Still haven’t decided where to go to college, or even if you can afford to go to college — or grad school — at all? More and more people are enrolling in online degree programs. These programs' popularity has prompted many traditional universities to boost their remote offerings, with schools such as Louisiana State University and Hofstra recently adding even post-grad online diplomas to their lineups.
“The great thing about online degrees is that there’s flexibility,” says Emily Bartz, content manager at consumer research group NextAdvisor.com. “Everyone has a lot of different things going on — whether that’s taking care of a family member or working two jobs. Online education is a great avenue for someone who is committed to getting a degree but can’t go to school 9 to 5.”
Yet choosing an online college can be just as daunting as going to a brick-and-mortar one, and not just because you can “go to school” literally anywhere in the world without leaving your couch.
To help you navigate the world of online education, we asked Bartz for the top things every prospective student should do before enrolling.
Find a program that fits your needs
Every online program is unique — which is why knowing what you want to major in or what kind of job you want to find after graduating is key. “So many online colleges cater to specific needs and interests,” says Bartz. That doesn’t just apply to specific areas of study, but to lifestyle demands as well. For example, Bartz sites American Intercontinental University as a great option for those in the military. Not only are 1 in 3 of AIU’s student military-affiliated, but the school offers military scholarships, allows students to count their military training and experience as credit, and allows those who are deployed or transferred to extend or hold their coursework without punishment.
Talk to professors beforehand
If you are worried about balancing your familial or economic responsibilities with a college education, you can always ask what exactly is expected. “The great thing about online colleges is that even if you aren’t meeting your professor in-person, you can get in contact with them before classes start and address some of your concerns,” says Bartz. “It’s also a great way to figure out if you like the professor or really do want to take that course. You can also contact the administration office and talk with them to help determine if the school is a good fit.”
Apply for scholarships
Just like your traditional brick-and-mortar school, online institutions can vary greatly in price — and they’re not free. “Sure, you’re going to save online, but it is a college education, which means you will have to spend money,” says Bartz. But even if your dream program falls outside your price point, you could still make it work. “There are tons of scholarships even for online colleges, so if you find a good school that you think fits your needs, you should reach out to them and see what kinds of scholarship opportunities they offer,” says Bartz.
Make sure the school is accredited
It can be tempting if you don’t have a big budget to go for the cheapest option. But as online education has gotten more popular, programs offering fake, non-accredited diplomas have popped up with alarming frequency. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell if a school is legit. The U.S. Department of Education has a database of accredited universities. “Just type in any name and it will tell you right away,” says Bartz. “It could be a smaller school that’s still great but not that well known, but you should double check just to be safe.”
While online education may be more flexible, more accommodating and more affordable, it’s hardly a walk in the park. “There’s this misconception that online college is easier, but that is not true,” says Bartz. “It can be more convenient, but it still requires focus and attention.”