Best Online Colleges

If you're considering getting an online degree, you have plenty of options. There are thousands of online colleges on the Web, each of them with the promise that a life-changing education is right at your fingertips. While studying at one of the best online colleges, you can earn a degree in almost any discipline. In fact, an online education eliminates many of the obstacles that prevent students from pursuing traditional, campus-based degrees.

While online education has a lot to offer, it's important to consider whether it is the right option for you. Even the best online colleges aren't for everyone. Here are a few things to consider if you're thinking about getting an online degree:

Plan to Adjust Your Schedule & Lifestyle

Are you a parent or working professional? If so, earning an online degree could be a great option to help you balance your education without disrupting your other responsibilities. Many online courses can be completed at your own pace, allowing you to continue working and/or raising a family. In addition, many online degree programs do not require on-site participation, so you won't have to worry about commuting to a campus at a set time each week to attend class.

Asynchronous vs Synchronous: Learn More About Online Schedules

Before you enroll in online courses, it's important to consider which type of online programs will fit best into your schedule. Online courses are most commonly offered in two major formats: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous courses offer the most flexibility, with students listening to lectures, participating in discussions, and doing learning modules when it's most convenient. In a given week, a schedule for an asynchronous course may look something like this, taken from an online course on asynchronous learning:

While asynchronous courses allow students to complete work when they have the time, synchronous courses require students to do most coursework, discussions, and lectures at a set time each week. In fact, many asynchronous courses have synchronous elements, generally in the form of final exams which students must take at the same time to prevent cheating. When students sign up for a synchronous course, they can expect a weekly schedule similar to those offered by West Georgia Tech:

Just as with traditional schools, online courses vary in how long they take to complete. Some use a semester format while others use quarters, and online courses can take anywhere from 10 to 16 weeks to complete. The length of a semester may vary depending on the session students enroll. Fall and spring sessions tend to be between 15 and 16 weeks long, while summer and winter sessions are as short as 4 to 6 weeks. While it may not seem especially important, you should know just how much time you'll need to commit to your courses, especially if you're balancing family and work while attending.

Going Back to School with Kids

Going back to school is never easy, but can get even more complicated when you're going back to school with kids waiting for you at home. Choosing this path can have some amazing benefits, but it will require some lifestyle changes in order to successfully balance the demands of work, school, and family life. It can be challenging, but given that 23% of today's college students are parents, according to research from CLASP, it is neither impossible nor all that rare for parents to make balancing schoolwork and family life possible.

In addition to finding the financial resources to pay for college, parents returning to school must also find the funds for child care costs. The average cost of full-time child care for infants exceeds $10,000 a year in 19 states. The average cost of childcare for toddlers and school-age children is $3,900 and $11,700, respectively, according to recent research from Child Care Aware. This is one area where online courses offer a serious advantage, allowing parents to complete schoolwork after the kids have gone to bed.

Juggling a Full Time Job and College

Most people don't get to focus solely on school when they decide to get a degree later in life. Whether they're looking to pursue a new career or get ahead in their existing line of work, trying to work full time and go to school isn't easy. There are some common obstacles that many students run into as they're completing coursework, even in the online setting.

One of the biggest challenges is time management. Even those who have time for courses may find the online format a challenge, especially when returning to school after a long absence, as both peers and professors are not immediately available to provide support. This can be especially hard on someone changing careers, as the student will be unfamiliar with the subject matter covered in his or her courses.

While even the best online colleges can't make these challenges disappear, they can make it easier for students to strike a balance while still getting the most out of their classes. More and more students don't fit into the traditional mold, and so online colleges are working hard to develop course delivery methods, foster online communities, and create programs that cater to the needs of adult learners.

Evaluate Your Discipline and Time Management Skills

One of the main benefits of an online degree is self-pacing and flexible scheduling. However, some students in online programs never complete their degrees as a result of this flexibility. To succeed in an online program, you'll need discipline and time management skills to stay motivated. Some students need a set schedule with hard deadlines. If this describes you, an on-campus program may be a better choice for you. But if you excel in a self-paced environment, online education is a great option as long as you stay on task.

Long-Term Time Management

It is common for degree programs to be offered in full-time and part-time formats. For students who need to work a job and keep up with familial obligations, part-time programs may be a good option. Part-time degrees require fewer credit hours each semester, but as a result, may take significantly longer to complete than full-time programs. Other than the time put in per week, there are few differences between full-time and part-time, with part-time students taking the same courses and expected to meet the same high standards found in full-time courses.

Of course, part-time programs aren't all easier. Part-time students need to know that completing their coursework over a longer period of time can mean greater costs. U.S. News and World Report estimates that the average part-time MBA program costs $3,000 more than a full-time one, adding an additional cost to what is already an expensive degree. Making things even more difficult are the new Federal Student Aid Satisfactory Academic Progress Standards, which put time limits on how long students complete their degree programs while getting federal aid. Students should plan their progress accordingly, so they stay eligible for federal sources of financial aid for part-time students.

For those who don't want to dawdle and get their degrees done as fast as possible, there are options that allow students to do so. Accelerated programs exist at many levels. Some of the most popular accelerated degree programs are at the master's level, allowing students to go from being a BSN to an MSN in just 12 to 18 months, shortening the process of degree completion by as much as half.

Short-Term Time Management

Whether a student chooses to take their time or finish a degree program as quickly as possible, they will also need to ensure they're allocating an appropriate amount of time for their studies and not letting work or social obligations get in the way. In fact, strong time management can be one of the biggest factors in determining whether a student will succeed or struggle in an online program of study, so setting realistic expectations up front is critical.

Wondering to yourself, "How much time should I study in order to succeed?" There are some general recommendations you can follow. DePaul University uses a simple formula that takes into account how many credit hours a course is worth and the difficulty of the material, which you can access here. Using this equation, a four hour course of moderate difficulty would require 12 study hours per week. While only the student can determine how much study per credit hour is really needed, this is a good way to get a general idea of the time commitment required outside of attending class. Students also need to know that the more classes they take, the greater their time commitment will be, and as a result, accelerated programs may not be ideal for someone unable to put in the necessary hours studying.

Consider Your Academic and Professional Goals

What are your educational and career goals? While plenty of degrees are available, some subjects may not translate to online formats, or you may not be as accustomed to learning without hands-on participation. For example, students majoring in music, lab sciences, or fine arts may find it difficult to complete a degree online without in-person interaction. However, some programs in these fields offer hybrid programs. These programs pair online learning with on-campus activities, labs, and classes. But before pursuing an online degree, consider whether online learning is practical for your chosen field and whether you will receive the training you need.

Hybrid Courses

While wholly online courses are great for learners who need more flexibility, a growing number of schools are focusing their attention on hybrid courses. Hybrids blend online courses with in-class sessions, which vary from simple discussions to clinical practicums that prepare students to work in professional settings. They are becoming increasingly common in fields like nursing and education. Curious what your schedule would be like in a hybrid course? In a Writing Across the Curriculum class at North Carolina State Univesrity, students in the hybrid format met two days a week in-class and two days online or could choose longer courses that met twice per week in class and once per week online.

Hybrid courses can be a great compromise for students who want the flexibility of online coursework but who still need the support of hands-on guidance. Hybrid courses are also more practical in fields where students can't learn what they need in an online environment, such as those that require hands-on work, face-to-face interaction, or laboratory work. In a hybrid course, students complete their lectures and assignments online, allowing students to pursue flexible online degrees in fields like chemistry and nursing.

Hybrid Degree Programs

Not only can students take individual courses as hybrids, but there are also a growing number of degrees that use the hybrid model throughout. This is common among fields where instruction simply can't take place online and where students need to meet with instructors in person to discuss projects or demonstrate their aptitude. For example, students can choose to attend nursing school online but will need to do clinical work or complete a residency on-site at a hospital or other medical facility.

Of course, nursing isn't the only field where a hybrid course just makes sense. Those pursuing science degrees will need to supplement their online work with hands-on work in labs. This dual format is also popular in programs like social work and counseling, where practicums, field work, and conferences are part of earning the degree.

Students will find a number of hybrid programs at higher degree levels as well. Online Ph.D. programs aren't often completed online in their entirety, simply because the nature of a Ph.D. program requires face-to-face interaction with professors and a significant amount of research or lab work on campus. Hybrid programs allow students to complete basic coursework online, but still offer students the support and advice they need to graduate with a Ph.D. or master's.

Choose a High-Quality Online School

Program quality is the main concern for both students and employers when it comes to online education. As with traditional colleges, you should research your schools of choice before deciding on a degree program. The best online colleges are fully accredited by national or regional accrediting agencies, and are held to the same quality standards as traditional universities.

Accreditation

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, factor students should consider when choosing an online school is accreditation. But what is accreditation? It's a process by which a school is certified as competent and credible, ensuring that educational institutions meet a certain level of quality and offer students a return on investment. Accreditation is critical in choosing a school because degrees from non-accredited schools will likely not be accepted by employers or other institutions should a student choose to enroll later on.

Luckily, it is easy to find accredited online colleges, and in fact, most are accredited by at least one major accrediting body. The best way to check is to visit the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions. This site will allow you to search for a school and see whether or not it's accredited and by which accrediting body. This will ensure students are getting a high quality education and are able to put their degrees to use upon graduating.

Rankings & Reputations

While rankings systems shouldn't be the only way students choose their online degree programs, they can be a big help in getting a better idea of the top online colleges and best programs in specific areas. The trick is finding rankings that are unbiased and independent.

So what factors should students consider when evaluating online colleges and universities? Class size will likely not be as critical, so students should look for graduation rates, how many students find work after college, the time to complete a degree, and the instructors' qualifications.

Fair or unfair as it may be, reputation does matter. Attending one of the best online colleges, with a strong reputation to match, can play a big role in a student's success. A high-ranking college will not only look good to employers, but will likely provide students with a strong alumni support network.

Not sure where to seek out the best online schools? There are some sites that offer rankings students can use to make an informed and educated decision.

Traditional vs. Online Colleges

Online education has become increasingly popular, and not just at schools that operate entirely online. A greater numbers of brick-and-mortar schools, some with extremely strong reputations, have begun offering online courses. This has been a big factor in the acceptance of online programs among employers and peers; when done right, these schools demonstrate that online courses are equal to those offered in a traditional setting.

So how does a degree program at one of these top-notch schools differ when taken online vs. off? In many ways, it doesn't. Students will still need to meet stringent admissions standards, pay the same tuition, and complete the same coursework as their on-campus counterparts. This has some pros and cons, but will allow students to get a degree that is indistinguishable from one obtained on campus.

Students may be more curious, however, as to how online degree programs from high-ranking online schools compare to those from a traditional college. Again, in many cases, the difference is minimal among schools with similar rankings and standards. Students will be taught by equally qualified instructors and professors and will complete much the same kind of coursework. But while each school has its own requirements, online colleges offer many digital resources that exclusively cater to the needs of distance learners.

The Average Cost of a College Education

A college education costs more today than it has at any point in U.S. history. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition, room and board, and fees at a four-year college was a whopping $22,092 a year in 2011. For two year colleges, that sum dropped to $8,909, yet it's still much more than the $2,230 (adjusted to current dollars) the same school would have cost students in 1980. The costs go up when only private schools are considered, with these institutions charging $32,617 for four year programs and $23,871 for two-year programs.

And it isn't just tuition that's on the rise; textbooks have also skyrocketed in price, costing 812% more on average today than they did in 1978, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute. These costs leave many students wondering how they'll afford a degree at all. Students concerned with the steep costs of college should investigate all forms of financial support. There are many financial aid options for students, such as grants, scholarships, loans, and work study programs. If you're still wondering if the cost is worth it, remember that a college education is still one of the best ways to improve your earning power and succeed professionally.

Weigh College Costs with Your Career Outlook

It's true that the cost of tuition can be scary, but while the average cost has gone up, it's still one of the best investments students can make. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that college grads earn three times as much as someone with just a high school degree. In fact, even with tuition costs reaching record highs, people with college degrees are almost always better off than those without; enjoying everything from lower unemployment to better health.

Of course, not all programs are created equal. Some will simply offer greater opportunities for employment, higher pay, and more security than others. For example, health care is an extremely high-demand field, and those graduating with degrees in nursing, health care administration, and related fields may get a better immediate return on investment than most other online degree holders.

The Best Industries for College Graduates

What sort of degree is best pursued online? There is no easy answer. While the economy has struggled in recent years, some industries are defying the odds by providing strong opportunities for those with the skills and expertise to take on jobs as soon as possible.

Technology and the Internet: According to the IBISWorld Study, the fastest growing U.S. industries are almost all online-based. From social media to game development to e-commerce, this sector is without a doubt one of the best in which to forge a new career. Just how good is it? It's expected that these industries as a whole will see a growth rate of 16.9% annually for the next five years, with some growing much more rapidly.

Green and Sustainable Building and Development: While the tech sector may dominate the United States' economic growth, not far behind in the IBISWorld Study rankings is green and sustainable building and development. New standards for building, a recovery in the housing market, and the promotion of the environmental protection agenda have caused a boom in this sector, with a 26% increase in sustainable building materials and a 22% increase in green building construction.

Pharmaceuticals: If you're considering changing careers, now is a great time to consider pursuing a degree in a healthcare field, especially pharmaceuticals. The IBIS expects generic pharmaceuticals manufacturing alone to grow by more than 6.3% over the next five years, and this only accounts for a fraction of the total economic impact of pharmaceutical companies, especially as the population ages. This can make it a great time to consider shift into pharmacy, biomedical engineering, pharmaceutical sales, or even into the larger healthcare market, which is growing so rapidly, in so many areas, that some colleges are unable to keep up with the diversity and demand.

School Services that Support Career Development

If you're heading back to it's worth knowing that online colleges offer much more than a degree when it comes to helping students make the transition from one career to another, or from the educational sphere into the working world. One of the best resources students can take advantage of offered by most colleges online or off, is a career services department. Through this department, students can talk to professionals who will help them polish their resumes, find internships, practice interview skills, and even give leads for potential jobs.

Students should also make an effort to get in touch with their school's alumni. Even online colleges can have strong alumni networks, with the University of Phoenix being one notable example. Leveraging alumni connections can help you find work, access mentors, or support and advise you about what it's really like to work in your industry of choice.

Whichever services students choose to take advantage of, they shouldn't miss out on the unique resources available to them as college students. Such resources will assist them in nearly every aspect of the career development and advancement process.