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Online Programs in the News: Lessons Learned for Prospective Students

Online education has received a great deal of news coverage over the past year, especially as offered by for-profit programs. This business model of delivering educational opportunities to students is very different from traditional education and so faces a different set of challenges. As the industry evolves, there will be new challenges on the horizon, as well as new benefits as industry leaders adjust to meet regulatory requirements and student needs.

Let's take a look at several of the concerns that have emerged and develop a list of related questions you should consider asking as you meet with admissions counselors to find out more. Just as the organization will screen you as a good fit for the program, you should screen the organization to make sure the program is a good fit for you.

Transferring Credits

Quality can vary not only school-to-school, but also by department, program and course within a school. It's difficult to predict how each institution will accept course credits from another institution. This can even be an issue within a university. This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, for example, that Harvard programs do not accept credits from an online Harvard summer school program. 

  • Transfer in – If you have earned credits from previous institutions, will the new online program accept them?
  • Required or Elective – If transfer credit is possible, which courses specifically will be accepted and how will each one count toward your degree requirements?
  • Transfer out – You may decide at some point to change schools or programs or continue with a more advanced degree. Will your work in the online program be accepted? Have other students done this successfully?

Academic Advising

Academic advisors are usually available after you enroll, but there are a few concerns related to the academic requirements of a program that you should address before you enroll. The media has widely covered problems with recruiting and admissions practices that were revealed in a 2010 Government Accountability Office report. Understanding all of the requirements that will be 1) expected of you to be eligible for graduation and 2) required for you to work in your field should be a priority of your research.

  • Graduation requirements – Are there requirements in addition to course work that you will have to complete? Many career-oriented programs also require clinical hours or internships. What are the specifics related to these requirements in terms of how many hours are required and how you will be placed into work settings to complete these hours?
  • Enrollment process – Once you are enrolled in an online program how does enrollment take place for each term? In some cases you will choose your classes and register for them each term, in other cases this may be automated or completed by an advisor. Understand the process and time line and what your options are for each term as you progress.
  • Withdrawal – Will there be penalties for withdrawing from the program before graduation or for withdrawing from a course in the middle of the term? How will withdrawal affect any financial aid or loan obligations?
  • Course Catalog – Can you review a copy of the Course Catalog? All institutional policies related to enrollment, graduation requirements, withdrawal procedures, and more, are published in the institution's Course Catalog.

Employment Expectations

Students and new graduates from online programs, for-profit and traditional programs alike, face a competitive job market. Many people are choosing to go back to school to add a specialty or to move into a completely new career. An NPR story reminds us that employment information is hard to come by and often difficult to interpret. Schools, government agencies, and employers each collect some type of data about employment and education, but it's tough to identify the specifics related to which programs graduate the most marketable candidates.

  • Accreditation – What is the accreditation status of the school and program? Do you need to graduate from a program with specific accreditation to be eligible for employment?
  • Marketability – What do you need to do to be competitive on the job market? Are employers looking for specific coursework, certification, or experience on-the-job?
  • Salaries – What starting salary can you reasonably expect after graduation? Cross check this information with one of the salary surveys available online, such as Payscale and the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Entry-level requirements – Do you need a degree, certificate, or certification to work in your desired field? This information is also available via the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Finances and Financial Aid

Financial concerns are present in any discussion about higher education, for-profit and non-profit. For-profits have been scrutinized for leaving graduates with large amounts of debt, resulting in a greater risk of defaulting on student loans than that experienced by graduates of traditional programs. Federal student aid is a major funding source for for-profit students and there are regulations that monitor this on an institutional-level. These regulations are currently being debated across government agencies. Become more familiar with the discussions and how decisions by lawmakers in the coming months may affect your decisions about higher education funding. 

  • Cost estimates – What are the costs associated with the online program you are interested in? Are there comparable programs at other institutions in your area (traditional or online options)? Compare the costs related with each.
  • Financial assistance – What type of funding is available to you? Financial assistance can come in many forms – scholarships, loans, and grants. Some of these do not have to be paid back, but others do and often with interest.
  • Personal budget – What is your monthly budget to cover living expenses? Know what you can reasonably afford to invest in higher education and borrow only what you need.
  • Planning ahead – How much will you owe when you graduate? What are the terms for repayment? Calculate how long it will take you to pay back a loan, with interest, with the expected salary of a new graduate in your chosen field.

Expand Your Research and Perspective

As you consider online learning options and measure them against your educational and career goals, explore all of the sources of information available to you. Admissions counselors will be able to answer a lot of your questions, but you can also reach out to local employers, government resources, and possibly alumni in your area.

Online programs and the for-profit model for delivery are also receiving positive news coverage. The emergence of these new institutions and their popularity are prompting traditional institutions to evaluate their methods of operation and evaluation. Traditional institutions are not immune from bad practices, lack of academic quality, and the effects of a changing economy. For-profits are gaining recognition for innovation in the process of curriculum development and data-driven review, as well as for developing more structured methods of measuring student learning. 

Make an Informed Decision

As you monitor the media coverage of online education that will continue into the future, evaluate each report for source, purpose, currency and content. What can you learn from these reports and the experiences of previous students? Your goal is to find a quality program that will meet your needs in terms of education, career, and personal fulfillment.

Personalize your approach by putting your priorities in writing and start your research by asking questions. The process can be time consuming but worth the effort before committing to a significant investment of your time and financial resources.