If you want to boost your skill set, land a promotion or find your dream job, going back to school might be a smart move. If you cannot quit your job for a brick-and-mortar school, an online education program could work for you. Popular choices include the University of Phoenix, Walden University and Kaplan University, among others.
Online degrees are the subject of intense debate among employers, with some deriding them as worthless while others laud them as highly valuable for the workplace. A key benefit of online colleges is the flexibility they give nontraditional students, who typically work and may have time-consuming family obligations. You might love to take classes on your schedule and progress at your own pace as you work toward a degree or certification.
However, you need to be sure the commercial online school you choose is accredited by a reputable organization and offers degree programs that really will help you progress in life and fit your pocketbook. What you don't want is a degree that gives you little or no career advancement and possibly huge debts.
Keep in mind that many traditional, taxpayer-funded state colleges and universities, as well as some of the first-rate private universities, now offer online courses and even degrees that would be an excellent addition to any resume. For personal enrichment but no course credits, you can also access free online classes provided through such organizations as Coursera and iTunes U.
The first step is to decide your area of interest and then seek an online degree program that will help you meet those goals. You may only need certification in an area such as IT; however, if your goal is to teach in higher education, then you will need to look at graduate school and obtain an online MBA. Once you have decided on the area of study, you can look for online schools that specialize in your preferred field.
It is important to make sure the nontraditional online college or university you choose is accredited by reputable organizations. Online colleges and universities are accredited on the regional and national levels by both nongovernmental and governmental agencies. These accrediting agencies are private educational associations that develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to ensure schools meet these criteria.
Regional accreditation is the standard; many employers do not accept degrees from schools that are only nationally accredited. A degree from a regionally accredited institution, as well as an approved program, is required for most state licenses in many fields, such as nursing and education.
Degree Levels Offered
Your goals determine what credentials you need. Once you have decided whether you need a college or university degree or certification in a particular field, you can narrow your choices by seeing what each institution offers. In recent years, certifications have gained popularity, since they take less time to complete, ultimately cost less and, in the post-Recession economy, may be useful in landing a job fast.
Tuition and Financial Aid
One of the biggest questions facing most potential students is, “Can I afford to go back to school?” Before choosing an online education program, it is important to examine tuition costs as well as payment options. At the same time, you might want to compare these costs to what is available from public universities and community colleges in your state.
Besides tuition, it is good to check what extra fees you might need to pay. If you qualify, you could make use of various types of free financial aid, including Pell Grants, veterans' benefits and scholarships. Many commercial online colleges and universities offer special payment plans to help students pay as they go to avoid debt. Of course, there always are student loans, but be aware that these must always be repaid and can never be discharged in bankruptcy. In addition, anyone who co-signs for your student loan is responsible for repaying it if you cannot – even if you die.
Another important issue to examine is what each institution offers. Does it have a physical campus with options for traditional classes and face-to-face interaction in addition to online classes? Is a campus important to you? Or would you be comfortable with an entirely online approach? Many brick-and-mortar colleges offer the same perks to their online students as they do to their traditional students; if you live near your college's physical campus, you can use the library and other on-campus resources to study.
Choosing an online university and degree is a major decision, so be sure you know what you are getting. Look at the school's accreditation, programs, cost and features to make an informed decision about your future.