an online format is right for you.

Insight from those who have gone before can guide you as you evaluate online programs and plan to pay for your degree. So, what do you need to know about being an online student before you enroll? BestColleges' annual survey of 1,500 online students, including almost 300 online graduates, provides an inside look at what it's like to study online.

Compare Multiple Programs: Resources and Regrets

What would online graduates do differently if they were enrolling again? In every year of our study, the top answer to this question has been "compare more programs." That means doing some of your own research in advance, and not limiting yourself to just one, or even two, options at first.

According to research from Learning House, prospective online students consider an average of 2.47 schools, and nearly one-quarter of students consider only one school. That may not be enough to find the best fit for you. Keep in mind that this "fit" includes a wide range of components, from academics and support services to financial aid and convenient scheduling.

Our surveyed students used many, and often multiple, resources to compare online programs. This year their top three resources were:

But don't stop there.

The majority (69%) of online students enter their programs with career and employment objectives in mind. To reach these goals, it's essential to find programs that prepare you for work in your prospective field. Students in our study reached out to professional associations, employers, and employment and salary websites for more information. As you research, be thinking about the following questions: Do programs at your prospective schools provide employment or salary data for alumni? Do they have program partnerships with employers or other ties with professional groups?

Finding a good program, one that offers the experience and outcomes you seek, takes time. It also means reaching out to a range of people and resources to gather the information you need to make the right decision.

Understand College Finances: Preparation and Planning

We all know that going to college, online or on campus, is expensive, and that student loan debt has increased significantly in the last 10 years. The message from all of the student groups participating in our study (e.g., prospective, current, and alumni students) is clear: The financial implications are the most difficult part of the process.

In our study, online program graduates said that the biggest roadblock to graduating was "paying for higher education while minimizing debt." That stems from the biggest challenges students face when first making a decision about online education. In all three years we've surveyed online students, respondents listed "estimating actual costs" and "applying for financial aid and identifying sufficient funding" as their top challenges.

In our study, online program graduates said that the biggest roadblock to graduating was 'paying for higher education while minimizing debt.'

How can you learn from these lessons? Start by budgeting. Map out how adding school costs and loan repayments will affect your financial situation. Paying for college should be a temporary thing, not a lifelong commitment. Plan ahead and prioritize your spending while you are studying.

Take time to connect with admissions and financial aid advisors at each school you are considering for detailed cost estimates. You should also explore online resources, such as the U.S. Department of Education's StudentLoans.gov website. This site includes a self-paced Financial Awareness Counseling tutorial, designed to "help you understand your financial aid and assist you in managing your finances."

Paying for college is an ongoing expenditure. Many of the online students in our study reported relying on a variety of sources to pay for college, and every year that blend can be different. You may also have to reapply for financial aid, scholarships, grants, and various other revenue streams annually. Review your college funding sources and your personal finances every year to make sure you're still on track.

Set Realistic Expectations: Requirements, Opportunities, and Priorities

What is it like to be an online student? The experience has changed over the years as the tools students use to connect with each other, their professors, and course materials online have evolved. Students in our study shared details about their experiences, some of which you might not expect:

You may have real-time meeting requirements

Some instructors use synchronous technologies (i.e., web- or video-conference software) to meet with students in a live discussion or lecture, even in a "completely online" class. This year, 60% of students said their online courses had synchronous meetings. These sessions can increase interaction and understanding, but add a scheduling component you need to prepare for.

You may want to visit campus

Almost half (46%) of the online students in our study do so either by choice or because of a requirement. You may have to take proctored tests at a physical location, for example. You may also have student access to a range of services and activities, from in-person advising and faculty office hours to fitness centers and student clubs

Your classmates will be more diverse than ever

Your peers could be 18 or 50, from across town or halfway around the world. Online education has long been popular with working professionals, which continues to be the case, but younger enrollments are trending up. Recent high school grads and students still in high school are finding online education a flexible way to earn college credit and shorten the time it takes to earn a degree, often while working. Many on-campus students are also taking online courses for the same reasons.

Life happens while you are in school

The reality of balancing work, family, and school is that it presents challenges. Online students change jobs, get married, and have children. They sometimes lose their job, get caught in a natural disaster, or face some other unexpected hardship. "Reacting to unexpected life events" is the second biggest roadblock to graduation, as reported by online alumni. Think about how your schedule will change and what support you can rely on while you're a student, especially when sudden events shift your priorities.

Do Your Homework: Make the Most of Online Education

Overall, the outlook for online students is positive. This year 85% of graduates say they would recommend online education to others. It's not necessarily going to be easier to learn online vs. on campus, and it's not necessarily going to be less expensive. However, learning online can mean students can keep working while they study and raise a family.

If you are thinking about pursuing a degree online, it's likely that more than one online program will be a good fit for your needs and preferences, but there are still a lot of options from which to choose. Take the advice of students who have already experienced online education. Their lessons learned can help you not only make a thoughtful choice about your education and the opportunities these programs provide, but also reach your graduation and career goals.