09 Jan Questions to Ask Before Choosing an Online Degree Program
I earned my Bachelor’s degree online with one of the big online programs and loved the experience… for the most part. I was working at the time and earning my degree online allowed me to continue my career, support my family and study at the same time. True, it was hard work and there were some very late nights getting projects done, but overall, it was a great experience and I would do it again. As a matter of fact, I am doing it again, working on my Master’s, though at a completely different school. Having been through this experience, I have given a good deal of consideration to what I might say to others who are thinking about online learning. Here are my thoughts:
- How is the school accredited? Schools with very low tuition rates frequently have sub-par or no accreditation. The highest level of accreditation is through one of the regional authorities (not national.) Such accreditation is not needed in all fields of work. However, this is something you should consider, especially if you think you may want to get an advanced degree. It would be a pity to earn a Bachelor’s from on school only to find that the degree was not accepted at the school where you want to earn your Master’s or Doctorate.
- Does the program have a brick-and-mortar equivalent? Unfortunately, some online programs have received a bad rap in spite of the fact that most are doing at least as well, if not better, than their non-virtual counterparts. Most state schools that have online programs, and nearly all of them do now, issue the same degree to online students as they do to traditional students. Depending on the field you are going into, this may be very important to you. Also, if you are looking at a school nearby you may be able to take certain class in the traditional setting where that works to your advantage. I wish I could have taken Statistics that way!
- How does the program run? Many programs will put you in a cohort with other students and this group takes each course in lock-step through the program. Others are asynchronous, which means you are free to move from one course to another on your own pace. There are advantages to both, so think carefully about which is most important to you.
- How much does it cost? Prices for online programs are all over the board. Some time ago I was looking at MBA programs and was stunned at the disparity. The cheapest I found was less than $6,000, the most expensive over $50,000. (The most expensive program included spending six months in China working on a major project, though living and travel expenses were extra.) Doing a cost analysis to see which school gives you the best bang for the buck is well worth the effort.
- What is the demand for the degree you intend to earn? Face it, the market is glutted with some degrees and starving for others. Do your homework and make sure that the degree you earn will put you in a position to get the kind of job, career and salary to make it all worthwhile. It’s a travesty that far too few students go through this exercise and then graduate with a mountain of debt and no way to pay for it.
- How many will be in your class? My wife teaches at a major university and has taught several online units. They tend to be labor intensive with lots of writing for the students and lots of reading for the professor. For that reason, a limited size class will mean you get a lot more direct attention when you need it… and you will need it.
- Does the program you are looking at require you to do some training at their facility? Again, programs differ a great deal in this area. Many do not require any on-campus participation, but others require anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. It’s something you need to know before you make a decision.
- Will you have to be in class at certain times? Some programs require that you be online for chat sessions or for live lectures: some don’t. You need to know if you can work your schedule around their requirements.
- What kind of online library will your program offer? Online programs typically require a lot of writing so have access to a topnotch online library is essential. The school I went to gave me access to all the best programs and, as a bonus; I still have access to them as an alumnus.
- Finally, do you have the self discipline to follow this through? One of the major charges against online programs is that their graduation rates are very low. Part of this has to do with the fact that this is something fairly new and some of the kinks need to be worked out, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are not afraid to dip their toes into the online programs and quickly bail out at the first sign of trouble. I would suggest making a long list of all the reasons you want to earn a degree and post it where you can see it every day. The going will get tough, but if you are properly motivated you can overcome.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t know to ask these questions but the program I entered ended up working the way I would have chosen. Not to mention the fact that there weren’t nearly as many choices when I got my degree. Still, if I were to look for a program today, these would be among the first questions I would ask and at least some should make it to your list as well.
Lee W Reed