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How to Choose an Online College Tips & Advice to Help You Pick Among the Many Options

Narrowing down the options among so many excellent online colleges and programs can be daunting, to say the least. This guide aims to help you choose an online college by looking at the most important elements, steering you away from common mistakes, educating you on how rankings work, and much more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be confident in your decision on choosing an online college.

Meet the Expert

Mark Harvey Graduate Program Director


What to Look for in an Online College

Not all colleges are created equal, and that includes online options. Here are some of the most important things any student should look for when narrowing down the options for online schools.


Accreditation means a school has been evaluated by an independent accrediting body and found to meet the high standards of a rigorous education. Accreditation is recognized by other schools, employers and more. A school that does not have accreditation might be a “diploma mill” or otherwise not provide the education you deserve.

Learn more about how college accreditation works.

Cost is a consideration at the top of everyone’s mind when they start looking for any college, online or not. But remember that tuition isn’t all that goes into the cost of college. Most colleges try to keep tuition costs down to stay competitive, but they transfer costs to students through a variety of fees. Even students who attend school online might be subject to activity fees, parking fees and more. Be sure to get a run-down of these fees to get a truer picture of overall cost.

Tuition and fees matter a great deal, but that’s not the bottom line – financial aid can change things in a big way. Look for a college that is known for providing excellent financial aid, including scholarships and grants. This is another point where accreditation matters, as only schools that hold accreditation are eligible to receive federal financial aid.

Take a closer look at financial aid for online colleges.

How a school is viewed by potential employers matters a great deal – you want to attend a school that garners respect when it appears on your resume. Read recent news about the schools you are thinking of attending. Is the news all positive? Look at the outcomes for students who graduated from the major you’re interested in. Do they seem to do well with post-grad employment? Look at the faculty for the online programs. Are they well-respected in their fields?

Learn more about finding credible & respected online colleges.

Sure, you want to look at a school that has the program you prefer. But you also want a school with a large selection of programs, for two main reasons: First, because you might change your major several times before you settle on an educational path, and second, because the more programs a school offers, the more likely they are to have significant support services in place for students in those programs.

Online learning might seem like a solitary pursuit, but sometimes you’ll need help. A school with robust student support can help ensure that you get quick tech support, tutoring options, library resources and career services. This is especially important in an online college, where time is of the essence for those in accelerated courses.

If you have already earned credits elsewhere, look for a college that will accept your hard-earned work and apply it toward your degree. Keep in mind that transfer credits aren’t the only credits possible; some schools allow credit for life experience as well, such as long-term work in a particular profession or time in the military.

Get more tips and advice for transferring credits to online colleges.

What percentage of students graduate from the school? What percentage graduate from your chosen major? An institution with a dismal graduation rate might indicate a variety of issues, such as courses that are unrealistically difficult, lack of student support, rising tuition rates and more.

If you’re in a major that will require hands-on work, such as allied health programs, education or counseling, ensure the colleges on your list allow for that work to be completed in your local area. Some colleges might require the work to be completed within the area around the campus or within the state in which the campus resides; but if you live across the country, obviously this becomes a problem.

If your goal is to never set foot in a classroom, make sure that’s possible. Some schools do require some time on campus, anything from a short orientation at the start of the college experience to several weeks during the summer. Ensure the program is 100 percent online, with no on-campus requirements.

Online programs have a variety of schedules available. Some follow a semester schedule while others are eight-week courses; some allow you to take several courses at once, while others permit only one course at a time. Some are synchronous, requiring you to be online at certain times, while others are entirely asynchronous, with weekly or even monthly deadlines. Look at your schedule and choose which options are best for you.

10 Common Mistakes when Looking for an Online College

What are some mistakes students make when looking for an online college? Here are a few to watch out for as you narrow down your list.

  • Thinking locally.

    When you’re thinking about being an on-campus student, it might make sense to look at schools close to home. But online programs allow you to study from anywhere – and many of them actually offer in-state tuition or flat rates for online students, so you won’t necessarily find the more affordable option if you stay in-state.

  • Not looking at enough programs.

    You’ve found a school that offers the program you want. Great! But nearly a third of all college students change their major within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. If your interests and career goals change, you want a school that provides several major options to choose from – a school with only a handful of online learning programs might not provide this opportunity.

  • Not knowing your personal learning style.

    Perhaps you learn best when you’re working alone, or maybe you need interaction with peers for the best study session. Maybe you learn best by seeing the material, or perhaps listening to it is more your speed.

    Learn more about learning styles and how they affect your educational success.
  • Not taking your time.

    Choosing the best school is a marathon, not a sprint. It can take many months of regular research, lots of pondering and several phone calls or emails before you narrow down the list to your favorites. Don’t expect to choose a school within a matter of days; give yourself the time to really think over this very important decision.

  • Being enticed by the sales pitch.

    Shiny brochures, slick websites and well-versed admissions counselors can all make a school seem like the best thing since sliced bread, but look beyond those pretty trappings. Take the time to drill down to the things that really matter, such as support services, program offerings and the graduation rate.

  • Choosing a “legacy” school.

    Just because your parents went to a particular school does not mean it’s the best place for you. School pride might run strong among a family, but don’t let that cloud your thinking when it comes to the small details that earn a school a spot on your short list. No matter what pressure might be placed upon you from others, ultimately, your education is only about you and what you need and want out of the experience.

  • Not applying to “reach” schools.

    Some students will choose to stick with schools they know will accept them, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – but you can avoid the “what if” scenario by applying to schools where you have a slimmer chance of acceptance. And who knows? That school just might say yes and eventually prove to be the best move you ever made.

  • Not asking about on-campus requirements.

    Not all online programs are truly 100 percent online. Some might require orientation on the campus, two-week intensive programs during the summer, or even weekend sessions from time to time. This is especially true if you’re looking into a traditionally hands-on program, such as one in the allied health field. Be very clear about on-campus requirements before you choose to attend a college; depending upon your ability to travel, this might make or break your decision to attend a particular school.

  • Relying on rankings.

    Rankings should be a great starting point, not the end game. You can find a wealth of information from rankings, such as how a school stands where financial aid, graduation rate and popularity are concerned. But when it comes to your personal choice, let those rankings inform you – not make the choice for you!

  • Not asking questions.

    The college you choose to attend will become a part of your life for several years, and a part of your history forever. Given that this is such an important decision, never hesitate to ask questions. Ask as many as you like, and don’t take vague responses as an answer. This very important decision deserves and demands that you are proactive in getting comfortable with your choice.

Narrowing Your Search & Meeting with Enrollment Advisor

Now it’s time to narrow down the search even more. In addition to the tips you’ve read so far, there are some clear steps you can take to go from a very long list to a very short one.

How to Narrow Your Search

  • Start with accreditation.

    This is one of the most important factors for any school, online or not. An accredited school ensures your degree will be recognized by employers, graduate schools and more. It also helps ensure you will get the financial aid you’re eligible to receive. Go to the U.S. Department of Education to search for accredited schools.

  • Consider scheduling and potential on-campus requirements.

    Next, look at the scheduling options for the schools you are considering. If you want to take accelerated courses only, then a semester-based schedule is out. If you need asynchronous learning, you don’t want to deal with synchronous classes if you can possibly avoid them. And if you don’t want to be required to go to the campus at any time, schools that do require on-campus visits are off your list.

  • Evaluate all the pertinent information.

    Compare the remaining schools side-by-side. Make a chart with information on each school, such as graduation rate, tuition and fees, percentage of students who get financial aid, acceptance rates, programs offered and more. You want to be able to see, at a glance, how each school stacks up with cold, hard facts and numbers. The Department of Education’s College Navigator tool is a great place to start.

  • Start talking to admissions counselors.

    This is where you ask as many questions as you want to learn more about each school. Pay attention to not only the answers, but how easy they are to get – you want to feel comfortable in knowing that you are getting the most up-to-date and honest information the counselors have to offer.

  • Find the top four (or six).

    Look at the things on that chart that matter most to you, such as a particular program that’s hard to find at most schools or a promising graduation rate. (Tuition and fees matter, but remember that financial aid will offset that amount quite a bit.) College experts recommend each student choose two “safe” schools that they know they will get into, two “good matches” that are likely to accept them and two “reach” schools that are long-shots.

  • Start applying!

    Check the application requirements and deadlines, and make sure to adhere to all of them.

Meeting with an Enrollment Advisor

An enrollment advisor can be an incredible resource when choosing from a very small list of worthy schools. An enrollment advisor (sometimes also called an admissions counselor) should be able to provide any information you might want about the school, from graduation rate to course flexibility to financial aid concerns. You can begin asking questions of enrollment advisors as soon as you’ve narrowed your list down to accredited schools that offer the programs, flexible scheduling and financial aid options that put it in the running for your short list.

When talking to any advisor with the college, it’s important that you feel comfortable and welcome to ask questions. If getting information is difficult, answers are vague or sketchy, or the advisors seem to be avoiding you, that gives you an idea of how things will go when you actually enroll. On the other hand, the enrollment advisor shouldn’t be overly enthusiastic and try to “sell” the school as if they were pushing you into a time-share. Enrollment advisors who are representing reputable schools will let the facts speak for themselves.

When it’s time to apply, the enrollment advisor can give you tips on what it takes to get into the school, help you with the application process and provide you with assistance at every step along the way. Once you’re accepted, they can put you in touch with those who can help you with financial aid concerns, transfer credits and other pertinent points of getting started.

Looking at Online College Rankings

College rankings are a very important tool when narrowing down the options for online schools. There are rankings that focus on almost anything; for instance, you can find rankings based on which school has the best programs in a particular field, the best campuses in a particular state, the best performers in financial aid, or even the best schools for transfer students. Rankings can provide clear, up-to-date information that allows you to look at the facts with a critical eye.

But it’s important to remember that rankings are not the final word in which school is really “best.” What’s actually best is the school that fits your needs. So while you should definitely take rankings into account, use them as a basis to inform your further research in narrowing down the schools to only those that are truly best for you and your educational goals.

Explore our college rankings based on a variety of subjects.

From the Expert

Mark Harvey is the graduate program director at the University of Saint Mary where he teaches international political economy and global management. He is the author of Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @DrMAHarvey.

We asked Dr. Harvey what students should care about when it comes to choosing an online school.

First, integrity. One fundamental division in graduate schools is the question of profit versus non-profit institutions.

Colleges aim to educate. Having said that, money is a driving force in all institutions. They don’t stay open if they can’t pay their bills. Non-profits justify their existence by meeting budgets and avoiding losses. For-profits are motivated by annual increased revenues.

There are some for-profits that might be ethical in their practices. There may be non-profits that are concerned about growth and profits over education. In short, students need to be aware that good educational institutions will not treat them as customers. They are the product. A good university turns out a student who is smarter and better prepared for the job market than when they started. I would be extremely wary of universities whose basic business plan involves massive money spent on prime time advertising instead of investment in programs and services for students. In general, the best universities are those that you won’t find with huge campaigns. They will be long established, reputable institutions.

Quality of faculty is also important.

Most online institutions employ adjuncts to teach their classes. They are in some ways a sign of quality, because they are usually professionals and managers in their field. However, it is also important that they have excellent credentials. I would ask any administrator what the educational requirements are for hiring instructors, and how many full-time professors they have teaching their classes. If the answer is zero, then they probably aren’t running a quality organization. I’m not married to a ratio, but I do think that a quality online program will have at least some full time, tenured, PhDs on their faculty. If not, that’s a red flag.

Access and communication are crucial.

I’m the graduate director, but I’ll take any student phone call on any issue. I may not be the first person they reach, but I will go out of my way to make sure my students get a quality experience. Students need to have easy access not just to student services and enrollment personnel, but also to people who can fix problems for them if they experience them. This is a virtual environment. Most of them don’t walk into my office, but they need to know that I’m there for them. In addition, students need to ask to make sure that faculty will be easily accessible and able to provide help.

Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to intangibles…comfort level, areas of interest, and following one’s passion.

I’d ask any student, what do you love? Why are you here? Can I give you what you need? I turned away a student recently because they loved economics and we don’t have a master’s degree in that. I might talk about their job prospects in whatever area they love, but I’m not going to try to push them into something that isn’t going to be a good fit for them.