Going back to school at any age can be daunting. Whether you’ve recently graduated and are looking to continue your education, or you’re going back to finish what you started, the options can feel endless and overwhelming. But don’t worry; looking for the best online colleges for you doesn’t have to be as intense and overwhelming as it may seem.
Here are some things to look for–and to look out for–in the best online colleges and program to make sure that your degree is credible, worth your time, and your money.
1. Accreditation is REALLY Important
One of the first things that you will hear when you begin your search is to make sure that the program you’re looking into is accredited. This is an absolute must if you want your degree to be taken seriously, or think there is a possibility of returning to school for another degree someday. Proper accreditation means that the institution granting your degree is kept to high standards. It also means that the classes you are taking (and paying for) are rigorous enough to actually teach you the skills you need to help you advance your career.
For more information on just why accreditation matters so much and what it all means, check out our comprehensive guide.
2. Look into the courses offered
The courses that make up your program requirements will tell you a lot about the program itself. Looking into the general requirements gives you a good idea of what the institution values for their graduates. The major requirements will tell you how rigorous the program is as a whole.
Compare and contrast the courses with traditional programs and other online programs. If you think you might transfer at some point, make sure the classes you take are similar to those offered at other institutions. If the classes for the program you’re looking at differ from those at reputable programs, steer clear.
3. Make sure that you will receive a solid amount of support
Getting an online degree requires you to be self-motivated, have great time management skills, and be incredibly organized. But no matter how organized and motivated you are, everyone needs help sometimes. Looking into the support services offered by the institution can help you to determine the legitimacy and worth of the program.
The professors should be available to help you with your classes, but so should a tutor or success center. Looking into what types of tutoring options are offered. Or if there are disability services available to you if you are in need. It will give you a good sense of the institution’s ideals as well as some much-needed peace of mind. You should also be able to ask an advisor and career services office to help you out if you have questions about your degree or what you should do after completing your program. The main goal of returning to school is to advance your knowledge, your career, or both and the institution should be there to help you to achieve your goals.
If you are having trouble finding any information on their website, or over the phone, you can expect to receive the same level of help, or less, as an enrolled student. This should be a giant red flag.
4. Financial aid should be a priority
Going back to school online can save you money in the long run. But, that doesn’t mean that it will be cheap. Investigate the financial aid that the institution offers. Are they providing scholarships that sound too good to be true? Do their loans come from private institutions or the federal government? The answers to these questions should be easy to find, and a financial aid officer at the institution should be happy to help you navigate the confusing world of financial aid without being pushy.
Also carefully consider the cost as a whole. Colleges do not all cost the same, and many institutions can be predatory in the way that they target certain sections of the student population. So do your research and make sure the numbers add up–is the cost worth the benefit you’ll receive from that particular college?
5. Trust your gut
Choosing one of the best online colleges for yourself means nothing if you don’t want to go. Ultimately, you have to listen to yourself when you’re making the decision to go back to school. You should feel 100% comfortable with your decision, or finishing your degree will be a thousand times harder than it needs to be. Take the time to talk to professors and other students if you can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If something feels off, it probably is.