Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

Summary: More prospective students are turning to online options. What are some factors you should keep in mind before enrolling?


In the aftermath of rising tuition fees, competition among university places and an increasingly hectic lifestyle, online degree qualifications are rising in popularity as a means of progressing a career and studying around commitments.

However, do your research before you commit to a qualification. Online courses may be a means to study around picking the children up from school or balancing a full-time job, but unless you choose wisely, it's not necessarily a financial shortcut, and you may even finish without a recognised qualification.

Will you be financially better off?

Online courses are not as regulated as campus-based programs. Make sure to check exactly what expenses a course requires -- not just the enrollment fee. You should also consider the cost of materials, examinations, and whether there are any 'hidden expenses' -- for example, the use of technology or activities. Many students may not realise the actual cost of an online degree program until they've enrolled.

How will you pay?

There are borrowing options available for online learners as well as traditional, campus-based students. If you are financing your own degree, research loans available. Federal options such as Stafford or Perkins loans are available to apply for, and private funding options should be used as a last resort.

Will your current employer be willing to help fund your studies?

Full-time professionals may have the option of having their online studies funded by the company they work for. This may not be an advertised fact, but it is always worth checking with your employer to see if this option is available. Some employers may not reimburse you for your studies until you receive your final grade, so check with the institution offering the course to see if they offer flexible payment terms.

Does the institution offering the course possess a good academic reputation?

Make sure the course is offered by an institution that is accredited by an agency on a regional or national basis. Checking a database or directory in advance can save a student heartache when they've paid and studied hard for a 'worthless' course.

A recent list has been published by U.S. News that ranks the top 100 online courses currently on offer.

Prospective students should do background checks on the institute, and if possible, get some current student feedback. Teaching online is a different game from instructing in a lecture hall, so if possible, find out whether the course tutors have this kind of training.

Is the course on offer 'too good to be true'?

If a program offers a three-year course in half the time, it's likely that the qualification is either not accredited or a scam. There is a reason courses are a certain length, and that time is required to study a subject properly. Take a deep breath and consider the reasons behind the duration of a course before enrolling.

Are student amenities available?

Just because you're studying online does not necessarily mean you aren't entitled to the same benefits as campus-based students. If a slice of student life is important to you, ask the institution whether you can become involved in campus activities, and whether are able to use facilities such as career and advisory services.

Some institutions offer learning-only options, whereas others offer 'blended' options, such as the University of Phoenix. Sometimes knowing there is a physical support structure in place if you require it can make all the different to staying on track with your chosen degree option.

Are you self-motivated enough to stay on track?

In order to succeed at an online course, a student has to be technologically competent, as well as highly motivated. Studying on your own without the pressure and attendance records of traditional campus study can be difficult, and often commitments threaten to get in the way.

A good online tutor will monitor your progress and evaluate your participation, but this isn't always necessarily the case. You will be required to study in your own time and resist day-to-day distractions.

Do you have the technology required?

Students will need a computer, online access, and be technologically proficient enough to navigate course software and programs. In addition to this, you may be required to create PDFs, combine video and various types of media for presentations, and be able to use software such as Microsoft Powerpoint for coursework.

The big picture -- will the cost justify the result?

Opinions concerning online courses vary. Some see the option as a means to continue study while balancing work commitments, others view it as a poor substitute for traditional classroom. If you're considering a distance-based qualification, consider whether it will help future prospects, and what you stand to gain from your time and money.

Photo credit: Andrew Stawarz/Flickr


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  • RE: Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

    I have to take exception to this...<br>"Make sure the course is offered by an institution that is accredited by an agency on a regional or national basis."<br>I don't know about other countries, but in the US the standard accreditation is Regional. All the big name schools are all regionally accredited. Most will not even recognize credit from Nationally Accredited. National Accreditation has been picking up some momentum in the last few years, but with its lower standards (it was pretty much started by a group who couldn't get regional accreditation) many companies and such will not even recognize it as a valid degree. I know "National" sounds better, and thats part of the scam of how they founded it... to try to make it sound better. I've known a few people who went through 2 or 3 years getting a Nationally Accredited degree, only to get into the workforce and many employers pass them by telling them thats not a regionally accredited degree, and they won't recognize it. They then went to a regionally accredited program, but NONE of their credits would transfer, and they had to start over again... total waste of time and money<br><br>National Accreditation agencies have been trying to turn that all around in the last few years and become something better, but in your own self interest, its best to avoid it still.
    • all the schools i've attended were National Association of Colleges and


      Schools accredited and i've never had a problem transferring credits.
      not sure what agency you're referring to about "regional" accreditation.
      but then i've never studied online.
      been considering UAT though.
      and the local junior college has an online program.
      but i'm way past the two year program.
      i've heard stories of the education scams, just never seen it.
      how do you get one of those mail-in degrees?

  • RE: Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

    Also check to see what the style of learning is. If they are planning to ship you a big box of books, it might not be as "online" as you were hoping. Good online courses are designed as such, not just a reselling of a classroom course.
  • RE: Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

    Some good points but you place too much emphasis on a school being accredited. Both regional and national accreditation can be purchased from "accrediting agencies" that are no better than some of the diploma mills. If you are depending on accreditation, check out the accrediting agency as well. I know of some on-line schools who purchased a good sounding accreditation for a few hundred dollars.

    And good luck with your educational plans.
    • RE: Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

      @Shara8 Would you care to elaborate? Reputable accreditation such as the one offered by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and its related organizations is usually a few thousand plus a nominal fee per student enrolled. On top of that add thousand of dollars in visit fees and others. Definitely not cheap or easy to obtain. If those institutions you mention bought accreditation I am positive it was from some obscure "accreditation" agency. As with most things in life it is each person's responsibility to do their research.
    • RE: Online degree? Avoid heartache, do your research first

      there are many accrediting agencies that are scams... yes, but I think you misunderstand what Regional Accreditation is. Its talking about 6 specific accreditation bodies... if its not one of those 6, its not Regionally accredited. National on the other hand... there are a few, but no actual guidelines on what can really be called National... but overall its almost worthless next to Regional. A lot of other accreditations are useful that aren't one of these... for specific programs, like specific nursing accreditations, or accounting... whatever... but you still do not want to go through a program with only those. The good programs have the extra accreditations along with being Regionally accredited too.

      going through a non-Regionally accredited program for any more than specific training certificates is basically a waste of your time and money.
  • Self-motivation is crucial.

    Depending on online class, when it comes to the scope and requirements of assignments, instructors may be lax or they may be stringent.

    Most of mine have been stringent, but the downside is not getting fast results when asking questions. Only once did that have a negative impact, but I did get the answer.

    But, you bet, self-motivation is VERY important. In all forms of education, that's a given, but without an instant response from an instructor, such motivation is even more crucial.

    And, even then, in this day and age, for online or on-campus courses, some instructors are not good stewards of their profession, either undercutting students because they are incapable of teaching or because they want to "minimize competition" should they go back to doing the work instead of teaching it. After all, the world is made up of all types... :(
  • Online Degree

    Online Degrees provides access to learning that would otherwise be inaccessible to many people. Web-based programs present a flexible, independent learning opportunity that fits the schedule of busy people and complements their experience.