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.

Your Characteristics
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 online forms.

Your Requirements
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 broad areas.

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.

Your Priorities
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 your degree.

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 work.

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 company’s requirements.

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 interest.

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 high school.

“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.

Its Size
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 ratios upfront.

Its Cost
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 view.

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.

Its Convenience
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 fall.

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 frequent offerings.

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 learner.

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 7:00 pm.

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 convenience.

Its Technology
When choosing a school, be careful to check its expectations about technology. Be sure that their use of technology matches your needs and your capacity.

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.

Its Accreditation
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.

Its Flexibility
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 grad students.

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.

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