Do Your Homework Before You Start: Choosing the Online School Thatâ€™s Right for You
If you’re thinking of going back to school and want to try the online environment, there are lots of factors to consider when selecting the college that’s right for you: Accreditation, tuition and fees, financing, flexibility, degree offerings, and transfer credit. Support services are important too. Let’s take a closer look at these areas.
You want a school that has been accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. These accrediting bodies usually fall into three major categories: national, regional, and specialized/professional. Check the school’s website for information on this, and if you speak with a school representative, ask about it.
Tuition and Fees
If you can’t afford the school, then you won’t be able to attend–makes sense! Attendance costs include the price of the classes themselves, usually broken down by a cost per credit, such as $250 per credit hour. Many schools charge fees, such as an application fee, technology fee, transfer credit fee, and so on, and these can add up. Course materials can be a substantial expense. Be sure you get a clear handle on both the tuition and fees before you apply so you get a realistic picture of your financial outlay: you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised. If the school’s website doesn’t break this down, be sure you get a specific amount from a school representative–and it would be good to have this in writing.
What goes hand-in-hand with a school’s tuition and fees is the type of financing it offers. Accredited schools are able to participate in federal educational entitlement programs, such as federal student aid, military tuition assistance and VA GI bill programs, and government tuition reimbursement programs. Some schools even offer scholarships or have grants that cover course material expenses.
You are probably considering online education in the first place because your schedule is too hectic to attend a brick-and-mortar institution; because of its set classroom attendance requirements. You need to investigate whether the online school has a synchronous classroom setup or not. This means that you need to log in to your classroom at certain times to interact with your professor and classmates in real time. An asynchronous environment means that you can log in to the classroom at any time, because there are no real-time interactions with professors and classmates.
Find out if the school has the degree you are interested in, and be realistic–there are some degrees, such as an associate degree in nursing or other hands-on-intensive programs, that you just can’t take online. Check the school’s website for program descriptions of the different degrees, and look at the classes involved. See if you can access a copy of a course syllabus for more details.
If you’ve taken college classes elsewhere, look into the transfer credit policies of the college you’re checking out to maximize your transfer credit opportunities. You don’t want to waste the time and money you spent on your previous education. Some schools will do a preliminary review to give you an estimate of what you can expect to receive before you apply, but be aware that the official transfer credit evaluation you do once you are a student could be different.
Although you will be attending remotely, you still want to feel supported and know that your questions will be answered by knowledgeable and easily accessible staff. Does the school provide admissions representatives, finance specialists, and course advisors? Are staff around at times that suit your schedule? Is tutoring available? Does the school have its own online library with librarians who can assist with your research needs? How about online virtual communities and other ways to interact with fellow students and alumni? Does the school have a career services department with career counselors or job boards?
As you are checking out schools, make a list to see how they compare in the areas that mean the most to you. An online college that fits your needs can be a wonderful way to reach your academic goals. It’s worth it to do your homework before you start your classes to find the school that’s best for you.
Hunter Barrat is a senior admissions representative at American Public University System. She has more than 25 years of writing and editing experience on a wide variety of publications, including books, magazines, newspapers, and corporate communications. She has a B.A. in English from Kenyon College and a M.A. in English from California State University, Hayward.