Sep 21, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Good for you! You have decided to study online. Now for the tricky part -- how do you find a place that is going to meet your needs? Not all online programs are the same. They differ in structure, delivery, expectations, and cost.

How do you choose? 

1. Decide whether or not location matters

For some online programs, it doesn't matter where you are in the world for you to feel engaged and connected to your program. For others, it does. For others, online programs are a hybrid of in-person and completely remote endeavors.

If you are considering online programs that are attached to brick-and-mortar schools, your best bet is to find a relatively local one. If your program is a public, in-state one, it matters -- at least tuition-wise.

If physical location is less important, you can go with programs that support your affiliations. For example, if you are military, you will want to find a program that supports those on active duty, retired, or veterans. 

While you don't have to limit yourself to location, you should consider whether you will need to visit campus and your access to resources for your coursework.

2. Check out the program's structure

The key here is relationship.

It is critical that you have opportunities to interact with your professors and your peers. If your online program does not offer those options, give it a second thought.

Yes, those interactions can be virtual. No, you do not technically need to leave your kitchen table, or wherever you work. But you should be part of an online community.

What else should you consider when looking at the program's structure? Besides the opportunities to interact with classmates and professors, you want to make sure that the instructors are vetted, or certified if they need to be. There should be ample opportunity for live, virtual sessions, and if you are one student of hundreds, you will want to make sure that there are other faculty and staff associated with the program to whom you can reach out. 

3. Compare, compare, compare

Don't rush. Don't just look at one or two schools and make your decision.

There are thousands of choices out there. Be strategic. Select about a dozen or so and research them thoroughly. Look at their websites. Reach out to admissions offices. Ask to see sample courses. Get a feel for what it will be like to study at this online program. If you can't find programs willing to give you a tour? Don't do it. Strike them from your list.

And whatever you do? Make sure your program is accredited. 

You want the best deal for your time and resources. 

4. Ensure that the program's flexibility matches your needs

Online learning is all about flexibility, right? Well, you'd be surprised at how that varies across the online learning continuum. 

A few things to consider when learning about a program's flexibility: does the program run on a semester schedule? Or can you take classes completely on your own schedule? Is on-site attendance required or recommended?

You need to choose the program that offers the flexibility you need. If you can and want to commit to a traditional semester, do so. If that will not work for you, find a program with some different options. 

5. Find out about student services

A solid online program offers advising, financial aid, technical support, student services, and an alumni network. Don't shortchange yourself. 

You'll need an online adviser, someone who can help you through course selection and registration, as you determine your path forward. 

Your online program likely has a library of online resources for you, in addition to a variety of apps you will have to navigate to access them. Find out if there is tech support so you will know where to turn when that video will not load, or the assignment uploading tool crashes. 

Financial aid for online programs works just as it does for brick-and-mortar ones. What's different? You have to figure out how to find the office. Make sure that the path towards financial aid is clear and that you talk to a live person who takes the time to answer your questions, review your package, and ensures that you understand your financial commitments. And yes -- there are scholarships for online students

Learn more about online studies. 

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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