Since the internet began, schools have been diligently looking for ways to turn it to their advantage – and now, that advantage can be yours, too. Online colleges are one of the best ways to learn new skills, enhance your career prospects, and ultimately improve your life. Here’s what you need to know about them.
Quality Or Quackery: Schools And Diploma Mills
In general, there are two kinds of online colleges: actual schools and diploma mills. The quality of an online college is best judged by the school(s) associated with it. For example, if the lessons were created by professors from Ivy League colleges, that’s a little more trustworthy than a hundred courses all made by one person who doesn’t seem to have a background in any field.
The actual courses tend to be split into two categories. First, it’s possible to earn an entire degree through online courses, which you can do after work and, in many cases, entirely at your own pace. This is a great way to improve your education if you can’t take time off to study in a classroom. In fact, some companies will even help pay your way through.
Alternatively, you can take individual classes to develop a specific skill. If you know that your company is going to transition to a new style of marketing, taking a course on that style can help you keep your job (or even put you in line for a promotion).
What matters here is the quality of the education. An online school that only gives you proof you completed the course if you pay for it is fine – they have to make money somehow, and that’s a fair business model. Unfortunately, some schools are only interested in churning through students as quickly as possible. That means minimum challenge and lots of efforts to upsell you on unnecessary products.
If you don’t get the skills you’re studying for, then the time and money you put in are wasted. This is why it’s always better to look for a reputable school.
Disabilities And Special Access
Some people need extra help in their education, and many online colleges support this. For example, lessons may use videos to help students who learn best by seeing and hearing other people talk, while a transcript on the side is offered for people who are hard of hearing. As if that weren’t enough, the transcript could be put through a Braille system to help people who are hearing and vision impaired.
Aside from those types of ‘live’ content, online classes tend to take place at whatever pace the student sets. This means you’re not being pushed to answer every question in a few seconds, giving time for deliberation, review, and even talking to someone else for help on a specific point.
We’re not going to go as far as saying that online colleges are the best choice for people with special needs, but they do offer real advantages.
This factor alone may decide whether you want to pursue a degree in-person or online. As explained by Affordable Colleges Online – a site dedicated to helping people find online schools – the average cost of online classes tends to be significantly lower. With (usually) lower food, housing, transportation, and tuition costs, you could save tens of thousands of dollars alone on an undergraduate degree.
Similar savings can be seen for individual classes and courses. Most of these require minimal time from instructors, so it’s easy to keep costs at a competitively low rate.
Some high-quality institutions, like Harvard, offer free classes. These won’t always come with certificates, but if an employer is willing to accept alternative proof of completion, they can be just as good.
What About Financial Aid?
Financial aid is available at most accredited colleges, regardless of whether the classes take place online or in person. Getting accredited involves the school being reviewed by an outside agency, which provides a certain level of trust.
The Federal Application For Student Aid is available for many online colleges, while schools and other institutions may offer grants, scholarships, institutional aid, and special opportunities for students who meet certain criteria. Common criteria include gender (especially females), ethnicities (minorities), disabilities, or joining the ROTC of the army (or another branch of the military).
Financial aid can vary on a school-by-school basis, so don’t be afraid to contact schools you’re interested in and ask about the available opportunities. You may be eligible for significantly more benefits than you realize, and not all of them will require going into debt.
What Programs Work Best Online?
The best certification programs involve skills that can be learned by sitting at a computer. This includes many knowledge-oriented subjects, as well as programming, languages, and similar topics. It’s much harder to get accreditation for something like metalworking when you can’t actually work with metal. (If somebody does offer a class like that, beware!)
Some programs can be partially completed online. For example, if you’re studying to be a nurse, you’ll need hands-on time helping doctors and working with patients. However, there’s no particular reason you need to take a medical terminology class in-person when that’s easy to do online.
Credible schools will only offer classes online if they can be done that way. As a student, it will be up to you to decide how many classes to take online. If you are doing a split, talk to an advisor about what online courses are available and how that may affect your educational plans.
Are Online Classes Easier?
Some people think online classes are easier than sitting in-person, especially when you have all the time you want to answer each question. However, major tests tend to be the same as those used in classes, and you may have a timer on those. In that sense, they’re not truly easier. You still have to know the material before you can succeed.
When Can I Start Online Classes?
That depends on the source. Some online universities offer their full selection of courses at all times. These usually involve little or no direct effort from an instructor, so you can complete them at your own pace.
(Some people like to relax and take longer to finish things, but others may take on a higher number of courses to get through their education faster.)
Other institutions only offer online classes on a particular schedule. These usually have more involvement with a professor and are offered three or four times per year. That said, they may be better if you ask a lot of questions and need more help than most of your peers.
How Do I Find The Right Online College?
Search and compare your options. There are plenty of websites that rank online colleges and provide useful information. While you’re looking, keep the following in mind:
- Price: Does the price match your budget? Don’t forget to consider financial aid, even if you’re older or returning to school after an absence. The “sticker” price isn’t necessarily what you’ll end up paying, and a school that seems too expensive at first may be the best for your budget.
- Course Selection: Does the school offer every lesson you want? If not, will they count credits from another school towards your degree? It’s best to avoid mix-and-matching online colleges, but it’s possible.
- Reviews: What do other people think about the online college? If only one in four people recommends it, stay away. On the other hand, if reviews are consistently positive on multiple sites, it’s probably worth pursuing.
- Graduation Rate: How many people actually finish their degree at the start? Some schools are definitely better than others, with graduation rates above 90%. On the other hand, some quality institutions may only graduate 1/3 of their students. (This doesn’t mean the school failed them – it may mean they just transferred out or found something else to do with their lives.)
- Style: This is a little harder to quantify, especially before you can get into classes and experience it for yourself. Essentially, different schools have different ideas about education, and these are reflected in their online courses. Some schools have a lot of critical thinking, others prefer to just transfer knowledge as efficiently as possible.
- Transfers: Schools occasionally accept two kinds of transfers: work done at other colleges and real-world experience. If you’ve spent time on a job, that could significantly cut down on the number of classes you need for a full degree. (It’s irrelevant for single classes.) This varies wildly with each school, so you’ll have to check them individually.
- Other Services: Finally, many schools provide other services that can help you. These range from financial aid and counseling to help to find jobs, expanding your social network, and more. Be sure to check which services are available and take advantage of them if you can.
Online certificate programs aren’t for everyone, but they are a valid choice for continuing or completing your education.