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How to Choose the Best Online Degree Program: 19 Tips

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Last Updated on March 22, 2024 by Alexandra Markin

You want to get a degree but the traditional way of attending in-person classes on a set semester schedule just doesn’t work for you. You may have a full-time job, family or you simply just want the flexibility to learn on your own schedule. With online learning much more common these days, how do you choose the best online degree program for your needs?

How to Choose an Online College Degree Program

When I decided to get my formal education online, it took me four whole months of research before I decided on a university. I was really skeptical of online degrees at first. Even though 2017 is not that long ago, no one I knew had ever done an online degree or even participated in online learning at the post-secondary level. However, I came to realize online degrees can change your life in the best way possible, if you choose the right one.

This post sums up my in-depth decision making process to save you time, money and make the most informed decision. The points listed here are valid whether you’re choosing among an online certificate, diploma or degree program.

1. Make Sure the University is Accredited

The most important factor when choosing an online degree program is to confirm the university is accredited. Not all online degrees are created equally.

An accredited university means they are recognized by an approved, independent third party.

Accreditation is achieved by examining a university’s institutional integrity, performance and academic quality against a set of regulated standards.

An accredited university has been recognized by an approved, independent third party to meet the confidence of the educational community and the public.

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

Accreditation status of an institution is reviewed periodically so you can rest assured that the university will maintain rigorous standards during the length of your study.

You should quickly and easily be able to find out if a potential university is accredited by visiting their “About Us” page. The following three topics should be outlined in detail:

  • Mission or mandate
  • Governance
  • Accreditation (including stating their third-party accrediting body)

Universities have different accrediting bodies depending on their location in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and throughout the world.

For example, Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), while Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

If the university offers online and on-campus degrees, make sure accreditation extends to both ways of learning.

It doesn’t matter which accrediting body the school belongs to, as long as that body is approved.

How to Find Accredited Universities

If you have an idea which university you’re interested in choosing for your online degree program, start by looking at their website and confirming they are accredited.

However, if you aren’t sure which online degree program to choose, start by looking up a list of all the universities in your province/state/territory and narrowing down choices from there.

Because there are so many different third parties that award accreditation, you may miss critical choices if you only use the accrediting body directory without considering all potential universities available.

What Happens if a University is Not Accredited?

If you get a degree (or even take a few courses) from a non-accredited university, you risk the following:

  • If you’re planning to apply for financial aid, or may need it down the road, you won’t be eligible
  • You won’t be able to transfer any credits from the non-accredited school to any other insititution
  • You won’t be able to practice, obtain a license or even gain admission into a professional designation, such as Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA)

2. Decide on Your Field of Study

This may sound like a no-brainer, but you should put some serious thought into your major. You’ll quickly find out that not all online universities offer every field of study.

Moreover, the online division of a university may not offer the same degree choices to their online students as they do to their on-campus students. Make sure you’re looking at the degrees offered by their online learning division when doing research on their website.

Also, online degrees may not offer a double major, while their on-campus counterpart does.

3. Confirm Any Programmatic Accreditation

Some professional designations require an undergraduate degree with specific subject coverage.

Programmatic Accreditation means that a specific degree program offered by a university is recognized by the corresponding professional designation body.

For example, if you want to become a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) in Canada, you need a Bachelor of Commerce specializing in Accounting. Otherwise, you’ll need to take additional courses to gain entry into the program.

If you know exactly what sector you want to work in after university, make sure you enroll in the right online degree program from the very beginning.

Although programmatic accreditation isn’t available for all areas of study, it’s required for many fields such as accounting, nursing, law, veterinary medicine, engineering, teaching, social work, etc.

4. Review the University’s Online Learning History

Online learning has been around for decades, but how long has the individual university been offering online learning?

It’s best to pick an established school with a proven track record of teaching courses online. They tend to have a good reputation and all the technological bugs worked out, which is extremely important in an online learning environment.

Finding out how long the university has been offering online learning should be easily found on their website – the history of their programs will be a source of pride for them.

The online learning space is growing at a rapid pace, so beware of new universities or recently offered degrees. An established university offering a new online degree program is much different than a fraudulent university running a diploma mill, so if you want to put one of these schools on your contender list, research carefully.

5. Check the University’s Reputation

In addition to length of time teaching online courses, a university’s reputation is important to consider.

Below are some facts and statistics to check:

  • How many students are enrolled in online programs?
  • Are there student success stories on their webpage?
  • What are the graduation rates?
  • Does the university appear to be well-know and respected?
  • How long on average does it take the average student to graduate?

If you can’t find these statistics on their webpage, don’t be afraid to email admissions and ask. They should be happy to answer your questions.

6. Look at the Number of Programs and Courses Offered

Not all universities offer all fields of study. Does the school offer multiple online degree programs? How many individual online courses are offered?

One thing I learned after I began my online degree program is that a particular university may not offer all the courses you need to complete your degree. You may have to take certain courses at another university and transfer them in. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this (I had lots of courses transfer in from prior institutions), it’s just something to be aware of. In my opinion, I think it can even be a positive thing because it allows you to experience another university’s online teaching style and format.

However, there may be a certain amount of residency credits needed. Residency credits means you must complete a certain amount of credits from the university you’re getting your degree at.

7. Carefully Review Course Format

Be very careful with this one – just because a degree is advertised as “online” doesn’t mean all learning, including exams, is 100% online.

Course Delivery

Some courses require you to be present “online” at certain times for lectures. Other courses require you to physically attend class at set times to complete specific learning outcomes, like laboratory work or internships for example.

Many courses are indeed 100% online (including the final exam). If you don’t have a flexible schedule and cannot attend any in-person classes, make sure you double check how courses are delivered.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I had to physically go to an exam center and write an invigilated final exam, but now exams for all my courses have moved online.

Course Pacing

Some courses are paced, meaning they have a set length with set due dates for assignments and exams. Others are completely self directed, meaning you have a set amount of time (for example, 30 weeks) to learn the material and complete all assignments and the final exam anytime within those 30 weeks that works with your schedule.

Strong self-discipline and time management skills are a must when taking self directed courses. This can be a big disadvantage of online learning for some students who aren’t strong in these areas.

8. Investigate Program Curriculum

Most degree programs list all the required and elective courses on their website, along with the full course description.

Read through this carefully to eliminate any surprises. That computer science degree with a specialization in coding may require several foundational math courses, including units on geometry, algebra and statistics. If you haven’t taken previous calculus or physics courses and are not strong in math, you’ll know before you start that theses courses may require a bit more effort to get through. You can do it though!

Required textbooks should also be listed. What year were they printed? You don’t want textbooks that are too old; however, the concepts for some subjects such as math are unchanging throughout the decades, so a slightly older textbook in this case won’t matter as much. For other subjects like law and medicine, you want the most up-to-date course curriculum and textbooks.

9. Check Program Admission Requirements

Program entry requirements can vary from university to university. Depending on your previous education experience, some online university programs will be easier to gain admission to than others.

If you don’t have any previous post-secondary experience or you’re going back to school later in life as an adult learner with not-so-good high school grades, an open university may be the perfect choice for you.

Open universities offer degrees with minimum entry requirements. Their mission is to offer “education for all.” Generally, open universities only require you to be of a minimum age, have a good understanding of the English language and basic knowledge of computers to complete the learning outcomes. A large number of open universities are accredited, and many of them also offer certificate and diploma programs.

Want more information on what an open university is and if it’s the perfect choice for you? Read the in-depth post on What An Open University Is, and why you should consider one.

10. Compare Tuition Fees

As a current online student pursuing a bachelor degree in computing science, I want to clear up a common myth: Online degree tuition fees are not necessarily cheaper than a traditional, on-campus degree. Also, open university tuition fees are not always cheaper than non-open university tuition fees.

Tuition fees vary widely between universities, countries and field of study, so take your time comparing these.

Generally, science degrees typically cost more than arts degrees. For example, the cost per credit for an English level 100 course could be $165.00* while the cost per credit for a computer science mathematics level 100 course could be $258.00*.

*Estimated tuition costs (including fees but excluding materials) from the 2024 online learning course list for ENGL 1001 and MATH 1651 from Thompson Rivers University.

However, don’t let this deter you from pursuing a science degree. It’s just something you should be aware of as a perspective student before you choose an online degree program.

Higher tuition rates doesn’t mean the degree program in question is “better” and should therefore be considered as your top choice.

The value of the online degree program you choose is based on your research of the university as a whole as described in the tips in this post.

11. Investigate Additional Fees

There’s no avoiding it – every university charges fees over and above their basic tuition rates. These can be referred to as additional fees or “hidden fees,” but no matter what you call them the list isn’t short.

Below is a list of additional fees that may (but most likely will be) charged in addition to your tuition:

  • Administration fees
  • Admission fees
  • Degree program application fees
  • Program plan design fees
  • Out of province/state fees if you choose an online degree program in a different jurisdiction than your home address
  • International student fees
  • Technology fees
  • Lab fees
  • Exam proctoring fees (such as ProctorU for invigilated online exams)
  • Material fees (for textbooks and other required supplies)
  • Course-specific required software subscription or registration fees
  • Shipping & handling fees for textbook/material delivery
  • Graduation fees (yes, most universities make you pay a fee to officially graduate!)
  • Fees for paying tuition with a credit card

Watch out for these hidden costs when doing your research.

You can usually find fee schedules and rates on the university’s website. Review it carefully and reach out to their enrollment department if you have any questions.

You’re not done with costs yet, however. You also need supplies and stationary. Get cost prepared by reading the Must-Have Online College School Supply List post.

12. Check Financial Aid Requirements

If you’re planning to apply for financial aid, find out what the requirements are for the university you’re considering.

Will you have to take a specific amount of courses per year? Do you need to maintain a specific grade point average (GPA)?

Financial aid is only awarded to universities that are accredited, so make sure the requirements of your financial aid loan and the university you’re considering match up.

13. See if Health and Dental Benefits are an Option

Just because you’re not physically on campus, it doesn’t mean you can’t get student health and dental coverage. This is a huge benefit that is often overlooked when choosing an online degree program.

Although health and dental benefits may not be automatically included in your tuition like they are in a traditional degree, you may be able to opt-in every year for a very low fee.

Some universities allow you to make a yearly payment for benefits as long as you’re enrolled in at least one course. Your spouse and dependents are sometimes even eligible to be covered on your plan. This could result in huge savings for some students that have families or require more health care than others.

Don’t overlook this. Some plans even include travel insurance!

14. Check That Previous Credits Transfer

If you’ve taken university level courses previously, see if the university you’re looking at will accept those courses and count them towards your degree.

Each university has their own policy on this, so you’ll need to take the time to review the fine print and in most cases, get in touch with the university’s admissions department and ask.

If you have a large number of transfer credits, you’ll want to find a university that has a generous transfer credit policy. In my case, for example, I had 27 credits that were almost 15 years old I wanted to transfer in – that’s a total of 9 courses. Open universities are generally very accepting of older transfer credits, so it’s worth looking into these schools.

Try to transfer in as many previous credits as you can. It will save you both time and money and will help you get your degree even faster.

15. Ask About the Instructors

Find out about who teaches the online courses.

Here are some points to consider about the university’s online instructors:

  • What are their credentials?
  • Do they have experience teaching online courses?
  • In a university that offers both online and in-person classes, do some instructors teach both types of courses, or are the online instructors strictly teaching the online courses?
  • When a new student registers for an online class, how are instructors assigned?
  • Are the teachers assigned a maximum number of online students at one time?

You might find a brief description of faculty instruction on the university’s website, but you’ll most likely have to follow up with the university directly to ask some of these questions.

16. See What Student Services Are Offered

Since online students don’t have the luxury of walking into the student services office before or after class, find out what kind of resources are available to online students.

Here are a few things to look for that could be helpful during the course of your study:

  • Is there a library service to access materials? Does their library partner with other university libraries closer to your home?
  • Are there any free online tutoring services, such as writing or math help?
  • Can you book virtual appointments with a career counselor?

If there doesn’t appear to be much support for online students, that’s a red flag.

Related content: How To Study When You Don’t Feel Like It

17. Make Sure Their Technology is Up To Date

Since you’ll be doing all your learning, communication and assignment submission online, make sure the university’s technology is up to date.

Courses must be delivered through an online course management portal such as Moodle or Blackboard. All assignments, quizzes and exams should be submitted through the portal and not via email or any other method.

What kind of technology is used to communicate with your instructor and the school? Do they have dedicated email address for different departments, online chat support and easy to find phone numbers? A university strong in online learning delivery should have all three options available.

18. Find Out What Your Parchment And Transcript Will Say

Last but not least, and this was a big deal to me as I was learning all the aspects of how to choose an online degree program, is to find out if your parchment will state “online degree.”

You’ll have to contact the university directly to ask this question. The physical parchment you’ll proudly put in a fancy frame and hang on your wall will most likely NOT say it’s an online degree. However, your official transcript may indicate that your degree was taken online.

19. See if They Offer a Traditional, In-Person Graduation Ceremony

After all this you may be wondering “Do online colleges have graduation ceremonies?” The answer is yes! Many online colleges have a biannual graduation ceremony that online students are invited to attend alongside on-campus graduates.

Not all online colleges offer this however. Some may have a virtual graduation event only, while other colleges may not offer anything at all.

Pomp and circumstance is really important to some people and insignificant to others. If walking at a graduation ceremony after getting an online degree is important to you, make sure to do your research carefully BEFORE you apply to your program of choice.

Conclusion

When you choose an online degree program, little details matter. Conduct your research thoroughly.

If you found this post helpful, sign up for my email list below and follow me on Instagram to join our online student community – you don’t have to go through your study journey alone!

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