Planning Your Online Education
The popularity of online education continues to grow due to advances in technology that make remote learning easier and more effective. Through conferencing software and course management platforms like Blackboard and Moodle, distance learners can access class materials and engage with peers and professors at any time. And almost all online colleges have national or regional accreditation. This ensures that employers, professional organizations, and government bodies recognize the training and credentials students gain through distance education.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), total U.S. college attendance dropped by 90,000 students for fall 2016, as compared to the prior academic year. Rising tuition and related costs strongly contributed to this decrease. However, NCES reports that online college enrollment actually increased during this time period.
The number of students who took at least one online class grew 6% in 2016, while the number of learners who took only remote courses increased by over 4%. This trend is strong for both public and private higher education institutions -- the total number of students pursuing some form of online education now exceeds 30% (with 20% enrolled in fully remote programs).
This page provides information on online colleges, including additional details on distance education benefits. You will also gain insight into searching and applying for the best programs. The guide ends with links to additional resources.
Why is Online Education a Good Idea?
Colleges and universities offer diverse online education opportunities that meet the needs of all learners, including working professionals and returning students. This section delves into the benefits of remote academic programs with respect to cost, accessibility, and institutional resources.
Location Is Not a Limiting Factor
Most online colleges allow students to enroll regardless of their location. This geographic independence means learners can choose programs that match their academic interests and career goals without needing to uproot their lives. With reliable internet access and the drive to keep up with coursework, students can even pursue certificates and degrees while traveling abroad. However, based on institutional accreditation, some online colleges cannot serve students who live in states outside their jurisdiction. Be sure to consult a school's website or an admissions counselor for additional information.
Affordability is perhaps the most important benefit of online degree programs, contributing to their substantial growth even as traditional academic programs experience declines in enrollment. Online colleges deliver low per-credit tuition rates that often disregard residency status. Students also save money on campus fees, room and board, and transportation. Additionally, online programs provide a range of scholarships and grants to provide incentives for learners of all backgrounds. Even with these perks, online education still represents a serious investment, so students should analyze their finances carefully to ensure they can afford tuition, technology fees, and other related expenses.
Engaging Learning Environment
In addition to flexible class schedules, online education offers rigorous training often facilitated by the same instructors who teach campus-based classes. Tools like discussion boards and video conferencing programs help create an integrative and interactive learning experience. Distance learners meet to discuss readings, expand on each other's ideas, and provide constructive criticism. Many online programs conduct live weekly seminars that engender peer-to-peer and student-faculty collaboration.
Convenient Career Advancement
Online colleges offer a multitude of certificate and degree options that enable students to advance their careers while maintaining work and family obligations. Learners who want to expedite degree completion can enroll in accelerated programs, obtaining their bachelor's degree in two years or their master's in as little as 12 months. Most schools allow distance learners to fulfill practicum/internship requirements with companies in their area, including their current employers. In a 2013 Learning House survey of recent online graduates, 44% reported positive improvement in their employment standing and 45% reported an increase in salary.
The digital nature of online education helps students develop strong technology skills centered on virtual collaboration. Throughout their curriculum, distance learners become expert communicators who can convey technical and otherwise complex information through oral, written, and multimedia formats. Online colleges often develop their courses with direct input from industry leaders and partner organizations, ensuring students graduate with career-relevant competencies honed through hands-on practice. Lastly, online students are highly self-motivated, possessing effective time management and multidisciplinary teamwork skills.
What to Look for in an Online Education Program
Due to the sheer number of options, you may find it challenging to identify the online colleges that meet your academic interests, career goals, and financial needs. This section covers program characteristics and general tips distance learners should consider before initiating the application process. In addition to the information found on institutional websites, students should seek the guidance of their prospective schools' admission counselors.
To confer valid certificates and degrees, online colleges must maintain national or regional accreditation. National approval comes from organizations supported by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education. Two of the most popular national accreditation bodies are the Distance Education and Training Council and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.
Alternatively, postsecondary schools may pursue accreditation from one of six regional accrediting bodies. For example, Texas institutions can earn regional accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, while Oregon colleges and universities obtain this designation from the Northwest Accreditation Commission.
- Financial Aid
Students should prioritize online colleges that offer low tuition and ample financial aid. Nationally and regionally accredited schools are eligible for government funds, which learners can access through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Note that FAFSA awards differ for undergraduate students and graduate degree-seekers. Distance learners should also consult with an admissions counselor about the availability of distinct and general institutional awards. Private scholarships are another great option; many programs exist specifically to help online students, like the Get Educated award.
- Learning Format
Most online colleges allow students to pace their degree plans, adjusting their course load each session to account for work and family responsibilities. However, certain schools operate within a cohort learning format that requires learners to advance through the curriculum as part of a group of students. This structure engenders collaboration and relationship building but may slow down graduation.
- Curriculum Details
Students should confirm an institution's credit transfer policies if they plan to transfer credits earned at another school. Online colleges often accept up to half of the curriculum total in transfer credits (generally, 60 credits for bachelor's programs and 15 credits for master's programs). Accreditation affects transfer policies. Regionally accredited schools accept transfer credits only from other regionally accredited institutions.
When looking at a program's degree plan, students should ensure the requirements align with industry best practices. For example, nursing curricula must meet standards established by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Students who possess AACN-accredited degrees may sit for their state's nursing licensure exam.
- Online Student Resources
Online education delivers the same level of rigor as classroom learning. Students should ensure their school provides academic support to help them succeed. These resources include around-the-clock technical support, personalized academic counseling, and access to software. The best online colleges host a digital library filled with academic texts, virtual simulations for skill development, and webinars from experts in their field. They also provide dedicated career services to help distance learners establish professional goals, find internships, and prepare for career entry and advancement.
- Program Outcomes
Colleges and universities must publish institutional statistics to maintain their accreditation. For each school of interest, students should review rates for acceptance, student retention, student dropout, and on-time graduation. They should also look into average student debt incurred, since this number reflects affordability and the institution's level of financial support. NCES provides its College Navigator as a great third-party tool for examining institutional statistics. In addition, you may wish to speak directly to currently enrolled students at each school.
Best College's resources page provides additional information on college planning including in-depth guides to applying for the right program and signing up for financial aid. You can also find supplemental information on succeeding academically, maintaining your health while juggling school and work, and planning for career success.
Finally, you should check out the Office Hours blog for up-to-date information on higher education news and trends. This blog provides insights into topics like college debt and loan forgiveness, mental health challenges, and high-demand careers. You can also read interviews with academic leaders, industry experts, and other college students.
Meet Our Expert
My name is Melissa Venable. I am currently an education writer and subject matter expert in online education working with BestColleges.com.
I came to this position with a background in higher education that began with career services and academic advising. And then moved into instructional design in online education.