Choosing An Online School

Here at The Best Colleges, our mission is to help you get the best education possible, whether delivered at a traditional brick-and-mortar college or through an online degree program. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on your location and learning style. Other factors that may influence your learning experience include the kind of program you plan to pursue and the timeline you have in mind to earn your degree, such as if you are seeking an accelerated program. For students looking to explore the ever-expanding world of degrees from online colleges, we feature dedicated pages on our site for some of the best accredited online colleges and universities in the country.

Earning a college degree requires a significant investment of time, energy, and money, no matter how you look at it. However, programs from online colleges can provide a much more flexible schedule than their classroom-based counterparts -- a major perk for students who are working full-time, have a family, or are otherwise only available to attend school outside of traditional classroom hours.

While both nationally and regionally accredited online schools and campus-based schools can vary widely in reputation, quality, and value, online programs continue to grow in popularity among students seeking a flexible degree that can be completed at their own pace.

More Students Enrolling in Online Colleges

More than 71% of academic leaders now rate online learning outcomes as equal or even superior to face-to-face instruction, and nearly 30% of all college students were enrolled in distance courses as of 2014, totaling about 5.8 million students. This is 3.9% more students enrolled than the previous fall.

But while this increase is still slower than previous increases in online student enrollment, it does indicate a steady upward trend of students expecting at the very least an online option for some of their classes. This could be due to more nontraditional students opting to pursue a higher education; 74% of all undergraduate students had at least one nontraditional characteristic, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Education. These characteristics include:

  • Delayed entry into college by at least one year after graduating from high school
  • Having dependents
  • Being a single parent
  • Being employed full time
  • Being financially independent
  • Attending school part time
  • Not having a high school diploma

For students experiencing at least one of those factors, and who now comprise the majority of the student body, the schedule flexibility of an online class could be highly desirable.

For students settled on learning online, but unsure of how to choose a school, we've got an answer for that, too: in making your decision about which online school is best for you, here are some questions to ask.

Are Your Online Colleges of Choice Accredited?

An accredited school is one that has been approved by an independent system of accountability and quality control. To earn accreditation, a school must undergo a stringent application and review process to ensure their accommodations, programs, and instructors meet national standards, which are set by a group of governing institutions known as accrediting agencies.

Accreditation for a college or university could be compared to endorsement by the Board of Medicine for a doctor or surgeon: wouldn't you gain peace of mind knowing your education is in the hands of professionals who have achieved the highest level of endorsement by a reputable institution? When checking out online schools, it is crucial to find out if they are accredited, what kind of accreditation they have, and which agency (or agencies) they are accredited by. One of the most thorough forms of accreditation comes from regional accrediting agencies. Some of the most respected regional accrediting agencies include:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Online schools may also feature additional specialty accreditation for:

  • Career schools and colleges
  • Distance education
  • Christian colleges and schools
  • Continuing education
  • Occupational education

Check the accreditation at your college of choice on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Do Your Online Colleges Have a Good Reputation?

The immediate effects may not be obvious to you, but trust us -- this matters. Whether it's your first foray into the job market or your first grad school application, the reputation of your alma mater will prove very important. If an employer or admissions counselor doesn't recognize the name of the school on your resume, or it has a bad reputation, your chances of securing an interview or being admitted could be jeopardized.

While checking the accreditation is a good place to start, exploring the websites of accredited online schools for independent student blogs and social media accounts, as well as simple internet searches for your school, can help to start building a snapshot of a school's general reputation.

Surveying potential employers or graduate programs in your area of interest is another way to find out which schools have a good reputation in your area of interest. You may also want to check out an independent ranking of online colleges and universities, such as the one we have put together, and/or review U.S. News and World Report's methodology to get a sense of which accredited online schools are performing the best according to objective criteria.

Are The Online Colleges Honest and Transparent in Their Marketing and Recruiting?

Some nationally and regionally accredited online schools are more up-front than others about things like tuition costs, fees, accreditation, and job placement records, among other information that should be readily available to the public. If a school makes you jump through hoops to access this kind of information, it could be a red flag that their statistics and/or track record are less than desirable or that they have something to hide. This is not a good sign. Don't waste too much time pulling teeth with coordinators or administrators who are unwilling to help you access basic information.

Accredited online schools that are confident in their quality and value will be forthcoming about these things because they recognize that they are selling points for their program. They should be more than happy to work with you in providing statistical information because they want prospective students to make an informed decision and choose a program that best suits their needs. While it may be their job to highlight the accomplishments and accolades of the school's online offerings, they are also charged with representing the school in a factual and truthful way overall.

Do the Online Colleges Have a Good Track Record?

A successful history of retaining, graduating, and placing students in good jobs or high-quality graduate programs can speak volumes about the value of nationally or regionally accredited online schools. This is why our rankings methodologies at The Best Colleges include graduation and retention rates, and why they are weighted so heavily. While the importance of graduation rates may be obvious, retention rates -- or the percentage of a school's first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at the same school through the next year -- are equally important in determining how successful a school is at engaging and keeping its students from freshman year through to graduation.

If a large percentage of students are dropping out or transferring after the first year, or simply aren't graduating, this is reason to be skeptical. While it is possible that the school just happens to enroll a lot of academically unfit or exceptionally hard-to-please students, it's more likely that the school or online program is low-quality or is not investing what it should in helping students succeed through to graduation. Individual students may drop out of college for number of reasons, such as a family crisis or a lack of money, but if retention rates overall are extremely low, it's likely that it is something the school is doing, (or not doing) that is affecting its returning student population. You may want to ask an admissions counselor at your school of choice about why its retention rates are low if you've noticed a significant dip.