Dec 1, 2016 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Thinking about choosing an online degree?  Good choice.  There are thousands of programs out there—how do you choose?  Universities around the world are embracing the concept of online education.  We’ve assembled seven criteria for you to consider when evaluating all of your options for your online degree. 

Let’s take a closer look at what you want—and what you don’t want—in your online degree program.    


1. Accreditation

First of all, what is accreditation?  Think of it as a stamp of approval.  It’s a process by which a school or degree program, like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Online or the London School of Marketing,  meets certain standards of quality and rigor.  Outside authorities grant accreditation to schools and universities based on a series of criteria.  While accreditation is voluntary, it’s extremely beneficial for programs and schools.  Why?  It provides validation of a program or school’s authenticity, rigor, and quality.  All employers, especially those not familiar with online education, will want to ensure that they are hiring someone who earned their degree at an accredited school. This is particularly important for professional degrees like law. Look for schools like the Florida Coastal University of Law that are accredited by the American Bar Association.

How does accreditation apply to online programs?  Currently, the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) offer accreditation for online programs. 

If you want your degree online, check to make sure that both your prospective program and institution have accreditation by the Department of Education or CHEA—or by organizations that are recognized by the Department of Education or CHEA.  You shouldn’t have to search for this information—it should be clearly listed on the school’s website. If you’re unsure, you should call the school at the contact number listed.  If the school or program isn’t accredited by CHEA or the Department of Education—or if its claims sound too good to be true, it’s probably best to stay away. 

Here’s a great accreditation tool to use: the College Navigator on the Department of Education’s website. 


2. Credits Policy

Be careful.  Make sure that you can transfer the credits you earn to another university or program if you choose to switch.  If you can’t transfer the credits, find out why.  If it’s because other universities or programs won’t validate the online credit, then you may have a potential problem.  If the credits will transfer, then that’s great news for you—it gives you the flexibility to start your program online—and then finish wherever you’d like.  If you already have existing credits from another institution, make sure that you can transfer them into your new online program.  If they won’t transfer into the program, again—find out why. 


3. Support services

Just because you’re in an online program doesn’t mean that you don’t have any support.  Any respectable online school or program, like LIGS University or the Interactive Design Institute, should have support services—answering questions about technological issues, class registration, transfer of credits, program requirements, electronic libraries, advising, and career placement are all relevant concerns regardless of whether your campus is remote or brick-and-mortar. 

If you can’t find out about support services on the school’s website, or with a simple phone call, then buyer beware.  You should be able to interact with a human being who can help you navigate your online experience.  If your emails go unreturned, or your phone calls go unanswered, or if you’re on hold for way too long, move on.  There are better choices out there.


4. Curriculum

Online programs are available in a multitude of subjects. You can study everything from commerce at RMIT University: Online to psychology at Divine Mercy University. Interested in a specific program?  E-mail the professors whose programs interest you.  Ask for a sample syllabus.  You should be able to get one easily.  How is the curriculum delivered?  Video?  Written?  Combination?  What kinds of media are involved?  Beyond a computer with reasonable internet speed, you shouldn’t need to buy much of anything to take online classes. Do they answer your questions?  Are they excited about their work?  Do you want to interact with them?  Are they enthusiastic and helpful? 


5. Age

New online programs and universities spring up all the time—and some of them may be just fine, as long as they meet your criteria, especially accreditation.  Many venerable—and accredited—institutions that have been around for decades also offer online programs.  With these programs, you assume less risk.  When you study online at an already established institution, your degree has automatic, proven value—value that future employers don’t question. 


6. Social Interaction

Yes—online programs require you to spend a lot of time in front of a computer.  That shouldn’t preclude you from interacting with your classmates and professors.  Find out if your program has a collaborative component, like Washington University School of Law.  Platforms like Google Hangouts, Skype, Adobe Connect, and Scribblar, among others, offer students and faculty the opportunities to interact in real time.  The school or program should provide you with any relevant accounts; you shouldn’t have to shell out extra cash for any collaboration tools.  How do you find out?  Ask.  If you can’t get an answer, chances are that social interaction isn’t a significant part of the program—and it should be. 


7. Financial Aid

Apply for financial aid with the FAFSA—and inquire about any financial aid opportunities that your online school or program offers.  Find out about tuition installment programs.  You should also ask about scholarships.  Weigh your options.  Beware anyone in the financial aid office who does not disclose all relevant financial information, or refuses to answer your questions.  Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Congratulations on the starting your journey in online education.  Use the tools available to you and remember—make the smartest choice you can to give yourself the most options for your future.  Happy studying!



Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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