When weighing your online education options, consider these 5 factors.
Going back to school and considering your online education options? You're not alone.
Over 5.6 million college students took at least one online course during the fall 2009 term, an increase of nearly one million over the previous year, according to the non-profit Sloan Consortium.
To put those numbers into context, nearly one out of three college students is currently enrolled in an online course or program, and those numbers are only expected to grow in coming years.
To help you make a decision about going to school online, we talked to college experts and compiled a list of 5 things to think about before you commit.
#1 - Accreditation
One of the most important factors to consider is whether a school that offers online programs is properly accredited, according to Brianna Bates, an information and accounts specialist at the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a non-profit education association and accrediting agency in Washington, DC.
"We tell students to be very wary of accreditation claims," Bates says. "Just because a school says it is accredited doesn't mean it's true." Bates says it's not uncommon for so-called diploma mills to set up fake accrediting agencies with a phone number and voice mail message. She urges students to check with the Department of Education to see if the agency is approved by the U.S. government.
For a list of approved national and regional accrediting agencies, visit www.ed.gov.
Accreditation is a voluntary process requested by most colleges and universities. The hope is to receive confirmation from an independent agency that your students are getting a high quality education.
National University, which offers 60 online degree programs, for example, received a 10-year reaffirmation of its accreditation in April 2011 from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the same commission that accredits institutions like University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California.
"It is a very rigorous process that compels the university to show how well it is providing education to our students across many platforms and in different arenas," says Bettina Moss, National University's lead faculty for its online MFA in screenwriting program.
#2 - Quality of Online Faculty
Every student knows that a good professor can mean the difference between a good and bad experience with a class.
Online programs are no different, so don't be shy about asking for a list of the working faculty and the classes they teach. Look up a faculty member's credentials and read testimonials from students on sites like RateMyProfessors.com.
"I am from the school of thought that any course or program with the right teacher can be conducted well online," says Sam Govea, executive dean of distance learning at Brookhaven College in Texas. "While some programs and courses that require hands-on clinicals or labs are more challenging to run 100 percent online, there are always solutions when a creative, engaging teacher gets involved."
Thomas Boyd, dean of Kaplan University's online School of Business and Management, told the Wall Street Journal in March 2011 that he's only hiring professors with Ph.D.'s.
"What I'd like is the kind of faculty on par with what you'd find at a good state school although I should point out that if a great CEO wanted to teach without a PhD, I wouldn't turn it down," Boyd says.
#3 - Online Student Body
You can't get a real feel for an online school until you gain an understanding of its student body. Knowing who they are will help give you a sense for whether you and the school are a proper match.
Are you an older working adult who is thinking of returning to school? Knowing the average age of the student body may not make or break your decision but it could influence your thinking. After all, these students will become your peers and you will be interacting and networking with them.
Along those lines, be sure to ask schools for their average student's course load as well as graduation and job placement rates, says DETC's Bates. "By knowing those kinds of statistics you can get an idea for how many people write that first check and finish the program," she says.
#4 - Relevance of Curriculum
Some people go back to school online with the goal of furthering their careers. If that's the case for you, make sure any schools you're researching offer an online degree program in an area that matches your goals.
It's also important to make sure that it's a subject that's amenable to online learning, according to Govea, who oversees online learning at Brookhaven, a Dallas County Community College that offers 20 online programs and serves over 7,000 online students per year.
Govea says that Brookhaven's beginning computer classes, for example, are best taken in a face-to-face classroom setting, while more advanced computer classes can work well in an online environment.
Visual communications ranks among Brookhaven's most successful online programs, according to Govea. Work is peer and instructor assessed and popular courses include Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver.
"The program is very structured and instructor and text are easy to follow," he says. "In many cases, videos are available for each step that demonstrates the processes."
Business courses also work well online, according to Govea. "Case studies and examples abound on the internet and much of the case studies can be presented online without problem," he says.
#5 - Money Matters
It's never fun to discuss money but it's an important part of the college decision-making process.
Among online education's many selling points is that it sometimes comes with a cheaper tuition tag because the schools can operate more efficiently, with fewer buildings to maintain and utilities to pay. Plus, there are smaller charges, like an activities fee, that won't get added to your bill.
"If price is an issue for you, distance learning is a great alternative to a residential format," Bates says.
But don't just assume that going to school online is cheaper. Compare various tuitions, and pay particular attention to extra charges like course fees that could come after you're enrolled.
Don't be afraid to ask these questions when it comes to your online education. Schools understand that every dollar counts when you're investing in your future.