University Online Degree: How To Choose A School
You’ve found out that you can go back to school and finish that degree. On
the Internet. Without ever leaving home. It’s an empowering thought.
Now, what to do?
Which school will you choose? How will you know you’ve picked the right
one? How do you select from the bewildering number of online degree
programs that have suddenly appeared on the scene?
It can be daunting, trying to get the information you need to make a good
decision. That is why we have published this article, to give you some
guidelines for choosing the right online degree program for you.
Before you start looking for a school, it is a good idea to look at
yourself and your characteristics as a learner. Are you self-contained?
Can you set a schedule and keep it?
It is not exactly true that you have to be completely self-driven to
succeed as an online student. Many faculty members are now trained to
create course schedules that call for you to meet deadlines, participate
at particular times, and keep appointments.
Nor is it true that you need to virtually be a hermit who sits inside with
their computer all the time. Online learning is of course dependent on the
computer, but you will find that a lot of your lessons, assignments, and
course work takes place away from the computer, just like it would if you
were taking courses in a classroom.
How are your Internet skills? Although many schools will make it
relatively simple for you to take their courses, you still need to have
solid Internet skills. Make sure you are comfortable working at the very
least with email attachments, posting in discussion forums, and completing
Once you establish that you are ready to take on the challenge of the
online environment, next focus on your requirements for the degree. What
major would you like to pursue? What subjects would you like to study?
What are your primary interests?
All degrees are not created equal. Once you find a school that offers a
major concentration in an area that interests you, be sure to check out
the particular courses and requirements for completing the degree.
Generally, for undergraduate degrees, you will find a combination of
general education subjects and major concentration courses. However, there
can be great differences between the specific offerings that make up those
Be sure to check out the course catalog carefully. And, once you
understand its contents, ask to see the course schedule, so that you will
know when particular courses are offered.
For graduate programs, your particular area of interest is also important.
The schools may try to impress you with the titles their faculty members
have earned. However, fancy titles do not necessarily indicate that the
courses will focus on your specific interests.
It is not unreasonable for you to request to communicate with a professor
in your subject area. It may be as simple as an email conversation, but
this step will help you be assured that your requirements will be met.
Be sure that your chosen school is prepared to respond to your priorities.
Do you have extensive transfer hours (many Virtual Students do)?
Be sure to check their transfer policies. Also, be sure to determine how
your transfer credit will be awarded. In other words, a school may tell
you that they will accept your transfer credit, but then apply it to your
degree plan as “elective credit.” This means the hours appear on your
transcript, but do not replace any of your requirements.
Ideally, the school will accept your transfer credits and apply them
directly to their degree requirements. If they do not, then you will end
up taking as many credit hours with them as you would have with no
transfer hours at all.
The best way to handle this is to get an official transfer estimate. Some
official at the school you are considering should be able to evaluate your
transfer credits against their degree requirements and give you a very
accurate picture of the courses you will need to take in order to complete
Do you have extensive work and life experience? Many schools now offer
college credit for your work and life learning.
This is very legitimate when done properly. It can also contribute greatly
toward your progress in completing your degree.
If you are considering a school that offers credit for work and life
experience, be sure to inquire carefully about their process. Also,
inquire carefully about their limit on the number of credits they will
accept by this method.
Legitimate schools will have an established process by which you
accumulate and document your work and life experience. Generally, the
process is quite rigorous. But, remember, you are hoping to receive a
potentially significant number of credit hours in exchange for the hard
Legitimate schools will also limit the number of hours you may earn by
this method. In most cases 25% of the overall credits required for a
degree can be earned from work and life experience.
Your Situation and Motivation
Along with your requirements and priorities, the personal and professional
situation that has motivated you to consider online learning is also a
meaningful factor. Although the Internet has made online learning
accessible, actually earning a degree online is still a challenging
proposition. It is worthwhile to test your motivation before you begin.
Commonly, online learners are pursuing degrees in the hopes of enhancing
either their current or future job status. If that is your situation, be
very sure that the school and program you choose will satisfy your
As a side note, many learners are drawn to online programs because their
companies pay the tuition bills through a pre-arrangement with the school.
This can be a real advantage, of course, but it is also important to be
sure that what the school offers is attractive to you. Otherwise you will
find yourself “marking time” as you finish courses that do not hold your
Another common motivator among online learners is the opportunity to
switch careers. If you are considering an online degree program to prepare
you to change jobs, then you will need to be especially careful.
Make sure the school that you are considering is appropriate to your
prospective career. You probably know people in the new career field, so
be sure to check the school and its programming out with them.
Another side note, be careful about third party opinions when it comes to
schools. Just because someone has not heard of a school, or has heard of
one, for that matter, does not always speak to the school’s quality or
fitness for you. Do check schools out with people whose opinions you
trust; but be sure to consider other information resources as well.
Finally, some learners return to school just to complete a degree for
personal satisfaction or to achieve a lifetime goal. If this is your case,
then you have the advantage of looking for exactly the right school for
you. Your requirements and priorities can drive your decision, and you can
take your time and make a good choice.
The School’s Characteristics
Once you understand something about your motivation and circumstances in
seeking an online degree, we can turn our attention to the schools’
characteristics. As online learning has burst onto the scene, the
education landscape has been reshaped.
Many new schools have been established, offering programs and procedures
that have reshaped the way learners achieve degrees. On the other hand,
many established schools have moved quickly to offer cutting edge programs
to meet learner needs.
If one of your priorities, as discussed above, is to attend a “brand name”
school, you may find that “brand name” in the new age of Internet
education means something different than it did when you graduated from
“Brand name” schools in the online environment tend to be those that have
built their reputations specifically in online education. Many of the new
schools, especially, have moved aggressively to establish their names and
their reputations for excellence.
With campus-based schools, “size” can refer to the size of the student
body, the size of the campus, or the size of any component of the school.
If you were going to school on a traditional campus, “size” considerations
might impact your experience in many ways, from socialization to parking
to average class size.
In online education, “size” is also an important factor, but its impact is
different. There are now several “big” schools, some of which boast
enrollments of 10,000 online learners and more.
These schools can offer advantages in terms of technology and service, but
still keep a “small school” feel in terms of their service level and
responsiveness. So you get to attend a “big” school without feeling lost,
as you might on a huge campus.
The key metrics for an online school are average class size and its
cousin, faculty-to-student ratio. For an online course, much like a
classroom course, smaller is generally better. Fewer students in the
course mean more attention from the instructor.
For many schools, it is tempting to stuff huge numbers of students into
their online courses. There are legends about state universities enrolling
literally 300 to 400 students in online courses. Obviously, there is no
way that an individual learner is going to get a highly responsive,
personalized learning experience from that situation.
Overstocking classes is primarily an issue for combination schools, those
that have “bricks and mortar” campuses and also online operations. Be
careful to ask about their average class size and faculty-to-student
Although in many fields the Internet has caused prices to plummet, online
education is largely an exception. Many online degrees are at least as
expensive as their classroom based cousins. Schools seem to be able to
charge a premium for the convenience of online learning, so we have not
yet seen the “Internet effect” impact higher education.
Many public institutions—state universities and community colleges—have
joined the online world and now offer completely online degrees. Before
choosing an online school, if price is important to you, you may want to
investigate options with your local community college and state
universities. Sometimes, the two will have collaborated to offer a
cooperative degree. These can be very advantageous from a cost point of
Its Program Options
Obviously, one primary consideration for you is whether or not a school
offers programs in an area of interest to you. Increasingly, program
options are growing, to the advantage of Virtual Students.
Generally, the first programs to appear online were the business and
technology programs, basically because they are cash cows for the schools.
Next came the Education and Health Care programs, because of the audience
size. Finally, some schools are beginning to offer programs in the arts
and sciences, usually with a digital twist.
Although it may seem obvious that it is more convenient to attend school
in your living room than drive to a campus every week, there are still
convenience issues to consider.
Schools can make the experience more or less convenient by the way they
handle scheduling and delivery. Scheduling refers to the way courses are
scheduled and offered. Delivery refers to the way the course is actually
taught and administered.
For many schools, the “semester” is the only scheduling mechanism they
understand. Consequently, courses are only offered on a semester schedule.
If you miss one this fall, too bad, you can wait to take it until next
The nature of online learning tends to follow the general pattern of the
Internet. Students tend to prefer more convenient scheduling options, such
as shorter terms, independent study or directed study courses, or more
However, for many schools, “wait until next semester” is going to be the
mantra for scheduling. If you are considering a school, look carefully at
its scheduling practices, both to determine its policies, and to see when
courses you need are actually offered.
Delivery processes also influence a school’s convenience, and greatly
impact a student’s experience. Generally, online courses are offered
either “synchronously” or “asynchronously.”
“Synchronous” delivery means that the course is delivered in “real time.”
The course materials are delivered, by video, audio, or chat at a
particular, specific time. That means everyone must “attend” the course in
order to receive the materials.
“Asynchronous” means that the course is delivered without regard for
specific time. The course materials are delivered flexibly, so that
learners may engage them any time. Usually an asynchronous course will
include time limits, but not impose specific time requirements on the
So, your professor may say “have everything done by next Wednesday at 7:00
pm,” but is unlikely to say “be in the chat room on Wednesday at 7:00 pm.”
In a synchronous course, everyone “meets” in the chat room on Wednesday at
Increasingly, schools are becoming more sophisticated about the way they
use time. Some are offering “blended” courses which meet primarily
asynchronously, but perhaps have a synchronous introduction or final exam.
The important thing to remember, and to investigate with your prospective
school, is that convenience is not just a matter of being able to learn at
home. Other factors also impact your overall experience as it relates to
When choosing a school, be careful to check its expectations about
technology. Be sure that their use of technology matches your needs and
For some schools, more technology is better. Their courses are set up with
more “bells and whistles” than a fire truck.
For others, the technology remains transparent. Their priority is to use
technology to facilitate learning, but not to let it get in the way.
Generally speaking, more technology does not make a better online learning
experience. It may enhance the experience, and may even make the learning
more entertaining. But the additional technology does not necessarily
assure that you will learn more.
Before you enroll with a school, be sure to “visit” one of its courses, or
take a demo course, just to see how it applies technology. Make sure that
you are comfortable with the way the school uses technology.
If the school makes the technology an obstacle or a distraction (for
example, if you have to download software just to take its courses), it
may be more trouble than it is worth. This might also indicate an
underlying attitude on the school’s part: it values its ability to show
off technologically more than it values your learning experience.
Accreditation is an important issue for online schools. It is the way that
many of them differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Accreditation is not a guarantee of excellent quality, good service, or an
enjoyable online learning experience. It is only a guarantee that the
school has been accredited.
Your situation is the most important determinant of whether a school’s
accreditation is appropriate. Check carefully with your employer or
prospective employers to determine the importance of accreditation.
Its Service Attitude
We noted above that the Internet has made it possible for big schools to
offer many “small school” features. This includes service, although not
all of them have embraced it.
Many online schools claim that they offer excellent “service” because they
have a toll-free number or offer chat-based live help on their Web sites.
Those are good things, but they are not the only service issues you will
need to consider.
Look for other indicators of their service level. Some examples include
how quickly they respond to a specific request or complaint, how willing
they are to make a legitimate policy exception on your behalf, or how
easily you can reach a high-level administrator.
These kinds of requests and needs indicate whether or not a school is
genuinely interested in your experience.
Perhaps the most important service indicator is intangible: it is their
interest in helping you complete your degree. If the school you choose is
really interested in helping you finish your degree, it will show up in
their attitudes and their policies. If not, that will show up as well.
Often, distance learners need flexibility. They need someone to waive a
policy, or make an exception, or handle something with unusual speed. The
extent to which your school is willing to do these things is an indicator
of how flexible they will be.
Flexibility in the online learning environment is a very important
commodity. Because the experience is distributed, learners tend to have a
wide variety of situations—personal, professional, and academic—that
impact their studies.
It is very important, when something comes up, to be working with a school
that will work with you. Some say they will. Others don’t even indicate
that they will ever veer from stated “policy.”
As a distance learner, those who are willing to cut you a break and be a
little flexible will be priceless to your overall experience, and to the
odds that you will finish your degree.
Its DL Focus
If you are considering a school that is primarily campus-based, but offers
online degrees, be sure to do some investigation into its distance
learning focus. For many schools, distance learning is at best a trendy
distraction, at worst a meddlesome, necessary evil.
If your school is not sufficiently focused on its distance learning
operation, you will pay a price. You might find that tech support is
insufficient. You might find that the “good” instructors never teach
online. You might even find that the online courses are only taught by
Your school’s priority and focus for distance learning will have an impact
on your studies. Be sure to check with other distance learning students
before you enroll in a school that offers a combination program. If the
distance learning students are considered “second class” to the on-campus
students, they will know. And they should tell you.