So you've decided that online learning is your best choice for attending higher education. The next step is selecting your institution, but with so many choices out there, that isn't always very easy. Enter "online colleges" in Google, and you will get hundreds of hits. What can you do? Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself to narrow your search to the best choice for you.
Question #1: Why online learning?
Consider for a moment why you've chosen to take distance courses. Perhaps you are a busy professional completing your degree to get ahead. Some schools and programs have lighter workloads than others. If you live in a rural or otherwise isolated area, you might want to take advantage of the opportunity to attend that prestigious university across the country instead of your local community college.
Question #2: What can you afford?
Another possible reason for choosing e-learning could be that you usually can avoid residency costs and just pay for tuition, fees, and books. However, there can still be considerable costs associated with attending college online. Just like at brick and mortar institutions, tuitions for distance programs vary widely. By and large, private institutions will charge higher tuition than state-run universities. If you attend the distance courses offered through Harvard Extension School, for example, you will probably pay more than at your local state university. Keep in mind, too, that many 100% distance schools are independent (some non-profit, some for-profit), and that can also affect the price of tuition. Finally, some schools are more diligent than others in helping find financial aid. If a school has low tuition but does not offer much financial aid, it might not be the best choice compared to somewhere with higher tuition but more possibilities for grants, scholarships, and/or loans.
Question #3: What do you want to study?
Whether distance or on campus, it makes sense to find schools that specialize in what you want to study. If you want to become a veterinary technician, for example, you will want a school that offers that program. Some schools only offer associates, while others might offer bachelors, masters, and even doctorate degrees. If you are studying something that isn't well-known or you want a specific kind of degree, you might only have your choice of certain institutions. Find a program with the specific degree you want in the subject you want to study. That could be a lesser-known school with a really good program in your subject area. Choose the best online college based on total cost to you, not on the pricetag.
Question #4: Is a prestigious name important to you?
As mentioned above, e-learning means geography does not limit your choice. This makes it possible to enroll in well-known schools you may not otherwise have a chance to attend. For example, you could earn a graduate degree or certificate from Harvard Extension School. However, as we also mentioned, it might cost more than, say, Nebraska State. Harvard, MIT, and other prestigious universities also offer open courseware, allowing large numbers of students access to the materials and assignments from actual courses. It is now possible to get credit for these courses and earn some degrees for a fee, but they are still generally regarded as less rigorous than the traditional forms of these courses. Consider, also, whether a specific school is known for certain subjects. A college that primarily teaches business courses, for example, may be a good place to pursue an MBA but probably not good for a master in social work.
To sum up, consider what you want to get from your online experience, what you can afford, the subject and degree you want to pursue, and whether it is important to go to a "big name" school. Once you have answered these questions, your next step is to do your research. Find the best online college by looking for programs that fit the needs and wants you uncovered with your answers to the questions you've asked yourself. It is worth the extra time to find a school that is a good fit. Online learning can be extremely rewarding, but it can be very frustrating studying somewhere (online or not) that is not a good fit.