10 Things to Look For In An Online College
By Christina Couch, Contributing Writer
Think you’re ready for an online education program? Slow down there cowboy. Before you enroll in any type of online degree program, you’ve got to make sure you know exactly what you’re jumping into. To make sure you’ve got the real skinny on your future online university, here’s our checklist of ten things you should know about your next e-college.
- Accreditation – Thanks to the world wide web, it’s now become easier than ever to find or forge a school. Currently a billion-dollar industry, diploma mills offer the same programs and courses as legitimate higher education institutions and can easily be mistaken for a real school. What separates the genuine from the fake is accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes six regional accrediting agencies (The Middle State, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, and Western Association of Colleges and Schools). Before you send in that app, check that your university is accredited by contacting the Council on Higher Education Accreditation at http://www.chea.org/ or by calling 202-955-6126.
- Program Structure – Not all online programs are made equal, or even remotely similar for that matter. What all online programs have in common is that some component of the degree will be completed via the internet. Whether you’ll attend class at a specific time or on your own, submit coursework via e-mail, online message boards, or videocasting, or complete an in-person job or internship while keeping up with classwork is entirely dependent on the school you attend. Prior to enrolling, check out what you’ll be learning as well as how.
- The Faculty – Sometimes it’s not what you learn, but who you learn under. Having teachers that are knowledgeable, approachable, and available when you have a question will be crucial to your collegiate success. Doing your homework and finding out who your professors will be, how well-known they are in the academic world, what published works they have out, and what their former students have to say about them will give you a glimpse of what your program of study will be like.
- The Community – Just because you’re not sitting in a classroom doesn’t mean you won’t have to interact with your classmates. From collaborative group projects to online discussion boards, you will be working with and learning from other students from across the country. While some schools make conscious efforts to facilitate learning between and amongst students, others do not provide outlets for students to ask each other questions and help solve each others problems. To get a clearer picture of just how interactive your program of study will be, contact your future school’s admissions department and ask to speak with a couple of professors as well as graduates from your major.
- The Finances – What happens if you have an unexpected cash drought? You’ll have to ask your financial aid officer to find out. You may be eligible for private need or merit-based grants, scholarships, or loans through your e-university. Talking to your school’s financial aid department early, at least three months before the start of classes, could pay off for you in the future.
- The Time Commitment – The only thing worse than not enrolling at all is getting in and failing. Since online programs vary tremendously in terms of how much is expected of the student, it’s worthwhile to contact a few of your future professors and ask up front how much time and work will be required for their classes. Knowing what’s expected before you step foot into a virtual classroom will let you budget your time accordingly.
- The Hidden Fees – Beyond footing your tuition bills, you’ll also need to pony up for books, student fees, school supplies, internet usage, a computer, personal expenses, and any software you may need for your program of study. In addition to giving you a tuition figure, your school’s financial aid office should also offer an estimated cost of attendance. Grab a copy early so you know that heading back to school won’t break the bank.
- Off-Campus Programs – If your school is an online offshoot of a brick-and-mortar college or university, you may be eligible to participate in on-campus programs such as study abroad trips, student clubs, and professional organizations, attend university-sponsored workshops or lecture series,’ or use on-campus facilities such as labs or the library. Remember to ask your admissions counselor what kinds of on-campus perks are included with your tuition money.
- Career Placement Services – A degree means little if you can’t use it after you graduate. Prior to enrolling, ask your admissions counselor about who the top recruiters from your program of study are as well as whether or not the school offers an alumni networking program. If possible, interview a few alum to get the real scoop on how your degree will fare in the real world.
- A Back-Up Plan – In case of emergency, it’s always good to have a plan. Before you sign on the dotted line, ask your admissions counselor what happens to your credits and tuition dollars if you need to withdraw unexpectedly. Specifically, you’ll need to know how long you can withdraw before you lose your credits, what happens in case you need to transfer schools, and how a semester or two away from school will affect your financial aid. Knowing your options will save you time and stress further down the road.