Online degrees have come a long way in just a few short years, rising from a $2.5 billion industry in 2004 to a $10 billion industry in 2006, according to the Post-secondary Education Factbook. The success of online educational programs is no surprise; these programs offer convenience, flexibility and the opportunity to save time while continuing your education. In fact, the number of online students represents nearly 10 percent of total students enrolled in post-secondary education nationwide!
Fortunately, it isn’t just the number of online students and schools that has gone up, but also the quality of online degree programs. If pursuing your college degree through online education is right for you, look for these six important features or qualities when considering schools:
1. Accreditation. Unfortunately anyone with a web site and a server can provide an online education program. The prevalence of online diploma mills has given certified programs a bad reputation. When looking for a school, only consider those that have been evaluated by the same regional associations that accredit traditional colleges and universities. Accreditation is critical if you plan to eventually transfer credits to another school, or if you want your efforts to help you land a better job.
2. Technical Support. Many online schools are trying to incorporate advanced technologies into their programs. However, the average person’s modem speed may not be sufficient for these advancements. Since most online degree programs haven't been around long enough to work all of the glitches out of their systems, programs that utilize proven technologies (such as web sites, e-mail and bulletin boards) may be the safest bet. Also, be sure the online school offers technical support and learn about any software or additional equipment you might need.
3. Financing. It is important to consider financing options before choosing a school. Check to see if potential online schools offer financial aid for those who qualify. You may be eligible for a federal student grant or loan. Apply by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. These financing options are only available if the university is qualified to participate in the funding process.
4. Qualified Faculty. Even though you won’t be receiving face-to-face attention from your instructors, they should still be experienced – both in their field and in how to facilitate an effective online classroom.
5. Interaction. The best online programs allow for interaction with the instructor and fellow students through chat rooms or instant messaging. These forms of communication can help you understand and retain the material, as well as provide extra motivation to complete your degree. There are also a number of programs that involve a mixture of in-person class time and field work. Face-to-face interaction can be a helpful learning component, but if that isn’t something your schedule allows, look for a program that is exclusively online.
6. Advising. It can be in your best interest to choose a school that will assign you an academic advisor. An advisor can help you with administrative details and answer questions as you go.