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.
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.