Guide to Online Colleges and Universities

Why Pursue an Online Education?


Online colleges have something to offer to students from all walks of life. According to the Online Learning Consortium, over 5.8 million students took at least one online course during the 2015 school year — 217,275 more than the prior year. As distance learning becomes more popular, the number and variety of programs available will continue to grow.

Over 5.8 million students took at least one online course during the 2015 school year — 217,275 more than the prior year.

An online education offers flexibility, allowing students to focus on other obligations such as career advancement, military duty, raising a family, or travel. Online students can pursue any level of study, from basic licensure to doctoral programs. There are countless benefits to an online education, and this guide is designed for prospective students who want to learn more before applying and enrolling at online universities.

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Blended Online Programs

Blended programs, which combine face-to-face instruction with online learning, are increasingly being integrated into online schools. The rise of the blended education format isn’t just reflected in course catalogs; it’s also shown in what the students themselves are demanding. According to a 2015 survey from the Eduventures Annual Conference, students favor blended programs over campus-only or online-only formats. In 2013 alone, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that approximately 2.86 million students participated in blended studies programs.

By incorporating components of online and in-class learning, blended programs provide the best of both worlds. An online education offers convenience and reduces the frequency of commutes. Students who prefer face-to-face instruction but need to schedule class time around their daily commitments will find a blended system at online universities to be ideal.

Enrollment of Students Taking Online Courses

Source: Adapted from Online Learning Consortium, 2015 Online Report Card

Fully Online Programs

Both private colleges and public institutions are embracing online degree programs. This allows students to earn all post-secondary degrees — associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate — from the comfort of their own home.

Fully online colleges offer the most flexibility, since the majority of students’ education takes place through chat rooms, discussions boards, email, and site-specific resources. This makes it an appealing format for full-time workers, stay-at-home parents, and military service members. Attending online schools may also be desirable for students physically unable to commute to campuses due to chronic illness, rural housing locations, or jobs that require continual travel.

Online courses are just as rigorous as traditional classes, if not more so. Online students dedicate an average of 15 to 20 hours each week to complete coursework. Necessary time commitments will of course vary based on the level of degree pursued. Graduate students, for instance, will invest a great deal of time on top of their coursework to complete degree capstones like a thesis or a dissertation.

Supplemental Online Programs

Online schools also offer professional certificates and continued education courses for adults who want to further their education but aren’t necessarily interested in working towards a four-year degree. Professional certifications are a popular option for those working in accounting, financial services, healthcare, and technology, among other fields. Alternately, students who aren’t ready to invest in a full-time two- or four-year degree can complete a technical or vocational program in a matter of weeks and for a fraction of the cost.

According to a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “certificates are relatively cheap, can be completed quickly, sometimes lead to industry-certifications (occupational licensing), and are the fastest-growing post-secondary credential awarded over the past several decades.”

Levels of Study for Online Students

Source: Learning House Online College Students Report, 2015

Depending on your goals, supplemental credit programs offer:

Directly Transferable SkillsCertificate programs qualify professionals for careers that require highly specialized training that students can’t typically receive in a traditional four-year program. Professionals in some of the most high-demand services are required to complete a formal certification or credentialing process first (even if they already hold a four-year degree)
Flexibility and AffordabilitySince certifications are more often exam-based than credit-based, students frequently choose self-directed study over long and costly formal programs. Still, these exams are rigorous and comprehensive because they are the most important indicator to potential employers of your mastery of the material. If you’re a working student or a full-time professional, consider supplementing your independent study plan with online courses that cover the topics you struggle with the most.

Online students can enroll in continuing education courses that are independent from a degree or certificate track. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, provide free college courses on a variety of subjects. Trying out specific online courses can help you test the water to see if a program is right for you, and may alleviate some of the uncertainty and stress involved in college enrollment.

Finding & Comparing Online Colleges


A school’s accreditation status can tell you a lot about a school’s credibility, academic standards, and administration practices. A bit of research will help prospective students avoid degree mills or fraudulent online schools that either misrepresent their qualifications, or flat-out lack accreditation.

Accreditation agencies operate on the national and regional levels. These organizations assess a school’s administrative operations and academic methods, and give recognition to schools that meet established criteria for quality. The 84 national agencies evaluate schools holistically, focusing on the rigor driving each department’s courses and curriculum.

To be sure an accreditation agency is legitimate, visit their website to see which organizations back them. The two main organizations that oversee accreditation agencies in the U.S. are the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the Department of Education (ED), each focusing on different types of accrediting agencies.

The CHEA is an advocacy group that reviews accrediting agencies, encouraging “self regulation of academic quality.” This group focuses on educating the public about diploma and accreditation mills. The ED reviews and recognizes accreditors that are “reliable authorities concerning the quality of education and training offered by the institutions they accredit,” and uses this status to determine eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

Types of Online Colleges Available

When it comes to online schools, public and private distinctions are similar to those found when comparing their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Public and Not-For-Profit Schools are usually funded by the state and state residents’ taxes. If a public online college is operating in your state of residence, then you will likely qualify for lowered tuition. Public schools also tend to prioritize resident admissions, which may increase acceptance rates among in-state students. Student populations tend to be larger at public institutions, so the student-to-teacher ratio may be higher.

Overall Higher Education Enrollment: Fall, 2014

Source: Online Learning Consortium, 2015 Online Report Card

Private and For-Profit Schools rely on donations and tuition payments to operate. Private school tuition tends to cost the same for both in-state and out-of-state residents and in most cases is higher than public not-for-profit schools. Depending on the level of funding they receive, private colleges might have access to newer facilities and technologies. They typically offer students smaller classrooms and reduced student-to-teacher ratios, as well. In many cases, the reputation of a private school precedes it — likely in a good way. In fact, many students are willing to pay more simply to possess a degree from a prestigious program.

Online School Costs

For many families, no factor matters as much as cost. Especially given the disparity in price between programs. Consider that in 2015, the average undergraduate tuition for in-state, public students was $9,410, and the average tuition for private students was $32,405 — more than three times as much.

While there is certainly cheap tuition to be found, the industry consensus is that top online colleges aren’t any more affordable than their traditional campus equivalents. But as the reputation of online universities solidifies, the standard forms of aid and scholarships have been made available to online college students.

Tuition and Fees

2015-162014-15% Change
Public, Two-Year$3,435$3,3363%
Public, Four-Year, In-State$9,410$9,1452.9%
Public, Four-Year, Out-of-State$23,893$23,1073.4%
Private, Four-Year, Nonprofit$32,405$31,2833.6%
Private, For-Profit$15,610$15,1603%

Source: CollegeBoard Trends in Higher Education, 2015

Comparing tuition isn’t everything. Select a degree program and make a list of possible career paths to follow. Will a degree in this field lead to greater income? Should you pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s? Higher degrees don’t necessarily result in higher pay. For example, radiation therapists only holding an associate degree are reported to earn an average of $80,220 annually.

Examine the expected requirements of entry-level employees in the career you aspire towards. You might be able to reduce the amount of time you spend in school, which can lead to greater tuition savings.

Technology Requirements

Access to technology is critical during your time in school, as the bulk of your studies and academic communication will occur online. Your hardware and software must meet your school’s minimum requirements so you can participate in your courses. Online activities include streaming lectures, reading digital course materials, participating in live chat rooms, communicating with classmates through message boards, uploading assignments, and taking exams. Check with your school’s online resources center for more information about technology requirements.


How do you find online colleges that distinguish academic standards within your chosen field? It’s not enough to choose a school based on its reputation. Here are a few ways to ensure that an online school offers both high level academic programs as well as the support systems that students need to excel in them:

Look into student satisfaction and retention levels

Your college’s retention rate is a strong indicator of both academic quality and student life. Accredited online colleges are required to provide these figures to any student or parent who inquires. You can track this information down yourself with the help of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which lists the graduation rate along with borrowing and loan data for several schools.

Here is an example of the scorecard’s summary of a school’s data:

example of College Board's scorecard

Investigate job placement rates

Hire rates after graduation are likely a good indicator of the amount of professional training you’ll find in a given program. According to a 2015 report by Inside Higher Ed, there’s a wide gap between what students feel they’re prepared for in the workforce and what employers have witnessed. Students are over twice as likely to believe themselves proficient in areas such as oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Schools that have career support systems, such as internships and experiential learning programs, are likely to produce more hireable graduates after graduation.


Your professors are your most important collegiate mentors. Their ability to teach — and their mastery of the material — can make or break your academic experience. But discovering faculty members’ qualifications and credentials isn’t always easy; their list of publications, courses taught, and areas of expertise may be spread across multiple websites and print publications. Here are some resources that will help you determine whether a school has strong faculty members:

Faculty profilesVisit a school’s website and navigate to your preferred department of study. Examine faculty profiles to learn more about where they have been published, the types of conferences they’ve attended, and their noteworthy achievements.
Google ScholarReview faculty members and their publications using this journal and article search engine. Look through a professor’s writing to see if their fieldwork interests you.
Rate My Professor.comWhile these rating sites should be taken with a grain of salt, since anyone can leave feedback about any professor, it is quick and easy to get candid feedback on schools and faculty. Keep an eye out for a pattern of praise or criticism, as this can indicate a professor’s persistent behavior trends.

You can also contact faculty members and current students directly to learn more about a particular field of study and career opportunities. In fact, schools often encourage their prospective students to contact current faculty members before applying.

Academic Support

Though lacking a physical advisor’s or career services office, the best online colleges still provide these resources remotely. With support from a variety of specialists, students are more likely to make informed decisions that enable them to successfully complete their online programs. In fact, students are more likely to land a job before they graduate or once they complete college if they use their career services.

Advisors that prospective students should expect to encounter in a quality online school include:

  • Admissions advisors answer questions about the school and the application process. Once accepted, it’s likely that these same advisors (or the academic advisors) will counsel you on your workload and course selection.
  • Finance advisors take you through the costs of your education, your payment plan, and the financial aid opportunities specifically appropriate for you.
  • Academic advisors help you adjust to the digital learning environment once enrolled, including how your daily schedule and the school’s interface work. The academics staff will also direct you to tutoring services and ensure you are on track for graduation.
  • Career advisors help you look ahead to life after college. These advisors will work with you on your resume and interview skills, potential jobs, and career expectations.

Selecting and Applying to Online Programs

While the admissions process may feel intimidating, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that 65% of students applying to four-year colleges are accepted. Of course, actual admission rates vary depending on the types of schools you apply to. For example, Brown University only admits 8.7% of applicants, whereas Oklahoma State University admits 75%. Students able to apply to multiple schools should consider a mix of reach schools, schools they are sure to get in, and schools where admission could swing either way. When doing side-by-side comparisons of programs, these tiers of easy, moderate, and difficult admission inform how you treat the pros and cons of each program.

Application Process

Fully online colleges either offer a semester schedule for applications or a rolling application. In the semester schedule, students typically apply between December and February for the upcoming Fall semester. A rolling admissions school accepts applications throughout the year, and contacts you with a decision in the weeks after you’ve applied. The time frames vary, depending on how often online courses are held.

Consider limiting your focus to a handful of schools, so that you have enough time to complete each application as best as you can. Start early; the process can take quite a while, and you don’t want to realize you are missing supplemental materials right before a deadline.

First, create a calendar of your upcoming deadlines. Start on the applications that are due first and gather any information you’ll need before you start.

Checklist: Application Materials

  • Legal name, date of birth, and contact information
  • Citizenship status
  • Parent or guardian information
  • Educational history
  • SAT, ACT, or TOEFL scores
  • Hobbies
  • Honors
  • Volunteer work
  • Employment history

Take inventory of additional materials needed for all of your applications; the most time-consuming part of the application process is gathering these supplemental materials. The following are some common required documents you may need to prepare — keep in mind that you often need to obtain more than one copy of each:

  • Personal statement essay or writing sample
  • Two or more letters of recommendation
  • Official high school transcripts
  • Official copies of test scores

Financial Aid

There are plenty of ways to fund your online degree if you learn that you or your family cannot. The optimal way to pay for school is through scholarships and grants, which do not need to be repaid. In the 2013-2014 school year, 83% of first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions received some kind of financial aid. The students who received various kinds of grants that year received an average of $3,464.

An estimated total $68 billion dollars in federal and private student loans was owed by bachelor’s degree graduates in 2015, more than 10 times the amount in 1994. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of financial aid options available to prospective students:

Scholarships and grantsThese funding sources are available on national, state, community, and school levels. Generally, you face less competition by applying for local scholarships and grants. Databases like Fastweb and the U.S. Government’s Financial Aid website are great places to get started. In addition, veterans, students with disabilities, and students of color also have unique scholarships available to them.
Federal loansThe U.S. Department of Education lends funds to students on a subsidized or unsubsidized basis. Students must file a FAFSA every year to find out if they qualify for federal loans. Subsidized loans are particularly advantageous, because the Department of Education actually pays for your interest while you are enrolled in school. Students who receive unsubsidized loans are responsible for paying back interest at all times.
Private loansThis can be the most difficult way to fund your education, in that private loans often come with much higher interest rates than federal loans. Private loans do not adhere to the same student accommodations federal loans do. You might find yourself making payments on a private loan before you graduate. Additionally, you might not be able to defer private loan payments, which can be problematic if you are continuing your studies or are unable to meet your payments.

Additional Resources


Financial Aid Resources

Open Online Courses