Evaluating Online Universities
The poor economy has intensified the appeal of online universities, an affordable and convenient option for people changing careers or supplementing an existing one.
Recent statistics show the number of students enrolled in online universities has soared dramatically. According to the 2010 report about Online Education in the United States, enrollment rose by almost one million students from a year earlier. About 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2009.
Choosing an online school is no easier than applying for traditional colleges. There are many factors to consider that will affect your final decision. After you've settled on a group of schools, here are a few tips you can use to narrow down your choices and find the right one:
1. Compare tuition and fees. The cost of classes at online schools varies but is typically a few hundred dollars per credit hour, with each class consisting of three credit hours. For example, the University of Phoenix, a nationwide provider of education with the second-largest student body in the nation, charges about $715 per credit hour if you're seeking a Master's degree. Be wary of hidden fees including application and material fees, which can rise into the hundreds. If you're earning a degree instead of taking a few classes, you'll want to tally up the entire cost of the degree. Typically the online college will provide this for you in an information packet.
2. Check to ensure classes are accredited. In the US, there are many independent, nonprofit accreditors. The Department of Education maintains a list of nationally recognized accreditors, which includes both regional and national accreditation agencies. Most online schools have regional accreditation with one of several agencies that also accredit traditional colleges. If you are taking online classes to satisfy a pre-requisite at a traditional school, it's important you contact the latter to find out if the online class will be accepted.
3. Go to online forums for advice. There is no better opinion than a person who has already been through the process. Post questions to get answers about the best online colleges and how to manage workload.
4. Read each class description thoroughly. Some online classes aren't entirely virtual and require you to come in and take tests or meet for labs. If you're out of area and can't make the drive, these classes won't be convenient for you.
5. Check your potential school's ranking. The Online Education Database uses eight metrics including acceptance rate, financial aid, student-faculty ratio, retention rate, and years accredited to rank the hundreds of online colleges. Overall results can be found here.
6. Search the available programs. Often an online college has a limited number of degrees or classes to offer, since some degrees require hands-on training at traditional colleges. Phlebotomists, for example, could not get their degree online. But advanced business degrees like MBAs can be acquired virtually. In fact, this appears to be the venue of choice for many professionals who don't have time to attend class in person.
7. Research the class or degree program's time investment. Often a specific class will have a footnote estimating how many hours off the computer will be spent studying. It's a myth that online programs are easier. Be prepared to work very hard for your degree and to put in as much time, if not more, than at a traditional college.
8. Take note of how the classes are presented. Is it a podcast, a pre-recorded session, or a live video lecture? Every online college is different and don't prescribe to any set method. If you aren't prepared to log on for a scheduled class, look for an institution with flexible courses that can be accessed anytime.
9. Check to see if the class is structured or relaxed. Some online classes are organized just like a traditional college, where you attend each day, turn in assignments promptly, and participate in real-time communication. Others require more work offline and offer lengthier tests or papers. You should know which environment you operate best in.
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