Our Best Online Degree Directory is a compilation of online degree programs that excel at meeting student needs and goals. Our award categories reflect the most important search criteria for students selecting an online college. We researched all available online degree programs and highlighted the schools that excel in the areas of: Value, Flexibility, Career Support, Financial Support, Technology Support, Student Engagement, Disability Support, Learning Support, Faculty Credentials, Faculty Accessibility, Alumni Engagement, Prior Learning Options, and New Online Student Orientation.
We know that every college student has individual needs and that there is no "one size fits all" approach to college selection, so our editorial rankings aim to help simplify the online college search process and help students find the online degree program based on criteria most important to them.
In 2011, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and PayScale.com reported the value of a college education as "less than $400,000 over 30 years' time." Value, however, is in many ways a subjective measure, since each prospective student brings his or her individual expectations, goals, motives, and requirements to the experience. While calculating return on investment (ROI) in the context of higher education is challenging, value might include considerations of varied costs and potential outcomes, such as finances, time, and sacrifices related to adding studies to work and family responsibilities versus new employment options, career advancement, fulfillment of personal goals, and increased knowledge and skills.
An annual study conducted by the Noel-Levitz higher education consulting group routinely finds "convenience" as the top factor influencing a prospective student's decision to enroll in an online program, followed by "flexible pacing" and being able to accommodate a "work schedule." When looking for flexibility, prospective students should consider multiple components of online learning options, such as: synchronous vs. asynchronous components, residency requirements, and scheduling options.
While traditional, face-to- face programs are increasingly asked to demonstrate how they help students prepare for specific careers after graduation, online programs are often developed with career preparation in mind and marketed specifically to students interested in advancing their employment in some way. Schools can go further to help with career development, though. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers identified the top five career services: 1) resume writing, 2) job listings, 3) job search assistance, 4) career counseling, and 5) internship assistance. Online students should research the availability of school-sponsored assistance, such as career fairs, workshops, career assessment tools, employer networking events, and alumni outreach.
Student loan default is a growing concern and according to ProjectOnStudentDebt.org, "college seniors who graduated with student loans in 2010 owed an average of $25,250." In addition, USA Today concludes that "the highest default rates are at for-profit schools that tend to serve lower-income students and offer courses online." To afford college, students should explore the variety of financial support mechanisms available. Three primary categories of support exist: loans, grants, and scholarships. College and university financial aid advisors should work closely with prospective and active students to determine what each student is eligible to receive.
Online students are reliant on working technology and connectivity to the Internet to engage in and complete their work in academic courses. For this reason, they require school-sponsored support with the tools needed to attend their courses. The OnlineStudentSupport.org project recommends providing this kind of support in the following ways: administrative leadership that assesses the need and coordinates resources, training for both students and instructors on technology usage, budget and administrative assistance to manage technology support services, and end-user support, like a help desk-type system. Additional types of support that students should look for include the ability to purchase hardware/software through a school at a discount, or directly from vendors offering discounts to enrolled students.
Online students, like on-campus students, can benefit from informal learning that occurs through participation in student groups and extracurricular activities, like in honor societies and clubs, as well as collaborative Web-based work spaces and learning communities. Online students should also seek out opportunities to engage in professional associations relevant to their fields, which may have a school-based chapter or representative. Inside Higher Education notes that "the more students feel part of a community, the likelier they are to stick with an online program." Retention, career readiness, and overall learning are potential benefits of engaging in online student activities.
Online learning is often an option for students with disabilities. Some of the potential difficulties presented by having to attend courses on campus are alleviated by attending school online from their homes. For any school Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act establish basic requirements for making educational opportunities accessible for all. Many institutions have disability service offices available to assist students with a range of disabilities, from physical impairment to learning challenges. Prospective students who anticipate a need for disability support should look for availability of adaptive technologies, specific courses and tutorials designed to meet the needs of disabled students, and assessments that help to determine what type of support is required. Counseling and advising services may also be available to help students with general disability management issues.
Library and Research Support
Online students, particularly those in graduate-level programs focused on research, turn to online support from their schools to gain access to library services that might range from subscriptions to academic journals to one-on-one consultation with a research librarian. According to the American Library Association, "U.S. libraries of all types are turning more and more to social media and Web 2.0 applications and tools, using a wide range of applications to connect with customers." Prospective online students should look for the following types of library and research support: library orientation sessions, online tutorials, library holdings in databases specifically focused on their field of study, links to library resources from within their course sites, and ways to communicate directly with school librarians. Databases should allow for students to search for materials in multiple ways, such as by keyword and author, and include arrange of materials. Online programs may also have agreements in place with other on-ground institutions that allow students to seek assistance in physical library facilities in their local communities.
The skills needed to successfully pursue college-level work are often lacking in new high school graduates, as well as adult learners who have been away from school. In 2010, USA Today reported that "nationwide, about a third of first-year students in 2007-2008 had taken at least one remedial course" in math, English, or reading. Luckily, online schools can help students progress with their studies through tutoring, peer advising, coaching, writing assistance through special "writing centers," and learning disability evaluations. Math assistance is also sometimes available. In addition to one-on-one virtual communication with advisors and counselors, students may also have access to recorded tutorials and live workshop events on topics such as "developing test-taking skills." Prospective online students should research the availability of a range of learning support services to help them with their academic work.
In addition to needing academic credentials in their field, online instructors are often marketed as having related practical experience. Since many online faculty members are adjuncts, they are also often working professionals. Faculty "bios" posted on the school's website usually include resume-type information, and official course evaluations may reveal more details about each instructor's teaching style and effectiveness from the student perspective. The Sloan Consortium's Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education Programs includes measures of teaching and faculty support in the overall evaluation of a program's strengths and weaknesses. It may also be helpful for prospective online students to inquire about who the faculty members are, find out more about their credentials and qualifications, and research how they are supported by the school in terms of professional development.
It may be helpful to know how individual faculty members are tasked with additional duties, such as student advising, and how many courses and students they are managing during a typical academic term. This information could provide additional details related to faculty workload, as well as policies related to student involvement. Several of Chickering and Gamson's "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" relate to faculty skills and accessibility, and were translated for online teaching by Virginia Commonwealth University. These practices include "encourag[ing] student-faculty contact" through development of "social presence in an online learning environment" and "active participation and interaction by the faculty with her or his online students."
Becoming part of a college or university's alumni network can be powerful in terms of both social and professional pursuits. These communities are sometimes quite extensive with everyone sharing the common tie of attendance at the same school. Online colleges and universities are no exception, as they build active alumni associations engaged in a range of activities. In addition to alumni directories and associations, students may be able to contact online school alumni through local/regional clubs and social events, as well as through social media communities. Student-alumni mentorship programs may also be available while they are enrolled in courses to promote professional networking. Kaplan University's Alumni Community pages provide an example of services and connections that are possible.
Prior Learning Options
According to The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL), "to retain and graduate more adult students, Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) – awarding college credit for college-level learning from work and life experience – should be standard practice at your college and university." PLA is gaining acceptance as a way for students to not only be awarded academic credit for past work and life learning experience, but also apply it toward a formal degree program. Many options now exist and CAEL provides the following list: portfolio-based assessments, evaluation of local training, American Council on Education (ACE) guides, challenge exams, Advanced Placement (AP) exams, CLEP exams, Excelsior examinations, and the DSST Credit by Exam program. For adult students with work experience in the field they want to study, PLA can help them reach their educational goals sooner and with less tuition. Prospective students with PLA and or/previously earned college credits should research transfer policies and understand what will and won't count toward their degree plan.
New Online Student Orientation
Orientation options, which prepare students for classes before classes begin, are increasingly available, and often required from online colleges. An article from The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) suggests the following components be included in a new student orientation: "meeting" key school and program personnel; details about academic structures, requirements, and policies; information about support services and student activities; and the registration process and other administrative processes. In addition to a formal orientation, prospective online students can look for other ways to familiarize themselves with academic expectations through school websites, FAQs, and online course demonstrations and samples. These students should also be aware of any opportunities to enroll on a trial basis, such as Kaplan University's Kaplan Commitment, before committing to enrollment.