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Choosing an Online Program

The growing popularity of online programs in higher education is undeniable. Prospective students are choosing online options at an increasing rate, and both traditional and online institutions are adding new online programs to their catalogs. A recent Sloan Consortium study found "the largest ever year-to-year increase in the number of students studying online." This report also found that "nearly 30% of all college and university students now take at least one course online."

Delivery is just one thing to consider when exploring higher education options. You may find that the flexibility and pace of an online format work with your schedule. You may also find a wider variety of options by adding online programs to your search, moving beyond your local geographic area. Choosing the right online program for you should include some thoughtful and purposeful information gathering. How can you compare the programs you are considering? What factors are important to you in an online program?

Selection Factors

A 2010 survey conducted by the Noel-Levitz higher education consulting group identified 11 factors that influence a prospective online student's decision to enroll in a program. The top 5 most important factors are:

1. Convenience,
2. Flexible pacing,
3. Work schedule,
4. Program requirements, and
5. Reputation of the institution.

Note that these factors represent a combination of influences – some are under the school's control, others reflect constraints defined by the student. The remaining enrollment factors identified in the study include:

6. Cost,
7. Financial assistance available,
8. Availability to transfer credits,
9. Future employment activities,
10. Distance from a physical campus, and
11. Recommendations from an employer.

Many of these factors apply to both online and traditional programs. Remember, the goal here is for you to find a program that will help you meet your education and career goals. Let's take a closer look at these influence factors and several others you should consider as you conduct your comparison of online programs. As you read through the checklist, decide which factors are priorities for you.

Comparison Checklist


­­­____ Costs: What are the costs associated with the program? Include all potential costs, including tuition, fees, equipment and Internet access. How much will each term cost? How much will you spend on the entire program?

­­­____ Financial Assistance: Find out what options are available in terms of scholarships, grants, and loans. If loans are in your future, figure out how long it will take you to pay the loan amount back, with your projected future salary after graduation. Consider using an online financial aid calculator


____ Type of Accreditation: Accreditation can affect a lot of other things, to include financial assistance and future employment. Accreditation also provides some assurance of basic academic quality. What type of accreditation does the program have? 

____ Transfer Credits and Prior Learning Assessments: If you have completed previous college-level credits, completed placement tests for credit, or received credit for prior experience, how will these credits transfer into the program? If you think you may transfer from the online program to another school or continue for a higher degree, how will credits from the program transfer?


____ Reputation: How are the program and the school that offers the program, perceived by the general public? How will potential employers in your planned field value the degree? 

____ Word-of-Mouth: Ask around. Have any of your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or family members taken online courses with the school? If so, what was their experience like? Do they have advice or recommendations?

____ Placement: Are graduates from the program finding the type of employment opportunities they were working toward? Are employment statistics available from the program?

Academic Preparation

____ Degree Program: Is the discipline you will be studying relevant to your education and career goals? Some fields have very specific requirements to allow you to continue with advanced study or to secure successful employment.

____ Faculty: What are the qualifications of the instructors who will be teaching your courses? Do they have advanced academic preparation? Do they have practical experience working in the fields they are teaching?

Student Support Services

____ Library: What access will you have to library and research materials for use in your courses?

____ Career Services: Are there services devoted to career development decisions and the job search process? Will you be able to work with a career counselor? Is there a job placement service?

____ Academic Advising: Are professional academic advisors available to guide you as you choose courses, develop your Plan of Study, and enroll in each term? 

­­­____ Counseling Services: The pursuit of higher education can be a stressful endeavor. Are there additional services available to help you with stress, time management and study skills?

Program Requirements

____ Program Length: How long will it take to complete the program? This may be a factor in your decision if you have other issues and requirements related to time – your employer for example, may require completion within a certain timeframe if the organization is helping you with tuition.

____ Residency: Some online programs do require you to attend meetings or seminars at a physical location. Are there residency requirements? Other programs require practicum, clinical, or internship hours in a work environment where you are observed and evaluated. What time and location requirements does the program have in addition to coursework?

____ Pace: Is the program conducted in academic terms (usually ranging from 5 to 15 weeks)? Or is the program self-paced (allowing you some flexibility in the time it takes to progress through and complete each course)? Are there requirements related to how many courses you can take at any one time? A specific sequence of courses may also be directed.

____ Format: Are the online courses completely online or offered in a blended format that requires some type of face-to-face meeting? Will you be required to communicate primarily asynchronously (at a time of your choosing) or synchronously (at a scheduled time)? A combination of communication techniques may be included in any given course. 

Conduct Your Own Analysis

According to Noel-Levitz, the typical online student is 25-44 years of age, employed full-time, and enrolled in online courses full-time. Adding the demands of an online program requires some advanced planning. Take the time to assess your readiness and prepare. Once you've decided that online learning is for you, the next step is choosing a program. Create your own checklist and use it to compare the programs in which you are interested. Ask questions of your network and of admissions and enrollment representatives.

As you do your research, remember that there may not be one best choice out there. With no perfect fit, you will need to make some sort of compromise. You may also encounter a situation where you have multiple good options. What are your priorities for an online program? Different students will have different considerations, preferences, and priorities. Help us to extend this list! What other items influence your decisions about online programs?