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How to Choose an Online School

posted by Mark on February 13th, 2009

How to Choose an Online SchoolWith hundreds — or even thousands — or online degree programs available, the decision of which school to choose can be a daunting one. With that in mind, here’s a handy checklist of things to look for on the school’s website and questions to ask the school counselors and admissions officers. Print it out and cross off each item as you complete it. Or use it to wallpaper your Barbie Dream House. We’re not picky.

Step 1: What Do You Want to Study?

___ What subjects interest you?

___ In what subjects did you excel in school?

___ What salary range are you looking for upon graduation? Will a degree in your subject(s) of interest earn you that amount?

___ Research what professions are open to graduates with a degree in your subject(s) of interest.

___ If you’re going to school in collaboration with your current job, make sure you choose a subject that will both benefit your position and satisfy any company requirements.

Step 2: Make a List of Schools

___ Search to see which schools offer online degrees in your field of study.

___ Ask someone working in your field of interest what school they attended.

___ Eliminate any schools that aren’t accredited by an agency recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. If the school isn’t properly accredited, your degree might not be recognized by employers or other schools.

___ From what organization did each school receive accreditation? The most reputable accreditation for an online school is one from one of the major regional accreditors: the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA), the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA), the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges (NWCCU), the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS) or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

___ Do you plan on transferring? If so, credits from a school accredited by the Distance Education Training Council (DETC) might not transfer to a school accredited by one of the regional accreditors above.

Step 3: Research the Schools

___ How long has the school been in business? Newer schools are riskier, since there’s less of a track record by which to judge their performance and stability.

___ Is it a general education school, or does it specialize in one area? You may be more comfortable taking nursing courses from a school that specializes in medical fields, for instance.

___ Is the school primarily a real-world, brick-and-mortar institution that is dabbling in online learning? If so, your level of service might not be up to par, even if the school itself has a good reputation.

___ What is the cost of tuition? Are there any hidden fees?

___ What sort of financial aid is available?

___ How many students are enrolled in the school? A small student body may indicate instability, but a large enrollment might imply less individualized service.

___ What is the student-to-teacher ratio? A low student-to-teacher ratio typically provides more personalized, intimate faculty support and interaction. Schools with a combination of online and real-world classroom settings tend to have larger ratios.

___ What is the school’s graduation rate?

___ Does the school offer virtual job “library” or other job placement assistance?

___ Does the school operate on a semester schedule, quarterly or otherwise? If you miss out on enrolling in a class, do you have to wait until the next semester/quarter?

___ If you are entering with credits from another institution, what is the school’s transfer policy? Make your you get credit for the work you’ve done elsewhere. Also, check to see how your credits will be applied. Will they count towards your required courses, or will they be considered electives?

___ Does the school offer credit for real-life work experience? Some do, and you could be throwing away credits by not inquiring.

___ What technology is required to take classes online?

___ How easy is it to get your questions answered? Can you get a response quickly from the appropriate person? Are they willing to make policy exceptions on your behalf? Do you feel like you’d have the support you need if you enroll?

___ Is there direct assistance available, from either a help desk, counselors or faculty members? Is help available for only specific hours? Is there a toll-free phone number or online chat available?

___ Do you know anyone who’s taken classes at the school who can offer their opinion? Look for online message boards or groups with former students.

___ Take a “demo course” to see how a class typically works, from both a technological perspective and a level of comfort with the learning process.

Step 4: Research the Program

___ What degrees are offered in your program of interest? Do they suit your needs?

___ How long does it take to earn a degree? Are you allowed to work at your own pace — either faster or slower than the standard? Is there a limit on how long you’re allowed to work towards your diploma?

___ Which classes are required for a degree in your program?

___ How many other elective courses are offered? Are there any unique classes that strike your interest?

___ Is there flexibility to develop your own program tailored to your needs?

___ Check the course schedule for conflicts between classes that you’re interested in. Are courses that you’re interested in offered only at certain times of the year?

___ Do classes have mandatory “real time” online attendance, or are you allowed to listen to lectures and pick up course materials at your leisure?

___ Do individual assignments have specific due dates, or can you complete them at your own pace?

___ How qualified are the teachers in your program? Do they have at least a Master’s degree? Ideally, they might even hold a Ph.D.

___ Will you be required to purchase many textbooks, or is most of the material available online? Textbooks can add a significant cost to your education.

___ What sort of multimedia elements are involved in your coursework?

___ Does the program offer internships? What is the job placement rate?

___ Do they allow you to speak to a representative from your area of interest before enrolling? It might be helpful to at least email a professor for his or her input.

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