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Find the Best Online Colleges

by ConsumerAffairs Research Team

With more employers looking for college-educated employees, the decision to attend college is a popular one. If you are considering continuing your education digitally, use our guide to research and learn about the best online college for you. As online college enrollment increases, these colleges become smart options for busy working adults and students who enjoy the flexibility and lower cost that online education offers.

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How does online college work?

Online college has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade. Many traditional colleges and universities now offer online programs in addition to their on-campus courses. Online-only schools typically offer a limited number of degree programs and do not have a campus for students to study in a more traditional environment.

There are many legitimate online-only schools, but there are also schools that are commonly referred to as “diploma mills” that may not take their course quality as seriously as other, more legitimate offerings. Take caution and do your research before enrolling to make sure your degree will be applicable and accepted by employers as legitimate after you graduate.

Getting your degree from an online program offered by an established university awards you the same degree you would receive for attending in-person classes. 

Online degree programs

Not every college offers every degree program, particularly with online schools. Some programs require practicums or internships that are not available online. Still, there is a wide range of online programs available. Some of the most popular online degree programs are nursing, MBAs, computer science and accounting.

  • Online certificate courses: Continuing education is a broad field, and many online colleges have courses that could be viewed as professional development. Make sure whatever certificate courses you take are acceptable to the necessary professional organizations before enrolling.
  • Online associate’s degrees: Outside of RN and similar programs, many online colleges have comprehensive associate’s degree programs, but they may not transfer to another college. Be sure to check on transferability before signing up for classes.
  • Online bachelor’s degrees: While many traditional colleges offer online bachelor's degrees, they may offer fewer programs online than they do in person. If you want a four-year degree, make sure it is available in your desired program. If not, you may be able to find a hybrid online/on-campus program.
  • Online doctorate degrees and graduate programs: Many online programs offer master’s and Ph.D. degrees in fields ranging from business to nursing. Make sure your degree is coming from a legitimate institution by checking the school’s accreditation — otherwise, your extra credentials won’t mean much on the job market.

Online class schedules and flexibility

One of the biggest benefits to online college is the flexibility and student-led scheduling. It should let you work around social and work commitments as you earn a degree. Some benefits of this increased flexibility include:

  • No set times: Most online colleges have no scheduled class time, but be sure to ask before enrolling in a class. Some distance learning programs make students meet online for discussions or lectures.
  • Flexible semesters: Some online colleges offer flexible start dates, which can be helpful for those working around busy schedules.
  • Open coursework: Some instructors make assignments due on particular days and do not provide information for students to work ahead. Others have an open syllabus that lets students turn in work as it is completed at their own pace.

What to look for in a good online college

The quality of the instruction offered at different colleges plays an important role in online students’ confidence at graduation and entering the workforce. Here are a few things to look for when comparing online degree programs: 

  • Good instructors: A good instructor can mean the difference between absorbing knowledge and simply completing assignments. Most colleges have a faculty and staff page on their website, so consider doing some research into who is teaching the programs that interest you. What’s their background, how long have they been with the university, and what are students saying in reviews?
  • Challenging curriculum: You don’t want a program you can skate through just to get a sheet of paper at the end to say you graduated. Look for programs that will challenge you and teach you new things that will be applicable in the real world and the industry you wish to work in.
  • Responsive student services: When having trouble submitting an assignment or understanding certain concepts, a responsive network of educators can make the difference between success and failure in a course.
  • Support services: Traditional colleges have office hours in place for students to visit with faculty along with writing centers and libraries where students can seek help. A reputable online college offers support for online students in other ways, including having advisors and tutors available by chat and/or phone, teleconference options and career services.
  • Ability to transfer: Consider it a red flag if an online institution doesn’t transfer credits to other colleges, even if you have no intention of transferring. It may be because their standards are too low to be accepted by other institutions of higher education.

Online college accreditation

The goal of university and college accreditation is to ensure that the education the institution provides meets acceptable levels of quality as determined at the state and federal levels. Additionally, accreditation determines a school’s eligibility for certain federal and state financial aid programs.  

Many online colleges, universities and programs are accredited; others are not. To check the status of an online school, search the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

Online school authorized partner programs

Online schools are most often accredited by one of seven major regional accreditors that are officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These seven are:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Accrediting Commission for Schools Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACS WASC)

Some departments within a school may also be subject to programmatic accreditation. Specialized programs, like those in the health care field, may receive accreditation from accrediting bureaus that specialize in a particular area. For example, the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) accredits public and private institutions that offer health, medical assistance and medical technology programs.

National vs. regional accreditation for online schools

Regional accreditation is the most rigorous and widely accepted. Regional accreditation typically indicates an educational institution’s focus on academics and a nonprofit status.

Other online schools — often those that offer religious, vocational or technical training — are nationally accredited by one of 11 accrediting agencies. Although some are officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, national accreditation carries less weight because national accreditors more often award accreditation to for-profit educational institutions through a less rigorous review process.

Credits from nationally accredited online colleges may not be transferable to regionally accredited online schools and traditional colleges and universities. There are some exceptions, however, and certain programs must be nationally accredited to be acceptable across state lines. This is particularly true for health care-related fields.

Why does accreditation matter for online programs?

Accreditation is an independent and reasonably objective endorsement of an academic program, department or educational institution. More specifically, proper accreditation is an authoritative statement that the academic program, department or institution meets or exceeds standards in critical areas, including student achievement, faculty, curriculum, facilities, student support services, admissions practices and student complaints.

Without a credible assurance of quality in these areas, there’s no reasonable guarantee that an institution offers an education that enables a graduate’s success in either further academic pursuits or the workforce. It’s also the mechanism by which the public (including potential employers) and the federal government (in its role as the distributor of student financial aid) use to determine the legitimacy, quality and credibility of a postsecondary education institution.

A student enrolled in a non-accredited program or institution loses not only an important assurance but also the eligibility to receive federal financial aid while studying there, the ability to readily transfer credits and, potentially, to compete in the job market.

Online college cost and financial aid

With the average year of higher education carrying a price tag of over $9,000 at public institutions, cost can be a big part of the decision-making process. Costs vary widely for online programs and will likely depend on the student’s specific situation.

According to U.S. News & World Report data, the average total program tuition cost for an online bachelor’s degree can cost anywhere from $38,496 at a public institution to $60,593 at a private institution. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you explore pricing at different universities.

  • Price per credit: Most colleges charge per credit, not per course or degree program.
  • Subscription pricing: Some online colleges have started to offer a subscription model that lets students complete as many courses as they can within, typically, a three-month time frame. This lets them work as fast as they can and complete more credits in the same time.
  • Degree pricing: Some online colleges offer a single price for a degree, but this is typically a warning sign of a potential diploma mill.
  • Check default student loan rates: This statistic is more useful than job placement statistics to tell you how likely you are to get a job after you graduate and whether a particular program is worth the price of admission. An online college with a high rate of students who default on their loans may not give their students the tools they need to get well-paying jobs, or at least jobs that pay enough to help handle their student loan debt.

Financial aid for online college

Grants, scholarships and student loans are an essential part of paying for college for many people. Financial aid for prospective students includes multiple forms of funding — grants, scholarships, work-study programs, fellowships, employer assistance and loans — from private and federal sources.

Federal financial aid is available for online learners enrolled in a properly accredited institution or program.

  • Federal and state aid: Grants are the most desirable part of the college financial aid equation because you never have to pay them back. Make sure any school is eligible for federal and state aid packages to help you reduce some of your cost.
  • Comprehensive scholarships: One area where traditional schools tend to dominate is in the scholarship dollars — they have long histories and alumni associations that fund a variety of scholarships. Ask about what internal scholarships are available through potential online schools before making a decision. External scholarship and grant opportunities are also worth looking into for online learners, as many scholarships with specific criteria (e.g., a scholarship for a student pursuing a graduate degree in history) go unclaimed each year.
  • Student loans: Take a look at the final student aid package offered to you. If it is mostly in student loans, be sure to lock in a low interest rate. The first bill after you graduate can be an unwelcome surprise.

Online college FAQ

Are online colleges legit?
As a type of postsecondary education provider, online colleges are legitimate. Among the online education providers, however, there are hundreds of diploma mills with accreditation that is either nonexistent or not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. That being said, for every bad egg, there are even more legitimate online programs colleges, including traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that offer online degree programs and advanced certificates.
Can you get financial aid for online college?
Maybe. Financial aid encompasses a variety of funds available from private, state and federal sources. Provided that the institution or program is properly accredited, federal aid is available for online learners. Private sources of financial aid typically have the same accreditation requirement. To verify an online school’s eligibility, you can search the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
Are there accredited online nursing programs?
Yes, there are properly accredited online nursing programs. For nursing programs in the United States, the two major accreditation agencies — both officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education — are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). It’s especially important that prospective nursing students search the agencies’ directories for program accreditation status. A student’s prospect of getting licensed relies on obtaining certification, which requires graduation from an accredited program.
Is online college cheaper than traditional college?
An online education isn’t necessarily less expensive than attending a traditional institution, though there are many affordable online colleges. While distance-learners avoid costs associated with attending college on campus (e.g., room and board, campus-based facilities and services fees, commuting, time off from an otherwise full-time job), they’re sometimes charged a higher tuition rate or an online access fee for each credit. You’ll need to compare programs side by side to see which is most affordable for you.
Do online degrees say “online” on your diploma?
While you won’t find “online” or words to that effect in embellished calligraphy, the diploma will, of course, identify the granting institution. Minus the information specific to its recipient, the diploma of a student who took notes in a lecture hall is identical to the diploma of a student who took notes on a laptop at the kitchen counter. Where the diploma or transcript may let on that a degree or credential was earned via distance learning is the name of the institution itself.
Is online school less stressful?
Whether acquiring an education online is less stressful than learning in a lecture hall is, in part, a matter of personal preference and an individual’s temperament. It’s also a matter of planning. Students who report higher stress levels in their online educations cite distractions in the learning environment at home, a lack of communication or meaningful interaction with faculty or peers in their academic programs, declining motivation to keep up the pace and lack of the sense of obligation to contribute to classroom conversations.

In order to stave off some of the stress, a student should find a quiet location to concentrate on coursework, connect frequently with classmates and instructors and exercise above-average time-management skills.

Are online degrees respected?
Yes. The landscape of postsecondary education has shifted significantly over the last decade. Highly esteemed institutions as MIT and Harvard offer distance-learning degree programs and certificates, and it’s become clear that credentials earned outside of a physical classroom can carry significant academic prestige. What began in the margins of academia — videoconferencing, web-enabled active instruction and other online formats — is now a central means of acquiring an education.

In short, it’s not the “online” aspect of the education that’s called into question: It’s the quality of instruction and an individual’s achievements in the course of acquiring the education that matter.

Are online degrees worth it?

Where an online degree is determined to be worth it depends on the student’s circumstances. If your existing commitments don’t allow for in-person attendance in a course on campus or local colleges in your area don’t enable you to pursue your field of interest, an online school’s offerings may better suit your needs than an on-campus experience.

Online degrees can often be particularly beneficial for:

  • New grads looking for flexibility: Those fresh out of high school looking for a way to attend school on a tight budget or while they seek employment benefit from the flexibility of an online college.
  • Promotion/job seekers: To get to the next career level or change career paths, an advanced degree or specialty certification is often necessary. Many colleges offer continuing education, master’s and doctorate programs online.
  • Full-time workers: Online colleges are an ideal, flexible solution for those who need to work full time while pursuing their diplomas.
  • Lifetime learners: Some people simply enjoy learning about different subjects. They may want to audit a variety of courses or pursue certifications online for personal enrichment.

If you’re considering pursuing online education, remember to research the accreditation status of each program you’re considering, look online to see what students are saying and see if any student job placement and loan default rates are available.

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    by ConsumerAffairs Research Team

    The ConsumerAffairs Research Team believes everyone deserves to make smart decisions. We aim to provide readers with the most up-to-date information available about today's consumer products and services.

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