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7 Things to Look for in Online Colleges

Updated on July 19, 2017
Robert P Sullivan profile image

Robert Sullivan is a self-published author, blogger, social media manager, and more.

There are few things as effective as increasing you level of education when trying to increase your yearly income, so it comes as no surprise that online colleges have quickly become one of the most popular ways to better yourself in the past decade. The allure of flexible scheduling and not having to travel are surely to blame for that. But unfortunately, when an industry grows at that pace, it inevitably gets saturated with people just looking to make a buck by providing less than stellar services. Or even worse just a flat out scam! So if you are looking for a great learning experience on the web, then I recommend you take a look at these seven things to look for in online colleges.

First, here's a video that lays out a few of the more reputable online colleges.

1. Are they Accredited?

I chose this first because it is simply put, the most important factor. Having the correct accreditation is the difference between your degree meaning a new career, and it not being worth the paper that it’s printed on. The issue is that it is entirely possible to set up an educational institution without having done anything to assure the quality of the degree. There are even companies which sell degrees without you having to do any work at all. These degree mills are practically worthless as any research into whether or not you attended a real college will ultimately reveal the truth. It doesn’t end their though, because without having a standard of education, an online college can say that you have a valuable degree even if they all they taught was outdated material and bad business practices. So don’t waste your time, and especially not your money unless they are accredited.

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2. Are their classes readily available?

Whether or not their classes are ready for you to take them may not seem like that big of a deal, but think about it this way, each degree of course has requirements that must be fulfilled. Now let’s say you have to take their math course in order to be able to go on to your next classes. But what if they only have one math teacher? And say he only teaches the class you need once every four years, well then it could be four years before you can even get your prerequisites done!

Granted, this is kind of an exaggeration, and math tends to be a regular subject, but there really are classes which are only available maybe once every two years in some online colleges. I know when I was in college our final project classes were only available every other semester, which for me meant I had a semester off while I waited to get in the class (it was kind of nice to take a break seeing as I was regularly doing 18 units a semester). So keep this in mind when you are looking at their course catalog, because that four year degree, might just take a little longer.

3. How long have they been around?

The wild west of online colleges is mostly over, and the good ones have typically been around for at least five years. Which should be a very important factor in your decision process. The reason for this is simple, they have had time to work out the kinks in their system.

Starting a new online college can be daunting to say the least. They not only have to build or purchase software to run the classes, but also have the teachers well acclimated to it. New colleges therefore are usually ripe with technical and instructor issues, which can go on for months. And if you pick an online only college, then chances are you can’t even go see the instructor to try and straighten things out.

If you think failing a class sucks, then imagine failing a class because some technical issue kept you from submitting your homework from day one! Yeah, it can be ugly. So take this advice, and stick to one that is at least 5 years old or more.

If only teachers were this flexible...
If only teachers were this flexible...

4. Are they Flexible?

Everyone loves the idea waking up at noon, rolling out of bed in their pajamas, having some breakfast, then getting around to their class work when they feel like it. But that is not always the case. There are plenty of online colleges out there which have strict schedules for when you have to be in class (or rather group chatting), and a big part of your grade can come from that time. In other words, don’t go into this thinking that every one of them is going to let you keep control of your schedule, because a great deal of them don’t allow this.

Still even with scheduled meetings, you can have a lot of flexibility in other ways. Some institutions allow students more of a work at your own pace kind of scenario, where you are given assignments with due dates long in advance (which I suppose can be a problem for some procrastinators out there). Although to find out that information you would probably actually have to talk to someone who went to the school you are considering.

5. Do they offer Career Placement Services?

You may or may not have this one on your list of important things, but it’s still nice to have either way. I would say if you are on the fence about which one I was going to attend, and one had great career services, and the other did not, then definitely pick the one that does.

Once you graduate you are most likely going to want a job. And seeing as most companies only hire from people they already know, it’s a good idea to have some people willing to share their network with you. Plus they are also pretty good at it. Their job is to be connected to the higher-ups and hiring managers at companies which are looking for your talent, so if your college has renown for its career services, it can definitely be a boon to your post-graduation job hunt.

Did you try restarting it?
Did you try restarting it?

6. How is their IT Department?

Here’s one you may not even consider for a traditional institution, but for online colleges it’s a must. Having a good IT department is the difference between having technical problems fixed in minutes, and waiting days to be able to log into your account again. Believe me, you don’t want to be locked out when that paper worth half of your cumulative grade is due!

It’s also worth noting that it goes both ways, teachers often have problems when they are connecting online, and as a result good IT services means more responsive instructors.

7. Are their Online Resources Robust?

Any reputable college has a library, computer labs, and maybe even a pool. Well until they can find a way to put a pool online you’re going to have to settle for them having good digital resources. Because a lot of online colleges also have brick and mortar establishments, it’s important to realize that not all of their services may be online. For example they may have great career placement, but only to students who frequent their campus. Take the time and make sure that what they advertise for students, applies to online students as well. It could save you from some nasty surprises down the road.

These are definitely the hallmarks of great online college, and while some of them are going to be easy to find, keep in mind that a councilor is not likely going to tell you if their IT department isn’t quite top-notch. Chances are you are going to want to dig around and ask some alumni what it took to graduate, because you can be sure if they had problems, then you probably will too.

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