So, you have decided that an online college or university is a good fit for you. Well done! Now you just need to decide which online college or university you should go to, right? And this is no easy task. There are so many factors to consider when picking a school. The important thing is to take your time in making this decision. Don’t be seduced by the schools that seem to “want you.” You’ll be much happier at the school that you want.
Remember to Check Accreditation
Make sure a school is accredited. Check out our articles on regional accreditation vs. national accreditation (you want regional, really!) and programmatic / professional accreditation (this type of accreditation is important if you are going into a field such as business, engineering, or psychology).
Consider Public vs. Private Colleges and Universities
Public colleges and universities are owned and funded by the government, almost always the state government. In fact, every state has at least one public university. It could be said that these schools are owned by the taxpayers themselves. Private colleges and universities are (big surprise) privately owned. These schools do not receive as much, if any, government funding. Note that all religious institutions are private colleges.
Public universities often have lower tuition rates. However, do not assume that you cannot afford a private university. Many private universities give generous scholarships to promising students. And a quality private school may lead to a higher salary than a public school might. Private schools often have a reputation for providing a higher caliber education than their public counterparts, which could translate to higher earnings upon graduation. Still, this is a generalization, not a rule. There are public universities that offer an excellent education, and private ones that do not.
While private schools are sometimes heralded as having smaller class sizes, this will likely be less of a factor with online classes.
There is sometimes some confusion about whether private automatically means for-profit. It does not. Many private schools are indeed not-for-profit organizations. We have an article that explains the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit colleges and universities. But here’s the short version: you will be better off at a not-for-profit school.
Consider an Online College or University’s Reputation
This may take a little research. Take care to learn about a college’s actual reputation, not what the college tells you their reputation is. Some colleges will use savvy marketing to distract you from a less-than-stellar reputation. Don’t be fooled!
So, how do you learn about a university’s real reputation?
- Google the school. Then avoid all search results that point you to their own websites. Read what other people (real people) are saying.
- Ask people in the field. Want to be a nurse? Ask nurses about nursing schools.
- Check out the alumni. Where are those people working now? Where did they go to graduate school? Talk to some alumni. Ask people about their experiences at the college.
- Talk to educational professionals. Administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, professors, and coaches have their finger on the educational pulse. They often have insights as to which schools will be worth your while.
- Visit the Better Business Bureau. What do they have to say about your school or university? (And if they say nothing at all, that’s not necessarily a red flag.)
- Consider a school’s athletic reputation. While you may not give a hoot about sports, evidence suggests that some job recruiters do. If you have a degree from a college or university with a prominent football, basketball, or baseball team, you may stand out in the applicant pool, even if you never attended a game. Weird, I know.
- Check out a school’s ranking. Visit U.S. News and see how a particular school ranks compared to others.
- U.S. News also ranks specific programs. You can see how degree programs match up with one another. Maybe the program you’re considering only received a score of 2.3. Hmm…
But there’s more to life than reputation…
Consider an Online College or University’s Extracurricular / Co-Curricular Offerings
Do you have any interest in activity beyond the virtual classroom? Many graduate schools and employers look for this type of activity on applications and resumes.
Do you want to go to a school that offers athletics? Do you want to participate in service learning or other community service opportunities?
Some online students have no interest in extracurricular activities, and that’s not necessarily wrong. People are busy. But if you do have any interest, be sure your college of choice has something to offer you.
And of course, you will need to consider a university’s tuition.
If you cannot afford a college’s tuition, you will likely qualify for financial aid. Some of this financial aid will come in the form of loans, which you will have to pay back. (And know that if you receive financial aid in the form of grants, and you don’t complete and pass the course(s) that the grants paid for, then you may have to pay those back too.)
There’s something to be said for paying for a quality education (as opposed to paying less for a subpar education). Check out this graph from Business Week, which shows the relationship between tuition and starting salaries for 113 undergraduate business programs. If you pay a little more for tuition, it may well pay off in the end. This is a generalization, not a promise, and it depends heavily on what you major in. There is more money to be made in engineering than in Hebrew. Be sure to research how much money you will likely make after graduation, and plan accordingly.
So, if possible, try to be a realist and an idealist at the same time. Choose the best school you can for the best price you can. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself, but don’t go off the deep end and acquire more debt than you will realistically be able to pay off.
And remember, don’t write off out-of-state colleges just because you think their tuition will be too high. Some colleges and universities offer lower rates for online courses. And some colleges and universities (particularly those from less populated states) offer in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students. Do your research and be careful not to make assumptions.
Which College or University Can You Realistically Get Accepted To?
And we’re back to that pesky realism. There’s not much point in doing all this work if you don’t apply to a school that will take you.
What affects admission?
- Your high school and/or undergraduate GPA
- Standardized test scores (e.g., SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT)
- Work experience
- Community involvement / service
Be honest with yourself: how do you rank? Be realistic, but also aim high. You might consider applying to at least one dream school; applying to a great school that you are confident you’ll get into; and applying to a backup school just in case. Remember, you can always transfer later.
Worried about racking up the application fees before you even get started? There are ways to avoid college application fees.