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Distance Learning/Distance Education: Four Primary Concerns of Prospective Students

Updated on August 13, 2020
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A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Important Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Distance Education School

I was about to begin study at a non-traditional institution of higher learning. I had obtained both my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees at major U. S. universities, and I’d never heard of or known anyone who had gotten a degree through distance education. I was serving on the faculty of a major research institution, and I was terrified.

Would I be making the biggest mistake of my life? Would I regret my decision to go off the tried-and-true path to enlightenment by taking a less-traveled route to the PhD? Would my degree be respected after I earned it? Would I respect it, after I earned it? I had so many questions, and no one to talk to who could give me advice and information that they had gained from first-hand experience with distance education.

I finally made up my mind to pursue my degree through distance education, at Walden University. I made my choice, took a leap of faith, and I earned my doctorate through a non-traditional university (even though I’d been accepted into a doctoral degree program at a renowned and respected traditional university). And I have to tell you that as an educational experience, my experience as a non-traditional student was like no other. I found it to be a new, challenging, and wonderful way to learn; a fantastic adventure that helped me expand my thinking and reasoning abilities, meet new and interesting people, and travel to places I might never have visited to attend regional seminars. Taking that leap of faith benefited me a lot, in many immeasurable ways.

More than twenty years later, after completing my doctorate and after reading the concerns of more than 800 respondents (all distance education adult students) to a survey that was part of my dissertation research, I know that if you’ve made up your mind to go this route for either a degree or training, that you probably have concerns about the quality of education you might receive. I also know it’s important to address these concerns prior to selecting a school so that you will know what questions you need to ask, and what things you need to look for as you consider and compare institutions.

What are the most important questions you need to ask? This is a difficult question to answer because the answers vary depending on both the student and the specific distance education provider. In other words, considerations about distance learning are so personal, based on the individual's needs and preferences, that different students will have different questions that are important to them. However, as a graduate of a distance education university, and as someone who has read survey responses from more than 800 adult distance learning students, three of the major concerns expressed by students many years ago when I conducted my research study, I believe, are still relevant today. These include questions related to issues of accreditation, time management, and obtaining financial assistance to help pay for school expenses.

1. The issue of accreditation

Students are always concerned about this because it is important to employers, licensing agencies, and financial and lending institutions. Accreditation is an on-going process that schools must go through periodically, and it can be attained, or lost. Therefore, students are always concerned that their school has continually maintained the quality standards required by regional accrediting agencies.

This, I believe, is the first and most important question you should find the answer to as you look for your distance education provider. You need to know whether or not the school has attained and has maintained regional accreditation. It is extremely important for a college or university to earn and to keep regional accreditation—the highest (and most important) form of accreditation that any college or university, traditional or non-traditional, can attain. You need to know that many employers, licensing authorities, and financial lending institutions view regional accreditation as the standard, most vital indicator of quality when it comes to colleges and universities.

Most distance education schools are aware that potential adult students are concerned about whether or not schools have attained regional accreditation. Therefore, this information is usually contained in marketing and advertising materials used to reach prospective students. If you are unable to find this information in such printed material, you should contact the school’s administrative offices, or check out their website to find out if they’re regionally accredited. Depending on the region of the nation where the school’s main offices are located, the school should be accredited by one of the following 6 regional accrediting authorities in the United States:

  • Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Higher Education)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (Commission on Technical and Career Institutions and Commission on Institutions of Higher Education)
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (The Higher Learning Commission)
  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Colleges)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities)

2. The issue of time management

Distance learning requires a great degree of self-discipline. Students who do not learn to manage their time effectively while pursuing a degree or study through distance education often find themselves getting nowhere—fast. Learning and/or adhering to good time-management habits was a main problem area cited by respondents to my national survey. If you decide to study via distance education, you should first determine your own needs and how you like to study, keeping in mind your lifestyle and what you plan to accomplish as a result of your involvement with distance education. Then, you should look for a distance education provider offering a program of study suited to your needs, learning preferences, and your lifestyle—things that will help or hinder you as you strive to accomplish your educational goals.

3. The issue of being able to transfer your credit.

Some people decide to go to school online for their first two years of college, with plans to transfer to a 4-year university to complete their degree. The problem is, some providers of online/distance education offer courses that may not be transferable to state-supported/public or other private colleges and universities.

Most schools have policies governing transfer course work, and will only transfer certain course work completed at U.S. and foreign colleges and universities/institutions that meet/have obtained the proper academic accreditation standards. For this reason, if you know you want to be able to transfer your college credit to another institution once you complete your program of study, you need to find out about the transfer policies for your school, and for the school you want to attend in the future.

4. The issue of financial aid to help pay for school-related expenses

Many traditional schools with distance learning programs allow distance learning students to apply for the same types of financial aid as students attending traditional colleges and universities. External distance learning institutions, when they are accredited, are eligible to receive certain types of financial aid. Since there are so many different kinds of financial aid, and since schools may have different offerings in this area, when you request information about a particular school, always ask them to send you information about their arrangements for student financial aid.

While there are many other questions you will need to find answers to (and I'll post other articles related to many of them), what I've presented here represents three of the most important considerations for those considering study through distance education.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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