March 9, 2010
There are countless online colleges and countless degree programs and if they're doing anything right in the way of promotion they probably all sound ideal and exactly right for you. Browsing online college websites and catalogs is a good way to become conversant in the online college marketplace but making a serious choice requires clarity, focus, and a lot of research.
Know What You Want
Let your educational needs dictate your choice of program. This will eliminate a slew of schools. Some of them may be excellent schools with excellent programs, but you are not after a generically excellent education. You are after an education that suits you.
Depending on your prior education and profession, you may be already set on a degree and ready to survey schools. Even so, be sure that your chosen degree resonates in your field, in your industry, in your company. Be sure that you can put your degree to real use. Will this degree qualify you for a broader range of jobs? Will this degree improve your earning or advancement potential? Will this degree help you transfer your skills to another field? Would a different degree or a certification program better serve you?
If you are unsure what direction to take or unsure what education is necessary to break into a field, take the time to self-assess and feel out your options. Work backwards. What career, what job, what opportunities do you want to have in the years to come? What credentials are necessary for entry-level application and for subsequent advancement? Is more than one level of education necessary and what undergraduate degree is best suited to graduate acceptance? What programs substantively prepare students for vocational or professional opportunity?
Know What You Can Handle
Don't assume that online courses will consume less of your time than traditional brick-and-mortar classes. Online schools afford students flexibility but courses are just as demanding. Determine how much time you can realistically devote to school. The rule of thumb is two to four hours of study time per credit hour each week, depending on the difficulty of the material. Also take into consideration how courses are structured. Not all online courses are built alike. Self-paced courses offer far more flexibility than facilitated instructor-directed courses. Facilitated courses can impose schedules, short-term and long-term deadlines, and interactive requirements; even brief and irregular communication with instructors and fellow students can consume more time than anticipated. Lastly, students may be saved from commuting but should expect inevitable technological speed bumps and potholes. Files take time to download, service can be interrupted, and computers crash without notice.
Narrow Your Options
After cursory research on a large number of schools, narrow down your options. Engage in thorough and exhaustive research on a select number of schools. Your research should ultimately lead you to five or six serious options, eight schools at the most. Applying to more than that may suggest a fuzzy sense of what you want out of an education.
If you find yourself having trouble narrowing your options down, take a step back and reassess your motives and your goals. Separate what might be selling and seducing you into a college from what is substantially right for you in a college. Research more: it just may that be you haven't yet broken through the surface understanding of schools.
- Examine program prerequisites, program outlines, course descriptions, and faculty credentials. Compare and contrast programs at different schools.
- Investigate beyond the web. Contact schools with questions; talk to admissions or department representatives. Remember recruiters are paid to recruit.
- Find out how courses are structured within a program; find out the technical requirements for the school, including any program- or course-specific accessories. Ask after the extent of general tech support provided to students.
- Look at program retention rates; how many students graduate is a far better indicator than how many students are enrolled. Seek out current students and graduates; try and gather a sense of schools, programs, courses - beyond what school representatives provide.
- Utilize your network of colleagues and friends for help in gathering experiential information, as well as for a sense of how a school or program resonates in your field or industry.
Check The Credentials
Make sure schools are accredited and legitimate. An unknown name is not necessarily a red flag. There are many small institutions that lack visibility but are nevertheless quality providers of education. Visit the Department of Education website. Utilize accreditation databases. Cross-reference schools with diploma mill and scam reports. See companion article on this site for more detailed information on diploma mills.
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