Determining what is the best online college for you involves considering a number of factors, some objective and some subjective. The latter may include how friendly college personnel are in your dealings with them, or how comfortable you are with a certain school’s chosen software platform. These will differ from student to student based on individuals’ personalities, and academic and technical experience.
There are, however, a number of consistent quality standards that separate respected, legitimate online educators from those who are only after your hard-earned money. You need to consider whether a school is accredited, what majors it offers, what kind of results it produces for students, how flexible it allows you to be in your schedule, and more. Together, these elements will help you pinpoint the best online college for you.
Accreditation is basically a seal of approval from a neutral third party that verifies that a college meets certain levels of educational quality. In your search for an online college, you will want to limit your scope to only those that offer an accredited online degree. It is one of the safest ways to ensure the education you receive is reputable and the degree is valuable in your job search, as it ensures the facilities, faculty, and curricula of a particular school have been evaluated by reviewers in person.
There are a number of major accrediting bodies in the United States that serve various regions of the country. Some of the largest include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Northwest Accreditation Commission. By requiring that their members report any changes in their evaluation criteria, these organizations ensure schools remain in good academic standing year-round.
With the rise in popularity of legitimate online degrees has come a rise in the number of businesses offering fraudulent degrees over the Web. These “diploma mills” — so called because they churn out phony degrees like a factory — lure in customers by promising bachelor’s, graduate, or even doctorate degrees for the right price and little or no course work. Any school that blatantly markets degrees for money should be approached with extreme caution. For example, one notorious expose involved a dog receiving an MBA from Rochville University.
While it should be fairly obvious you can’t get a legitimate doctorate online without taking any doctorate-level courses, it may be tempting to accept an offer from one of these “schools” to receive a bachelor’s degree for life or work experience. Some accredited schools will offer a limited number of credits for such experiences, but never an entire degree. Diploma mills and degree mills may claim to be accredited by an accrediting board, but as we’ve shown, you can and should verify this information yourself.
Although online colleges typically display their accreditation on their own websites, you should verify for yourself that the accreditation is active. Besides checking the online directory of the accrediting body a school claims, there are two easy ways to find the best accredited online colleges. One is the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
A second, more thorough database of more than 8,300 institutions is offered by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The CHEA grants recognition based on its own six standards that address colleges’ quality, accountability, planning for the future, decision-making, resources, and more. Because the Department of Education’s database may not be up-to-date, we recommend that you check both sites.
They shouldn’t be the only tool in your arsenal, but consulting best online colleges rankings can be a valuable tool in making your school decision. Rankings can help you visualize how a particular school stacks up against its competitors using a few select parameters that are pertinent and important to your decision. These might include total cost, the school’s job placement rates, graduation rates, or time to degree, among others.
Of course, all rankings are not created equal. Motivations for rankings vary from purely benevolent to purely profit-driven, and the results from both ends of the spectrum could vary widely. A good way to identify an academic ranking of colleges is that the math used to derive the rankings is presented clearly with the list. A bonus would be for the data sets and sources to be linked to directly, as well.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: the more specific the explanation of a list’s methodology, the more reliable the rankings. The best-case scenario is a set of rankings that you can reproduce yourself using the formula and data provided by the rankings creators. An online college ranking list that gives you either a vague explanation of the methodology, or no explanation at all, is one you shouldn’t give any credence to.
Even though rankings may help you identify the best online college programs, these schools won’t be a fit for you if they don’t offer the field you are interested in as an online degree. What’s more, even if the school does offer your desired major, you may find it has additional requirements for completion that you are unwilling or unable to satisfy. Finally, just as certain brick-and-mortar colleges are known for particular, stellar departments, graduates of the same online school may experience different levels of success after graduation based on what field they majored in.
While many online bachelor degree programs may be completed entirely online, certain colleges require additional coursework for certain majors that cannot be completed via distance education. Majors like criminal justice technology at Wake Tech Community College that involve the use of high-tech labs and equipment are frequently offered as hybrid courses only, meaning a portion of the classes must be completed in person on campus. Other majors may allow all the instruction to take place at a distance but require tests be taken at a centralized proctoring location, in which case there would be some travel involved.
Some programs, like the teaching program at an online education college, may require you to earn certifications by training or to complete an internship somewhere; in the case of education majors, a school. Still others, like RN to BSN nursing programs, might be fully online yet require the previous completion of an associate degree or diploma for admission, which they do not offer online. It is important to remember that obtaining an online degree in these areas is still totally feasible. They may simply necessitate the need to enroll in an online college that has a campus in your area, or that offers your major fully online.
Some programs within a college’s online division are accredited by separate, specialized accrediting bodies like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the American Psychological Association. The Department of Education provides a list of specialized accrediting agencies on its website, separated by fields of study. Such accreditation can help you gauge the value of a particular program, knowing that professionals in your chosen field have certified the quality of that department, specifically.
Knowledge may be its own reward, but if you’ve ever tried paying your rent with knowledge you know the importance of translating your education into real-world value. This is why it’s helpful to assess an online program’s results, including job placement rates, retention rates, and on-time graduation rates. Some schools, like Ashland University, will display general internship and other employment data on their career services page. Others, like Antonelli College, publish this info in an annual disclosure, separating the data by major for a more specific picture of their numbers.
Thanks to technological advances, there’s really no reason you should feel isolated from your classmates in your online studies. The best online colleges facilitate, encourage, and sometimes require engagement among students and between students and their professors. Many of them will feature a video tour online that serves as an introduction for prospective students to the types of technology available to them.
The possibilities to “reach out and touch” your peers and instructors are almost endless. Strike up a conversation on FaceTime or Skype. Hit the class forums to debate your classmates or get help from a teacher’s assistant. Live chat directly with faculty during their virtual office hours. The more effort you put into connecting with your fellow learners, the better your online college experience will be.
If flexibility is your biggest priority in your online college search, you need to bear in mind that “online” is not always synonymous with “flexible.” For example, does that community college online that you are interested in offer enrollment year-round or is it restricted to a few times per year? Can you “attend” class whenever you want (asynchronously) or do you have to be logged in at a certain time of day (synchronous)? Do you have the option for a hybrid schedule, combining both in-person and online courses, if you so choose?
Though online education is a good choice for those with work or family obligations who are only able to take classes part-time, you are free to sign up for a full schedule of courses if you are able and want to graduate as soon as possible. Just don’t be fooled — an online full-time schedule will be no different than a full-time schedule at a brick-and-mortar college. You’ll have to allot a significant number of hours each week to complete assignments and study for quizzes and tests, in addition to the time you spend viewing lectures and participating in class discussions.
In fact, earning an online degree can even be more challenging than a traditional college experience. You have to be motivated and driven to make sure the freedom to complete coursework on your own schedule does not become an excuse to procrastinate so much you get behind. The best online colleges will be upfront with you about the dedication you’ll need to succeed online and the time you can expect to spend studying each week.
Though communication methods for online education have grown by leaps and bounds, some colleges continue to require online students to fulfill a residency or orientation on campus to foster networking among students and let them meet their instructors in person. These visits vary from school to school and may last from as little as a few hours to several days at a time. If you are adamant about being able to complete your degree entirely online with no campus visits, you’ll have to rule these programs out of your search.
At least two (but no more than three) paragraphs about how the best colleges offer online students the same services (disability, career, advising, etc.) as they would to traditional students.
One thing you’ll find the best colleges online have in common is a full-fledged suite of student services for online learners. Schools like Arizona State University assist students in their studies by offering library services and online tutoring. Round-the-clock online tech support is another great service to have when you need it. Career services and advising centers for online students is also crucial for succeeding in an online program and landing a job after graduation.
Some colleges also provide resources for specific groups, like first-generation college students or students who are also single parents. The best online colleges for veterans offer not just tuition assistance or discounts but extras like Ashford University’s vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with service-related injuries. The online programs at schools like Oregon State University also accommodate students with disabilities through dedicated services designed to help them succeed.
Another aspect you might not have realized could be a factor in your choice of online degree program is which school offers extracurricular activities. For example, students of the eCampus at St. Petersburg College may participate in school clubs like Digital Artists in Motion, Seminole Campus for Christ, or Hospitality Club. Kaplan University also offers a wide array of clubs and honor societies for its virtual learners. Joining one of these is another great way to get the most out of your college experience.
As you can see, there are a number of factors to consider when checking out the best colleges online. Rankings can give you a place to start looking, but ultimately your decision will come down to the circumstances of your life and what you hope to get out of your time in school. Do you want the most flexible online program where you can graduate the fastest, or do you want the most recognizable, respected online degree you can earn, no matter how long it takes? These are the questions you need to ask yourself, because only you can answer them.
The top colleges online are those that help students find their passion and learn a valuable trade. They equip students to be successful employees and responsible members of their community. These are the things the best colleges strive to do, be they brick-and-mortar or virtual, and as a student, you should expect nothing less from the online college of your choice.