Tips For Choosing Online Graduate Programs


Traditional routes to higher education aren’t for everyone. Those with families, mortgages, a good job, or anyone who lives in remote areas may not have the ability (or desire) to enroll in a traditional full time, face-to-face program.
So what can you do if you want (or need) higher education, but can’t dedicate the time required for a traditional graduate degree? Enter online graduate programs.
In recent years there has been an explosion of online graduate programs. Technology has enabled broader access to high quality instruction, which has in turn opened up higher education to demographics that would have otherwise been excluded. While in the past online graduate programs may have seemed “less prestigious” than traditional routes, that stigma has changed a lot in recent years. The benefits of online instruction are quickly gaining recognition.  The benefit of being able to re-watch material, engage in novel digital education techniques, and develop an online community has been hugely beneficial to students. This awareness has increased the value of online degrees. 
Despite growing interest and development of online graduate programs there are, unfortunately, still a lot of scams out there. Many institutions have taken advantage of the explosion in online graduate programs in the last decade. A lot of for-profit (often called “proprietary”) schools have utilized the opportunity to offer up a “student as a consumer” model of education that has been devastating for a lot of unsuspecting students. A complete run down of proprietary universities and what you should look out for is discussed in another post.
So are all online graduate schools a scam? Of course not! There are plenty of legitimate and engaging programs available, more than ever before. You just need to make sure you understand the basics of the degree granting process and the different types of schools.  Armed with knowledge, you’ll be able to make the best decision for your situation.
In this post we’ll go over what you need to know, tips, and suggestions so you can find the best online graduate program for your situation.

 

 

(1)  Accredited Colleges Only

What is an accredited college? Accrediting agencies develop criteria and conduct evaluations. Schools that meet the standards are considered “accredited colleges” in the US.
The type of accreditation a school can receive fall into two categories: national or regional.
Nationally accredited schools are mostly for-profit, often vocational or technical programs.
Regionally accredited schools are usually non-profit, with academics as the primary focus.
If you’re thinking about a nationally accredited school it’s important to note that regionally accredited schools will not accept transfer credits because of differences in academic standards. This may not initially seem like a big deal–but if you start at a nationally accredited school and hate it, all your credits and money are lost. On the other hand, you can transfer among regionally accredited programs, making them a much safer investment. Regionally accredited degrees also have more value in the job market.
Warning: Each state can decide which colleges are allowed to operate within its borders–but state approval does not mean the college is accredited. It simply means the college can operate as a business in that state. Many non-accredited colleges offer diplomas, degrees and other certificates. Some “diploma mills” even award college degrees for a one-time fee. The degrees hold next to no value and you often end up paying substantial sums—not to mention the complete lack of legitimate education you’ll receive.
Note: If you want to attend a professional or specialized college, choosing an accredited program is very important for licensing purposes. In some fields, you need a license before you can legally practice your profession. If you choose a non-accredited program you could earn a degree and not be able to get a job with it!
So how do you check that a program you’re interested in is accredited?  The US Department of Education offers a database of accredited colleges in the US, so go there directly to verify. There are a lot of  “accreditation mills” – groups that will accredit schools using minimum standards, so the only way to know for sure that the school is accredited AND that the accreditation is legitimate is to check the US Department of Education database. Students can only receive federal student aid from schools accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. government, so do not skip this step.

 

(2) Choose A “Traditional” University If Possible

The truth is that traditional, non-profit, regionally accredited universities still offer the most “prestige” and value in online graduate degree programs. A lot of “brick-and-mortar” universities offer online extension and degree programs, and in many cases your degree will be issued by the main university (e.g. University of Michigan or Harvard University) rather than an extension school or unknown online university. This can be one of the safest routes because (1) they’re accredited (2) financial aid will be easier to obtain and (3) their graduation statistics will be readily available.
The other bonus to going through a major university is that you’re usually given a lot more opportunities to engage. Campus visit weekends, weekly problem sessions, networking events, etc. They’re usually not much more expensive than other, lesser known, online graduate programs. In most cases, the minor increase in cost more than makes up for having a trusted name on your diploma, along with more access to financial aid. Employers often won’t even know it was an entirely online degree!

 

(3) Calculate Total Cost Of Program

Online graduate programs aren’t always less expensive than ones earned in person, and you should compare your total costs beforehand.
The absence of facilities often gives prospective students the idea that online tuition will be lower than tuition for on-ground programs—but this isn’t always true. Online graduate programs list a variety of reasons for charging the same, or more, than traditional programs. 
But even for online graduate programs with seemingly low tuition rates, always be sure and research whether there will be additional fees, which are very common. Some programs will have fees to register for each class, fees for the online learning environment, or even esoteric “lab fees” for classes that have no lab. It isn’t required to list upfront any additional costs, so always dig into the nuts and bolts to get an idea of what the entire degree will actually cost you. When in doubt, ask the program directly.
It’s also a good idea make note of how much it will cost you to go to campus. At the graduate school level, many schools have residency requirements that require students to meet up on campus for exams, networking events, classes, or other functions. If you’d be required to fly in for these events, or even just endure a long commute, make sure you factor in those costs before committing.

 

(4) Research Financial Aid

When it comes to federal financial aid, the government doesn’t care whether students are online or on campus. If you are pursuing a program that has been approved by the federal government, no matter which way it’s offered, it’s eligible for financial aid. Just keep in mind that aid will still be contingent on the same guidelines as traditional programs, such as maintaining a full time status and being in good academic standing. 
There are new competency-based programs, called direct assessment programs, that don’t qualify for financial aid. These programs operate more like subscriptions, where you pay for full access to classes for a period of time and get through as many as you can. These types of programs have a host of their own benefits and drawbacks.
If you discuss financial aid with a potential program and don’t feel like your questions are being answered, be wary. There are plenty of scholarships for online graduate programs. These scholarships aren’t aimed directly at online students, but if you’re looking into legitimate programs you should have access to the same plethora of financing opportunities as traditional students. If you start noticing that your financial aid opportunities are limited, this could be a red flag that the program in question isn’t legitimate. 

 

(5) Understand the Transfer Credit System

If you know you’re interested in transferring to a face-to-face program down the line, or perhaps want to use that masters degree as entry to a PhD at some point, you need to be aware of the credit transfer system in place. Some schools will allow students to transfer credits to/from online programs without hassle–but for many the process is less fluid. Transferring credits to an online program can be a great way for students to cut back on the time and money it takes to earn a degree, and transferring credits to a traditional program from an online one open up education to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. If you think this could describe your situation, research your options beforehand. While credit transfer is not always easy in these cases, it’s still doable. Some universities have more liberal policies than others. Be sure and compare one institution to another and determine the number of credits that can be transferred.

 

(6) Make Sure The School Aligns With Your Goals

When it comes to online graduate schools, many prospective students lose site of the things that really matter in a graduate program: the curricula! It’s just as important to make sure the online school you pick is aligned to your needs as it is with a traditional program. Not all schools specialize in the same areas, and reputations vary widely by field. Do your homework and find out which schools will provide the highest value degree in the job market.
Many students are tempted to find a program based solely on cost and ease of enrollment–don’t fall into this trap. There are enough online graduate programs out there for you to afford to be picky. This is your education and it’s ok to have high standards.
U.S. News ranks online graduate programs by area, such as:

Graduate Business Program

Graduate Criminal Justice

Graduate Engineering

Graduate Computer Information Technology

Graduate Nursing Programs

Graduate Education 

(7) Pushy Financial Aid Counselors = Run!

Pushy financial aid counselors are always a red flag when researching online graduate programs.
You need to fully understand financial aid packages before signing for loans, and be wary if schools pressure you to take out loans for their online graduate program.  A good program will never try to talk you into a loan. This red flag is especially concerning if the loans they’re pushing are private.

 

(8) Check Graduation Rate Statistics

Graduation rates or student loan default rates can tell you a lot about a school:
A low completion rate can indicate a lack of academic support for students
A high student loan default rate is often a sign of poor financial aid advising
Low employment rates for graduates raises questions about a school’s career services department, or lack of one, and might also hint at a larger problem: diploma mills. These institutions churn out graduates with degrees that carry next to no weight with employers because of low-quality programs or lack of legitimate accreditation.
Take some time and look through retention, success, and default rates of any schools you’re considering. They will usually separate the good schools from the bad very quickly. It’s tempting to shirk this responsibility, especially when data isn’t easily available–but be warned, the less available the data, the more likely it’s being tucked away for a reason. A little bit of work ahead of time can save you thousands of dollars and wasted hours down the line.

 

(9)  Are You A Good Fit?

There are many different types of online graduate programs, and they have different benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation.
People interested in getting an online college degree, especially working adults looking to go back to school, should consider the flexibility of online learning given their responsibilities outside the classroom. Those with full-time jobs and families might find a part-time online degree program ideal, enabling them to juggle their various daily responsibilities without having to commute to a physical classroom.
Online learning also has its downsides however, and not every subject is suited for online education. You’ll need to see if your desired degree is possible with an online graduate program. It’s also not (usually) possible to get a research degree online, so you’ll be limited to a masters or professional degree in most cases. Pursuing an online graduate degree requires a lot more personal responsibility from students as they complete assignments on their own schedule. This means online students need to be prepared to responsibly manage their time. And even though communication with instructors and students is possible through electronic means, you should weigh the sacrifice of experiences and face-to-face interaction for flexibility.

 

 

Interested in learning more about whether an online program is legit? Check out this video by U.S. News as they discuss how to determine the legitimacy and value of an online program.

 

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Tips For Choosing Online Graduate Programs

April 28th, 2016


Traditional routes to higher education aren’t for everyone. Those with families, mortgages, a good job, or anyone who lives in remote areas may not have the ability (or desire) to enroll in a traditional full time, face-to-face program.
So what can you do if you want (or need) higher education, but can’t dedicate the time required for a traditional graduate degree? Enter online graduate programs.
In recent years there has been an explosion of online graduate programs. Technology has enabled broader access to high quality instruction, which has in turn opened up higher education to demographics that would have otherwise been excluded. While in the past online graduate programs may have seemed “less prestigious” than traditional routes, that stigma has changed a lot in recent years. The benefits of online instruction are quickly gaining recognition.  The benefit of being able to re-watch material, engage in novel digital education techniques, and develop an online community has been hugely beneficial to students. This awareness has increased the value of online degrees. 
Despite growing interest and development of online graduate programs there are, unfortunately, still a lot of scams out there. Many institutions have taken advantage of the explosion in online graduate programs in the last decade. A lot of for-profit (often called “proprietary”) schools have utilized the opportunity to offer up a “student as a consumer” model of education that has been devastating for a lot of unsuspecting students. A complete run down of proprietary universities and what you should look out for is discussed in another post.
So are all online graduate schools a scam? Of course not! There are plenty of legitimate and engaging programs available, more than ever before. You just need to make sure you understand the basics of the degree granting process and the different types of schools.  Armed with knowledge, you’ll be able to make the best decision for your situation.
In this post we’ll go over what you need to know, tips, and suggestions so you can find the best online graduate program for your situation.

 

 

(1)  Accredited Colleges Only

What is an accredited college? Accrediting agencies develop criteria and conduct evaluations. Schools that meet the standards are considered “accredited colleges” in the US.
The type of accreditation a school can receive fall into two categories: national or regional.
Nationally accredited schools are mostly for-profit, often vocational or technical programs.
Regionally accredited schools are usually non-profit, with academics as the primary focus.
If you’re thinking about a nationally accredited school it’s important to note that regionally accredited schools will not accept transfer credits because of differences in academic standards. This may not initially seem like a big deal–but if you start at a nationally accredited school and hate it, all your credits and money are lost. On the other hand, you can transfer among regionally accredited programs, making them a much safer investment. Regionally accredited degrees also have more value in the job market.
Warning: Each state can decide which colleges are allowed to operate within its borders–but state approval does not mean the college is accredited. It simply means the college can operate as a business in that state. Many non-accredited colleges offer diplomas, degrees and other certificates. Some “diploma mills” even award college degrees for a one-time fee. The degrees hold next to no value and you often end up paying substantial sums—not to mention the complete lack of legitimate education you’ll receive.
Note: If you want to attend a professional or specialized college, choosing an accredited program is very important for licensing purposes. In some fields, you need a license before you can legally practice your profession. If you choose a non-accredited program you could earn a degree and not be able to get a job with it!
So how do you check that a program you’re interested in is accredited?  The US Department of Education offers a database of accredited colleges in the US, so go there directly to verify. There are a lot of  “accreditation mills” – groups that will accredit schools using minimum standards, so the only way to know for sure that the school is accredited AND that the accreditation is legitimate is to check the US Department of Education database. Students can only receive federal student aid from schools accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. government, so do not skip this step.

 

(2) Choose A “Traditional” University If Possible

The truth is that traditional, non-profit, regionally accredited universities still offer the most “prestige” and value in online graduate degree programs. A lot of “brick-and-mortar” universities offer online extension and degree programs, and in many cases your degree will be issued by the main university (e.g. University of Michigan or Harvard University) rather than an extension school or unknown online university. This can be one of the safest routes because (1) they’re accredited (2) financial aid will be easier to obtain and (3) their graduation statistics will be readily available.
The other bonus to going through a major university is that you’re usually given a lot more opportunities to engage. Campus visit weekends, weekly problem sessions, networking events, etc. They’re usually not much more expensive than other, lesser known, online graduate programs. In most cases, the minor increase in cost more than makes up for having a trusted name on your diploma, along with more access to financial aid. Employers often won’t even know it was an entirely online degree!

 

(3) Calculate Total Cost Of Program

Online graduate programs aren’t always less expensive than ones earned in person, and you should compare your total costs beforehand.
The absence of facilities often gives prospective students the idea that online tuition will be lower than tuition for on-ground programs—but this isn’t always true. Online graduate programs list a variety of reasons for charging the same, or more, than traditional programs. 
But even for online graduate programs with seemingly low tuition rates, always be sure and research whether there will be additional fees, which are very common. Some programs will have fees to register for each class, fees for the online learning environment, or even esoteric “lab fees” for classes that have no lab. It isn’t required to list upfront any additional costs, so always dig into the nuts and bolts to get an idea of what the entire degree will actually cost you. When in doubt, ask the program directly.
It’s also a good idea make note of how much it will cost you to go to campus. At the graduate school level, many schools have residency requirements that require students to meet up on campus for exams, networking events, classes, or other functions. If you’d be required to fly in for these events, or even just endure a long commute, make sure you factor in those costs before committing.

 

(4) Research Financial Aid

When it comes to federal financial aid, the government doesn’t care whether students are online or on campus. If you are pursuing a program that has been approved by the federal government, no matter which way it’s offered, it’s eligible for financial aid. Just keep in mind that aid will still be contingent on the same guidelines as traditional programs, such as maintaining a full time status and being in good academic standing. 
There are new competency-based programs, called direct assessment programs, that don’t qualify for financial aid. These programs operate more like subscriptions, where you pay for full access to classes for a period of time and get through as many as you can. These types of programs have a host of their own benefits and drawbacks.
If you discuss financial aid with a potential program and don’t feel like your questions are being answered, be wary. There are plenty of scholarships for online graduate programs. These scholarships aren’t aimed directly at online students, but if you’re looking into legitimate programs you should have access to the same plethora of financing opportunities as traditional students. If you start noticing that your financial aid opportunities are limited, this could be a red flag that the program in question isn’t legitimate. 

 

(5) Understand the Transfer Credit System

If you know you’re interested in transferring to a face-to-face program down the line, or perhaps want to use that masters degree as entry to a PhD at some point, you need to be aware of the credit transfer system in place. Some schools will allow students to transfer credits to/from online programs without hassle–but for many the process is less fluid. Transferring credits to an online program can be a great way for students to cut back on the time and money it takes to earn a degree, and transferring credits to a traditional program from an online one open up education to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. If you think this could describe your situation, research your options beforehand. While credit transfer is not always easy in these cases, it’s still doable. Some universities have more liberal policies than others. Be sure and compare one institution to another and determine the number of credits that can be transferred.

 

(6) Make Sure The School Aligns With Your Goals

When it comes to online graduate schools, many prospective students lose site of the things that really matter in a graduate program: the curricula! It’s just as important to make sure the online school you pick is aligned to your needs as it is with a traditional program. Not all schools specialize in the same areas, and reputations vary widely by field. Do your homework and find out which schools will provide the highest value degree in the job market.
Many students are tempted to find a program based solely on cost and ease of enrollment–don’t fall into this trap. There are enough online graduate programs out there for you to afford to be picky. This is your education and it’s ok to have high standards.
U.S. News ranks online graduate programs by area, such as:

Graduate Business Program

Graduate Criminal Justice

Graduate Engineering

Graduate Computer Information Technology

Graduate Nursing Programs

Graduate Education 

(7) Pushy Financial Aid Counselors = Run!

Pushy financial aid counselors are always a red flag when researching online graduate programs.
You need to fully understand financial aid packages before signing for loans, and be wary if schools pressure you to take out loans for their online graduate program.  A good program will never try to talk you into a loan. This red flag is especially concerning if the loans they’re pushing are private.

 

(8) Check Graduation Rate Statistics

Graduation rates or student loan default rates can tell you a lot about a school:
A low completion rate can indicate a lack of academic support for students
A high student loan default rate is often a sign of poor financial aid advising
Low employment rates for graduates raises questions about a school’s career services department, or lack of one, and might also hint at a larger problem: diploma mills. These institutions churn out graduates with degrees that carry next to no weight with employers because of low-quality programs or lack of legitimate accreditation.
Take some time and look through retention, success, and default rates of any schools you’re considering. They will usually separate the good schools from the bad very quickly. It’s tempting to shirk this responsibility, especially when data isn’t easily available–but be warned, the less available the data, the more likely it’s being tucked away for a reason. A little bit of work ahead of time can save you thousands of dollars and wasted hours down the line.

 

(9)  Are You A Good Fit?

There are many different types of online graduate programs, and they have different benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation.
People interested in getting an online college degree, especially working adults looking to go back to school, should consider the flexibility of online learning given their responsibilities outside the classroom. Those with full-time jobs and families might find a part-time online degree program ideal, enabling them to juggle their various daily responsibilities without having to commute to a physical classroom.
Online learning also has its downsides however, and not every subject is suited for online education. You’ll need to see if your desired degree is possible with an online graduate program. It’s also not (usually) possible to get a research degree online, so you’ll be limited to a masters or professional degree in most cases. Pursuing an online graduate degree requires a lot more personal responsibility from students as they complete assignments on their own schedule. This means online students need to be prepared to responsibly manage their time. And even though communication with instructors and students is possible through electronic means, you should weigh the sacrifice of experiences and face-to-face interaction for flexibility.

 

 

Interested in learning more about whether an online program is legit? Check out this video by U.S. News as they discuss how to determine the legitimacy and value of an online program.

 

By
@
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