What to look for
There are now many online universities. Some online degree programs are offered by traditional universities with campuses, while others only exist in cyberspace. Selecting the right school and being sure your degree will be recognized by potential employers is the first step. How can you tell whether a program is a real educational experience or a diploma mill? Here are some things to find out before signing up.
Look for a university with accreditation from a recognized accrediting organization. This is important because it means the school meets established standards of quality. Well-known universities like the University of Florida, Northwestern, Purdue and Notre Dame are examples of accredited institutions. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes universities accredited by one of the six accrediting bodies. Students who attend accredited universities are usually eligible for federal student loans and the course credits they earn generally transfer to other accredited institutions.
Picking a degree program
To determine if a degree program fits your professional and personal interests, review the curriculum and course descriptions in university web sites and course catalogs. Do they offer courses in subjects of interest to you?
To learn more about whether a program might be good for you, ask about the faculty's industry experience and the scope and focus of their research. Do they have the appropriate advanced degrees for what they teach? Find out where the professors got their degrees. If all or most of them graduated from the same online university you are considering, this is a red flag, suggesting their academic credentials are weak. A real university will have teachers who have graduated from many different schools.
How students apply what they learn to their fields of expertise and to their communities are also strong indicators of a program's value. Ask what employers, organizations and professional associations partner with or support the university. Talk to someone at the university and explain your educational goals and career plans. Whether you wish to advance your career, change careers, make a contribution to society or become more expert in your field, be sure the program you choose will get you there. One way to find out is to learn how the university's alumni are doing. Alumni success or lack of it reflects the quality of a university and its programs. Ask for examples of how alumni are using the knowledge they gained in their professional and personal lives.
If the university accepts everyone who applies and can afford the cost, be suspicious. A real university will require each student to meet appropriate admissions requirements.
Online teaching is different
Make sure any online universities you are considering know how to deliver and support online courses and that you have the technology you need to take them. Do the faculty members know how to guide the classroom experience to ensure learning objectives are achieved? Are your computer and Internet connection up to the task? Assignments are typically posted online and discussions take place as threaded postings. Most online courses require students to log in and contribute to discussions a certain number of times each week. Many courses let you log in any time, anywhere as long as you meet the weekly course requirements.
What type of student support services are available? How responsive are instructors to student inquiries? What opportunities are there to interact with fellow students? This interaction enables students to gain knowledge and understanding from others with a wide variety of geographic, cultural and professional perspectives. The most effective courses, especially for adult learners with years of work experience, are those in which students gain the insights and perspectives of everyone in the class.
Can you afford it?
Though attending an online university allows you to live where you do currently so you won't pay anything extra for living expenses while you study, there will be charges for books, tuition and fees. Find out what other expenses there will be, if any, to be sure you can afford your studies. Ask if financial aid is available, as some schools offer it to online learners.
Note that tuition and fees at online universities are often higher than what is charged at their campus-based counterparts. However, these schools offer personalized support and a convenient and flexible format geared for the adult learner. If a university's tuition and fees are significantly less expensive than other online schools, double check on its accreditation to be sure it is legitimate.