How to Choose an Online College

There are more remote learning options to choose from than ever. Discover how to choose the best online college for you.

portrait of Doug Wintemute
by Doug Wintemute

Published on July 27, 2021 · Updated on May 6, 2022

Edited by Jared McMasters
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How to Choose an Online College

Over the last decade, the number of reputable online colleges has grown tremendously. Choosing from the many institutions that offer online degrees can be stressful and challenging.

To help you with your decision, we created this guide with information on deciding to attend college online or on campus and finding high-quality online programs.

Here, we examine the major factors you should consider, including cost, reputation, and academics. We also explore the application process to ensure you make the most of your opportunities.

What Factors Should I Consider When Choosing an Online College?

When planning your online education, you need to think about the factors that impact you. You may consider all institutions that offer online degrees, or you might look only at the most reputable online colleges.

To help you determine what matters most, we explore common considerations, including cost, instructors, programs, and student resources and services.

Cost

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board cost about $25,280 during the 2019-2020 academic year. To get a more accurate price picture, prospective students can calculate the true program cost, which considers income lost during their studies.

When comparing online and on-campus program costs, degree-seekers might find online study more affordable. The flexibility of remote learning may also allow students to continue working while they study.

Online learners should also look at in-state vs. out-of-state tuition. Often, the cheapest online colleges provide the lowest out-of-state tuition rates. Some even offer in-state rates for remote out-of-state students.

Academic Programs

Prospective students should think about choosing a major early on in the college planning process. To make this choice, they can consider their interests, strengths, and career goals, while also speaking to their family, mentors, guidance counselors, and academic advisors.

With their ideal academic programs in mind, degree-seekers can better choose a school. For example, they can look for the most reputable online colleges that offer programs in the field they hope to enter. Top online schools may offer access to program-specific facilities or specialized credentials that can add value to an online bachelor's degree.

Prospective students can also compare the curriculums between schools. They can look at the core and elective courses and the available specializations to determine which school offers the most suitable training. They might also evaluate program add-ons, such as minors or major concentrations.

Degree-seekers should also weigh the pros and cons of a school's program and online course structure. Online programs tend to offer more scheduling flexibility, but learners might have a choice between asynchronous and synchronous study. They also need to review the practical training opportunities and on-campus residency requirements to ensure they can complete them.

Quality of Professors

To reduce costs, many colleges employ adjunct professors. Although these professionals possess a terminal degree, they receive a lower salary than tenured professors and usually teach a larger course load each semester.

If overworked adjunct professors teach your classes, you may receive less individualized attention. Also, schools use teaching assistants — usually graduate students — to teach lower-division courses.

You can ask schools what percentage of their classes are taught by tenured professors, and how many professors hold a terminal degree in their field.

Degree-seekers can learn more about their potential online instructors in several ways, including by asking their peers, auditing a class, or even visiting professor rating sites.

Diversity

Since campus diversity improves student outcomes, many degree-seekers look for colleges that support students of color and promote campus diversity.

To find the most diverse colleges, prospective students can sort through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). They may look at percentages of non-white students, international students, or female students to get a rough picture of the student body.

Prospective students might also look into a school's academics to see if they offer gender and sexuality studies, Black studies, and other cultural studies programs. Online learners may examine ways to join college diversity efforts via student organizations and initiatives.

Resources and Accommodations

The type of resources, services, and accommodations a school provides can be quite revealing. You should look for a school that supports your individual needs.

Some institutions offer free academic tutoring and career services. Remote learners can also evaluate the available student services and support networks specifically for online students.

Many colleges also support students' mental health by offering counseling services and other resources for students with disabilities. Identify what programs, activities, and facilities the school has in these areas and what accommodations they offer. You can get this information from an institution's disability services office or by searching through their wellness resources.

Career Support

Although the beginning of your career may seem like a lifetime away, you should also look into career support services at your potential colleges. These services may include one-on-one advising sessions and career fairs. The latter can be an excellent opportunity to network with employers and find job offers before you graduate.

In addition to career fairs, alumni networks can help college seniors and recent graduates attain jobs. A school may offer services through LinkedIn, Facebook, or a custom platform. Even if you plan to earn a degree remotely, your school may also provide excellent virtual resources, such as online webinars and job boards.

Reputation

You can learn more about a college's reputation by consulting ranking lists. These lists highlight good schools for specific majors and top institutions in each state.

Additionally, you can learn a lot about a college's reputation by studying its history and faculty. A school that experienced a recent scandal should make you wary, even if it possesses other outstanding qualities.

However, understand that a school's reputation is only one factor to consider when choosing a college. Graduating from an expensive, beautiful school that employs brilliant professors does not guarantee a lucrative job or success in life.

The effort you put into your coursework matters much more. As long as you attend an accredited college, you can find success after you graduate.

Graduation Rates

By comparing the graduation rates from all the schools you're considering, you can get an idea of how well each institution retains its students and prepares them to enter the workforce. Schools with high graduation rates usually offer superior student services, strong faculties, and engaging programs.

According to NCES, the national six-year graduation rate was 62% at public schools and 68% at private nonprofit schools in 2019. You can access individual school graduation rates in IPEDS to compare.

If your plans include graduating college within four years or graduating college early, check if your potential schools offer accelerated programs.

Accreditation Status

Before choosing a school, prospective students need to understand the basics of college accreditation.

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, schools no longer receive regional or national accreditation. All schools must now possess institutional accreditation to offer federal financial aid and offer licensure programs. Online college accreditation follows these same rules.

National organizations also award programmatic accreditation. For instance, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs certifies business programs. Bodies that offer programmatic accreditation may also govern licensure requirements in a particular field, such as nursing.

Prospective students can find accreditation information in the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.


What Are the Pros and Cons of Earning a Degree Online?

Online Degree Pros

More flexible study schedules and learning formats More accessible courses and training in general Greater selection of courses, programs, and degree types More financial freedom with less travel and more work opportunities

Online Degree Cons

Greater reliance on independent learning and self-motivation Fewer opportunities for social interaction with peers and instructors Less practical training and communication skill-building Limited access to certain types of programs and campus facilities

The value of an online degree typically comes from the improved accessibility and flexibility it offers. Students can choose from more programs, which improves their chances of finding the right one. Yet, online learning can challenge students who crave a traditional classroom and campus experience.

How Do I Determine My Odds of Getting Into Schools?

Top private colleges in the United States often have acceptance rates in the single digits. Many of the best public schools also turn away a large percentage of applicants. For these reasons, you should research ways to increase your college admission chances and seek out schools where you have the greatest odds of finding academic success.

Acceptance Rates

On average, colleges admit approximately two-thirds of all applicants. This figure considers extremely competitive private schools and community colleges that have open-enrollment policies.

Most schools post admission rate data on their website. To determine your odds at any school, compare your academic performance against first-year students' average standardized test scores and high school GPAs.

Even if your top choice has a low acceptance rate, keep in mind that this number does not necessarily represent your odds. Competitive applicants have a higher chance of being admitted than the typical prospective student.

Test Scores

Although many good colleges no longer require standardized test scores for admission purposes, you should still prepare for and take the ACT or the SAT. Some applicants take both, as the exams are slightly different. You may earn a significantly better score on one of the tests.

Even if you study for the ACT or SAT, you may still not earn a score that makes you a competitive application at your top school. If this happens, do not be discouraged. Remember that admissions offices use a holistic approach when reviewing an application.

Your other merits — including good grades, AP courses, and extracurricular activities — may be enough to gain admission to your top school.

How Do I Apply to Online Colleges?

The online and on-campus college application processes are very similar. According to our undergraduate application guide, prospective students usually must submit official transcripts, reference letters, college entrance exam scores, and college application essays. Online colleges may require applicants to meet certain technical requirements as well.

Since online schools have more flexible program formats and class schedules, they may offer more flexible deadlines. Online schools may even allow learners to enroll and start classes at any point.

How Do I Get Financial Aid for Online Colleges?

Online students have access to the same financial aid opportunities as traditional learners. They can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for loans and grants. Degree-seekers can also look into private funding or pursue online student scholarships from governments, schools, and/or organizations.

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing an Online College

How many online colleges should I apply to? true

The number of online colleges a student should apply to depends on the individual. Degree-seekers often apply to at least five schools, including institutions they know they can get into, those they can probably gain admission to, and colleges that are a reach. Using a college application system, such as the Common App, can help you streamline the application process.

To arrive at an ideal number of schools to apply to, prospective students may want to consider the time they want to spend on applications. This includes time spent researching potential schools and programs, ensuring that each school could be a good fit, and checking that they qualify for admission. Learners must then dedicate enough time to submit the best applications possible.

How do I know if an online college is a good fit? true

Identifying which online colleges are the best fits for you can be a challenge. It is not always as simple as picking the most reputable online colleges. Prospective students need to create a list of their strengths, interests, career goals, and priorities and then evaluate how each potential school measures up in those areas.

Online degree-seekers can also read reviews from former students, examine the services and resources offered to online learners, and check into the school's graduation and retention statistics. For more information on what online schools offer, check out the online college FAQs.

How do I compare online colleges? true

You can compare your online college options in many ways. For example, you can compare student body and school outcomes by using IPEDS or reading school reviews. You might want to compare program offerings and structures to find the one that best aligns with your particular learning style and educational interests.

You can also compare schools' faculties, student services, and available resources. Consider weighing the cost of tuition against the financial aid resources each school provides. You should also think about how well the school supports online learning, including the platform they use, their services, and the technical support they offer.

Can I accept more than one online college offer?

While students can accept more than one college offer, some may view this as unethical. Since you cannot attend more than one school at a time, you are encouraged to only accept one offer. If multiple schools provide you with an offer of admission, you should accept one and inform the other schools of your decision.

When accepting an offer, administrators may ask you to put a deposit down. If you rescind your acceptance at a later date, you will typically forfeit that deposit money. You can ask to delay your decision while waiting for all offers, which schools may or may not accept.

Can I change my mind after accepting an online college offer?

Yes. You do have the option to accept an offer and then rescind it at a later date. While students are encouraged to honor their commitment, they may change their minds for many reasons and can certainly back out if necessary.

Students who back out after accepting their offer will usually lose out on the deposit money they paid to hold their spot. If you have a valid reason for rescinding your acceptance, you may want to contact the school to explain. Schools may refund your deposit or offer you admission for a later semester or year.

Feature Image: Cavan Images / Cavan / Getty Images

Ready to enroll but not sure how to choose a college? Keep reading to learn how many colleges you should apply to and things to look for in a college. Hear from one of our experts on which factors are the most important for you to consider when choosing a college. Online education is gaining traction, but many students still have questions. Our BestColleges survey sheds light on online students' biggest pieces of advice.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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