Going to college online offers students a wealth of opportunities. Instead of having to restructure their lives, students can earn a degree while maintaining their current responsibilities. From travel time to tuition fees, online students can save considerably in comparison with more traditional students. With the rapid development of digital education, and the obvious economics of teaching students without needing the real estate historically required, innumerable institutions have sprung up for students to consider. Many of these are private, for-profit schools that have been repeatedly accused of exploiting students without giving them commensurate education for the tuition they’re forking over. Searching for an online college, you’ll likely be inundated with options that sound appealing, without knowing the full scope of what’s available. And you have to be careful. During the Obama administration, the government started a crackdown on predatory for-profit colleges. In 2015, the multibillion dollar industry was serving 11% of American students, who comprised 44% of the total federal student loan defaults. Along with false advertising, predatory loan terms, many online for-profit schools don’t have the proper faculty, accreditation or resources to deliver degrees that are meaningful to graduates.
Now two rules the Obama administration made may be scrapped by his successor. Recently, the Education Department announced it’s reconsidering continuing to invest in a system that erases federal loan debt for students cheated by colleges, as well as the gainful employment mandate, which cancels loans to colleges if graduates don’t earn enough money to pay their student debt. This will only embolden more “businesses” to further commodify education with bear traps that lurk in the way of people trying to better their lives with higher education. There are many steps that you can take to make sure you pick the right school, and here are a few:
Figuring Out Your Major and Degree Level
In some ways this can be the most challenging part of your search for finding a reputable online school. And once you have it down, depending how niche your desired degree is, you can narrow the field significantly. When you’re searching for a reputable school, you can focus on what their reputation is in the school that conveys the program you’re looking for. The same goes with degree levels: you may need a degree that qualifies you for the program of your choice, or you may find the school of you choice doesn’t offer the program you need at the degree level you’re at. In general, this is a good first step to work from.
This one is simple: check the accreditation of any school you’re interested in. Most schools are regionally accredited, and some are accredited by less than savory sources. See what other schools have similar accreditation, and what programs they offer. If you notice that a school that’s been accused of fraud is accredited by a certain organization, take that into account when you see that accreditation popping up elsewhere. Generally speaking, reputable colleges and universities are accredited by one of the following accrediting bodies:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission
- Northwest Accreditation Commission
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
Accreditation statuses from accrediting agencies other than those above are called national accreditations. National accreditations are the standard for program-specific accreditation, but should not be the central accreditation for an entire school. If you’re looking for the best regionally accredited online schools, check out our ranking of the 30 best online universities for more information.
Reading Student Reviews
An excellent source for information on a school are from people who went to it, especially in the program you’re considering. Both GradReports.Com and OnlineDegreeReviews.Org are strong sources to see dozens, if not hundreds of reviews from students. If you have a strange feeling about a school’s reputation, or its financing, you may have your fears allayed or justified in the reviews of the school. Students will also talk about support services, career help, their employment after graduating, and much more. But just like the search for colleges, the search through student reviews can be awful, especially when it’s hard to tell who to trust. At Online Course Report, we gather information about student reviews and punch it up in an accessible, digestible summary of what people are saying about a school, and how it measures up in a number of categories. Here are a few examples of schools like Liberty University, Ashford University, and the American Public University System.
Investigating Online College Rankings
Another way to skip some of the slog of a college search is by letting rankings guide you. At Online Course Report we measure online colleges based on flexibility, affordability, student success and support, and much, much more in a wide range of rankings on programs, majors and degree types. See all of our offerings on our rankings page.
Understanding Online College Scams
Most people don’t have the accounting gene. If you’re taking on any kind of debt, make sure you understand exactly how much you’ll need to be paying, how long it will take you to pay it off, and if possible have someone you trust check terms to make sure there’s no shady terms. Common tricks are changing the interest rate, overcharging for an under-accredited university, or promising educational quality and support services that the school can’t deliver on.
By following these steps, and letting resources like Online Course Report help you in your search, you’ll be that much closer to finding the best online college for you.