Guide to Online High School


Online high schools are gaining popularity due to the flexibility afforded to students in an online environment. Students can access and complete assignments while avoiding the stressful aspects of a traditional high school experience: distance of commute, varying quality of schools, and bullying, among others. Online high school students also benefit from working directly with technology, having more one-on-one attention from teachers, and having access to course materials at all times. The number of K-12 students taking online courses is now approximately 4.5 million, a radical number given that online enrollment in 2000 was fewer than 50,000 students.

According to a study by the Evergreen Education Group, 30 states offer fully online schools and 26 provide state virtual high schools.

Additionally, more and more states are offering students the option to choose from different programs at the course level. An online high school education offers different benefits than a traditional in-person experience, but it may be the perfect alternative for many students dissatisfied with their other options.

Why Consider an Online Education?

For students and families considering an alternative path to a high school education, online learning is worth exploring. There are many factors to consider when researching online high schools, including the cost and style of programs. We’ve provided background information on each to make the decision easier. If you are still unsure whether online learning will be a good fit, take this interactive quiz for more insight.

The Benefits of Online Learning

For many students and families, especially those in unconventional situations with fewer options, it may be preferable to earn a high school diploma entirely online. Some students are unable to enroll at a brick-and-mortar school if a parent is in the military or works in an industry that requires the family to move frequently. Online education also appeals to young athletes, entertainers, actors, and musicians who need a curriculum that accommodates their busy schedules. While their education won’t be tied to a particular time or place, academic expectations will still be rigorous and will prepare the learner to graduate on time.

Students in rural areas may elect an online high school if a brick-and-mortar school is too far from home. Some rural school districts directly partner with third-party education providers for part-time and full-time online instruction. On the other extreme, students attending overcrowded or unsafe schools – especially public schools neglecting the safety of individual students – may find that an online environment suits them best.

Leading Reasons for Taking Online Courses, According to Washington State Students in 2015

Source: Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning, 2015

Other students who find fully online programs appealing include those whose personal struggles — be they physical or emotional — have made attending a physical high school untenable. Chronically ill students, for example, may find it easier to complete their work online at a pace that allows for downtime and medical treatment. Students who are easily distracted, upset by bullying from peers, or in need of a great deal of one-on-one teaching may find an online environment is a better fit for them than a traditional classroom.

School Checklist
  • What types of online instruction are offered?
  • How much face-to-face time will students have with teachers? With peers?
  • What individualized instruction is offered for my student?

Similarly, advanced students and those looking to earn credits toward college also find that the online learning model suits their educational needs.

Cost of an online high school education

The cost of an online high school largely depends on the school. Most public and charter schools are supported by the state’s school districts and have few tuition fees outside of additional costs for certain textbooks, software and hardware requirements, school supplies, and optional events like field trips. When reviewing any public or chartered program, look for a list of estimated out-of-pocket expenses on the school’s website or contact school administrators for a detailed description of costs.

Private schools, on the other hand, receive little to no government funding and so the families of enrolled students bear the costs of attendance, including tuition and fees. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, tuition for a secondary private school is, on average, around $13,000 a year. Private schools may have other added benefits that offset cost, like career counseling, one-on-one tutoring, a diverse pool of electives, and a robust AP program for earning college credits. Depending on a student’s needs, both private and public online schools offer several options to meet a diverse number of educational needs.

Types of Online Learning

One of the biggest benefits of an online education is the ability for students and families to choose from different styles of learning models. There are three common approaches to online learning at the high school level.

Online Learning ApproachWhat Is It?Who Benefits?
SupplementalOne-time course on a range of subjectsStudents looking for one-off courses for credit or additional learning
HybridBlended online (at least 30%) and in-person learningStudents wanting face time with peers and instructors
Fully onlineVirtual schools with full time enrollment onlineStudents needing flexible or self-paced schedules


Supplemental online courses allow students to take additional classes while still attending a physical school. Millions of students benefit from this approach and often take 1-2 courses per year in addition to their regular classes. Students are drawn to the flexibility and access to otherwise unavailable courses. Popular courses include AP, dual credit, and courses of interest that aren’t available in their schools.

Number of Supplemental Course Enrollments (Sample of Public Schools)

Source: Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning

Many educators use the terms synchronous (video chats, video conferencing) and asynchronous (email, discussion boards) e-learning to describe the hybrid learning approach. Whereas asynchronous approaches allow students flexibility and self-paced instruction, synchronous learning provides community and support for digital learners. This combination is best presented in a blended or hybrid program, where at least 30% of the course is online. Many states also prefer this model of learning and have passed legislation that supports blended programs as a primary method of online education over fully online programs.

Cost Checklist
  • Is the school state funded?
  • What additional fees are included in the overall cost of attending?
  • Are the private schools in my state aligned to core academic standards?

In virtual/cyber schools and virtual state schools, on the other hand, students take their entire course load online and are geographically removed from their instructors and peers. Virtual high schools are often run or contracted by state-led agencies or are public charter schools and 501 nonprofits.


Homeschooling is another approach that often uses a combination of online courses, at-home instruction, and social interaction through local communities and networks. This arrangement works well for parents who are not as adept at teaching particular subjects, such as those in advanced high school curriculum. Online teachers can instruct courses in their entirety, but often encourage parental involvement, especially in the early years, so students develop strong study skills needed for success in online learning.

Homeschool parents can also turn to online programs for high-quality AP classes or other online classes that give students an opportunity to earn early college credit. In short, online education ensures a homeschooled student’s transition to college or the working world has a degree of professional oversight and support.

Evaluating Online Schools

As a relatively new development in learning, online schools aren’t governed by clear quality standards across states. That’s why it’s so important for students and parents to research their options to find an online high school that fits their specific education needs. When choosing an online school, consider the social needs of the student. Does your student desire a completely online environment, or a “blended” education, where online courses are paired with in-person lessons? How do students and teachers interact virtually, and are there any opportunities for students to interact outside the virtual classroom?

When researching schools, it’s also important to understand what kind of academic standards and assessments are in place to ensure students are getting a quality education. Consider whether the school offers AP courses online and whether they belong to a state consortium or have received national or regional accreditation. Explore what kind of academic support is in place for students who may struggle, like online tutoring or self-paced classes, as well.


Accreditation can determine whether or not a student’s work will be accepted as transfer credits or as part of a college application. It’s also the best indicator of a school’s academic credibility. Education standards at the K-12 level are developed by the U.S. Dept. of Education and state departments of education with ongoing efforts to make state education standards uniform. There are additionally six regional accreditation boards that coordinate the review of educational programs, primarily at the higher education level, all of which are also reviewed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Another grantor of accreditation status at the high school level is the Distance Education Training Council (DETC). DETC is recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education; however, it should be noted that some post-secondary schools do not accept credits from DETC-accredited schools that do not also carry regional accreditation.

Accreditation Checklist
  • Is the school recognized by a regional accreditation board?
  • Is the school recognized by the state?
  • Is the school recognized by a reputable agency?

Public and private high schools may seek accreditation from agencies within these organizations and may also be accredited by more than one agency. Check any online high school’s accreditation status before enrollment by reviewing the school’s web page.

Core Standards

While individual states have their own requirements that students must meet to graduate from high school, many states have recently adopted the Common Core State Standards. In an effort to create high-quality, consistent learning goals across states, these standards dictate what students should learn in each grade level in English/language arts and mathematics. Currently, 42 states have voluntarily adopted the Common Core State Standards; click here to see if your state has adopted the standards.

In terms of online schools, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has prescribed a set of national standards — though, like with Common Core, the adoption of these standards is voluntary. The standards from iNACOL provide education districts and online schools with guidelines for online course content, school management, instructional technology, and ways to assess student learning.

The number and type of core subjects that students are required to take to graduate high school also varies by state. Typically, though, core subjects include several units of English, math, science, and social studies or history. Courses like art and physical education are often not required all four years of high school, if they’re required at all. You can explore the high school course requirements for all states here.

Supplemental credits

Many students enroll in online high schools as a way to supplement traditional learning or explore new topics not offered at their brick-and-mortar high school. In fact, according to the Keeping Pace With K–12 Digital Learning 2015 Report, student interest in learning outside the traditional classroom resulted in 4.5 million supplemental online course enrollments. These enrollments may be through state-run virtual schools or through private suppliers that sell courses to states nationwide. While enrollment in virtual courses has been growing, the number of state-sponsored virtual schools has been decreasing — suggesting that districts are increasingly turning to private companies to provide online education.

Some online schools also provide struggling students a convenient way to get back up to grade level if they’ve fallen behind. Called credit recovery programs, these online courses allow students to make up missed credits that they need to complete to graduate. While credit recovery programs represent the fastest growing segment of online education, they’re under-researched, unregulated, and largely decentralized.

Credits Checklist
  • Has the school adopted common core standards?
  • What dual-credit courses are offered?

College Credits

Online high schools are also popular with students looking to earn credits that are transferable to college. Advanced Placement (AP) credits are perhaps the most widely accepted college credit. High school students must take AP courses and pass the related AP exam to receive credit. It’s up to colleges and universities to decide what scores students must receive on their AP exams to earn credit, and how many credits each high school AP course is worth. A similar program is called the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which consists of accelerated courses and corresponding exams for which students may earn college credit.

Dual credit courses are another popular option for students interested in earning college credit while still in high school. In partnership with local colleges and universities, dual credit programs — sometimes called early college programs — provide students the opportunity to take college courses and earn credits that may be transferred to the college of their choice after graduation. Many of the colleges involved in dual credit programs offer these courses online or in blended formats, so students can earn credits virtually. Some well known colleges offer high school programs for students located across the U.S., or even around the world. Here are two that are worth note:

StanfordOnlineHSStanford University Online High School was founded in 2006, and is an independent online high school offering college-level curriculum designed to challenge motivated and advanced students.
IndianauniversityHSIndiana University High School is a distance learning program serving high school and international students. They offer both supplemental courses and a full, degree-earning program.

Students can also take exams that assess their knowledge and award college credit accordingly. For example, nearly 3,000 colleges and universities grant credit to students who successfully pass exams through the College-Level Examination Program, developed by the College Board. Another example of a prior-learning assessment test is the DSST exam, which offers over 30 exams in a variety of subjects.


A well-trained, highly engaged faculty can make all the difference in a student’s experience with online education. When considering different accredited online high schools, ensure that the instructors hold any and all state certifications necessary to comply with a state’s teaching laws. Also, consider what kind of support instructors receive from either the online school itself or the private course provider. Explore how rigorous instructor training is, and whether instructors also receive technical support and opportunities for professional development.

The Online Learning Experience

Learning online is quite a bit different from learning in a traditional classroom setting. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that online students can seek out for help, and many accredited online high schools provide a high level of support for students to succeed. Explore the following sections to learn more about what the online learning experience is like for high school students:

Learning resources and academic support

Top virtual education providers and accredited online high schools will provide students with robust support and resources. For example, writing research papers is a central experience for any high school student — but writing while enrolled in an online high school is a particular challenge. That’s why many online schools offer virtual writing centers. Typically, an online writing center will provide resources on how to structure a paper and how to cite sources, as well as grammar lessons. More advanced online writing centers may also provide live virtual chat support, or the option to submit a paper for review by an online tutor.

Another common online school resource is the tutoring center, which students can turn to for virtual help or to review resources in a number of subjects. An online tutoring center may offer synchronous tutoring, where the student and the tutor are online at the same time for a “live” session, or asynchronous tutoring, where a student may complete a tutoring assignment or ask for help on his or her own time, and then the tutor reviews the work separately.

Finally, online students may wish to have access to online study guides to supplement their virtual classroom learning. Online high schools may provide study guides, or students may need to seek them out themselves, exploring third party options like Khan Academy or StudyStack.

Classroom schedules

The day-to-day life of an online student is pretty different from that of a regular student. An online student may start his day working on a set of math problems at the desk in his bedroom, so he can submit the problems online before the afternoon deadline. Then, the student may log on to the internet to join a scheduled class discussion with his instructor and other students, submitting thoughts through an interactive chat box. After lunch at home, the student may log back online to complete a timed quiz, and then review a lesson developed by his English instructor. While working on homework in the afternoon, he may take advantage of virtual resources like an online tutoring center.

Technology in the Online Classroom

When enrolled in an online school, using technology to learn is built into the program. Students will have to use technology to take the bulk of their exams and evaluations. Often, students can take quizzes and tests at home on their own time (as long as they meet the test deadline), but final exams may be proctored. Students may be required to meet at the exam location on a specific date to complete the exam while under supervision.

If students encounter technical problems, many online schools provide technical assistance in the form of live, “virtual” chats or email or phone support. Students may also need to let their instructor know if a technical problem is preventing them from completing lessons or assignments.

Networking and Social Opportunities

When students attend school online, it’s easy to feel isolated from peers. Fortunately, many online schools incorporate plenty of socializing and networking opportunities for students. Facebook and online groups are a popular means of keeping in touch with classmates. These social networks may be created and monitored by a school representative, or formed informally by students. Instructors may use online groups like these to facilitate discussion on lesson topics and homework. These networks may also be used as a way to form clubs and electives virtually, so students that share common interests outside of core school subjects can have a dedicated space to explore those interests together.

Networking Checklist
  • What field trips or extracurricular activities are offered by the school?
  • How are students encouraged to socialize and stay connected?

If an online school has a strong local presence, field trips may be a regular occurrence, just like at a traditional high school. If a student is enrolled in an online high school with a nationwide presence, many parents will often organize local meetups so that students can interact with peers from their own community face-to-face on a regular basis.

Finally, students can also turn to the school itself for social and academic support. Many virtual schools still provide access to guidance counselors who can help students navigate the occasionally rocky path through high school. Online schools also often have traditional resources like online libraries and research databases for students to use.

Transitioning to college

Many online high school students have an easier time transitioning to college than traditional students, since they’re already used to a great degree of freedom, flexibility, and personal responsibility in their educations. Online students are also often more prepared for a college course load, since many students from online schools and programs have taken college credit courses online. Still, there are a number of hurdles that high school students — both online and traditional alike — must conquer before they can transition to college.

College Checklist
  • Are your application materials complete?
  • How will you cover tuition and fees?

College Applications

Applying to college can be a complicated process. Many students begin the college application process during the fall of their senior year, though some start as early as the summer before senior year. When going through the application process, students will most likely need their social security number, school code, test scores from the SAT, and their high school transcript handy. Since applying to college can be so time-consuming, some colleges accept the Universal College Application. Through this application, students can apply to multiple schools at once, shaving hours off the application process.

College Test Prep

SATlogoSAT: Standardized test often used as a qualification for college admissions.

  • SAT test dates are typically scheduled once a month from October through June of each year.
  • It takes three hours to complete the SAT, or three hours and 50 minutes if the student is also completing the optional essay.
  • The standard SAT consists of reading and math comprehension portions, though students can also take subject tests in the following subjects: English, math, history, sciences, and foreign languages.
  • Students often take the SAT in the spring of their junior year and/or fall of their senior year.
  • Students can prepare for the SAT by enrolling in SAT prep courses, taking practice tests, and using the resources on the SAT practice website.
PSATlogoPSAT: Standardized test taken to practice for the SAT, and used to determine which students are eligible for a National Merit Scholarship.

  • The PSAT is taken in the fall each year.
  • The PSAT takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.
  • Typically, students take the PSAT in their junior year, though many sophomores take the test as well.
  • Students can prepare for the PSAT by using study guides, taking practice tests, and using the resources on the PSAT practice website.

Paying for College

While students are applying to college, they must also start thinking about how they are going to fund their education. One option is federal loans and grants. To receive a federal loan or grant, students must demonstrate a financial need and be a U.S. citizen (or eligible noncitizen), among other criteria. Explore all criteria and loan and grant options at the Federal Student Aid website.

To receive federal aid, grants, and work-study appointments, students will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out FAFSA is a time-consuming process, and students will often need their parents’ help completing the finance and income portions of the application.

Besides federal aid, students can also receive funding through state and private scholarships. Many different types of scholarships exist for students with strong grades, unique talents, and/or students who are a part of a particular demographic population. Use the College Board’s Scholarship Search to find general scholarships students are eligible for, and state-specific scholarship programs can be explored here.

Additional Resources

Researching Online Education

Resources for parents

Evaluating Online Schools

Popular Online Schools

Online Learning Tools