Guide to Online Colleges and Universities

Online courses are equally as demanding, if not more so, than regular classes. Coursework takes an average of 15 to 20 hours each week for online students. Time commitments will, of course, vary depending on the degree level achieved.

Graduate students, for example, will devote a significant amount of time outside of class to complete degree capstones such as a thesis or dissertation. Because the majority of students’ education takes place through chat rooms, discussion boards, email, and site-specific materials.

fully online universities provide the most freedom. This makes it a viable option for full-time employees, stay-at-home parents, and military personnel. For students who are physically unable to commute to campuses, online colleges may be a viable option.

Finding & Comparing Online Colleges

1. Accreditation

A school’s accreditation status can tell you a lot about a school’s credibility, academic standards, and administration practices. A bit of research will help prospective students avoid degree mills or fraudulent online schools that either misrepresent their qualifications, or flat-out lack accreditation.

Accreditation agencies operate on the national and regional levels. These organizations assess a school’s administrative operations and academic methods, and give recognition to schools that meet established criteria for quality. The 84 national agencies evaluate schools holistically, focusing on the rigor driving each department’s courses and curriculum.


To be sure an accreditation agency is legitimate, visit their website to see which organizations back them. The two main organizations that oversee accreditation agencies in the U.S. are the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the Department of Education (ED), each focusing on different types of accrediting agencies.

The CHEA is an advocacy group that reviews accrediting agencies, encouraging “self regulation of academic quality.” This group focuses on educating the public about diploma and accreditation mills. The ED reviews and recognizes accreditors that are “reliable authorities concerning the quality of education and training offered by the institutions they accredit,” and uses this status to determine eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

2. Types of Online Colleges Available

When it comes to online schools, public and private distinctions are similar to those found when comparing their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Public and Not-For-Profit Schools are usually funded by the state and state residents’ taxes. If a public online college is operating in your state of residence, then you will likely qualify for lowered tuition. Public schools also tend to prioritize resident admissions, which may increase acceptance rates among in-state students. Student populations tend to be larger at public institutions, so the student-to-teacher ratio may be higher.

Private and For-Profit Schools rely on donations and tuition payments to operate. Private school tuition tends to cost the same for both in-state and out-of-state residents and in most cases is higher than public not-for-profit schools. Depending on the level of funding they receive, private colleges might have access to newer facilities and technologies.

They typically offer students smaller classrooms and reduced student-to-teacher ratios, as well. In many cases, the reputation of a private school precedes it — likely in a good way. In fact, many students are willing to pay more simply to possess a degree from a prestigious program.

3. Online School Costs

For many families, no factor matters as much as cost. Especially given the disparity in price between programs. Consider that in 2015, the average undergraduate tuition for in-state, public students was $9,410, and the average tuition for private students was $32,405 — more than three times as much.

While there is certainly cheap tuition to be found, the industry consensus is that top online colleges aren’t any more affordable than their traditional campus equivalents. But as the reputation of online universities solidifies, the standard forms of aid and scholarships have been made available to online college students.

4. Technology Requirements

Access to technology is critical during your time in school, as the bulk of your studies and academic communication will occur online. Your hardware and software must meet your school’s minimum requirements so you can participate in your courses.

Online activities include streaming lectures, reading digital course materials, participating in live chat rooms, communicating with classmates through message boards, uploading assignments, and taking exams. Check with your school’s online resources center for more information about technology requirements.

5. Academics

How do you find online colleges that distinguish academic standards within your chosen field? It’s not enough to choose a school based on its reputation. Here are a few ways to ensure that an online school offers both high level academic programs as well as the support systems that students need to excel in them:

6. Reference

Your college’s retention rate is a strong indicator of both academic quality and student life. Accredited online colleges are required to provide these figures to any student or parent who inquires. You can track this information down yourself with the help of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which lists the graduation rate along with borrowing and loan data for several schools.



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