How to Choose the Best Online Colleges and Universities for 2021

How to Choose the Best Online Colleges and Universities for 2021
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Online degree programs make college more accessible than conventional on-campus study to a far wider audience. You may get online degrees for varying educational levels without having to give up your work or time caring for your family, thanks to advances in technology. Just like traditional programs, you need to look for the best online colleges and universities that best fit your academic goals, professional plans, and financial capabilities.

And with nearly 20 million college students affected by the pandemic, many are considering remote learning options, from purely online programs to hybrid courses. As such, expect competition in online programs to increase within the next school year or so. So, how do you get started with applying to online colleges and universities?

This article will serve as your guide in determining your academic future with online institutions. You will learn the differences between remote learning and traditional classes, as well as their similarities. This will also cover the typical costs of attending online higher education institutions, scholarships, and other financial aids.

Best Online Colleges and Universities Table of Contents

  1. What is the difference between online college and regular college?
  2. Choosing an Online School
  3. Cost of Attending Online Programs
  4. Scholarships for Online Students
  5. Other Financial Aids For Online Students

What is the difference between online college and regular college?

The major distinction between online and traditional universities is where they take place. Traditional schools hold classes face-to-face. As such, students undergo classroom-based learning with an instructor leading the discussion. They have peers with whom they may build meaningful interactions in the real world. Most conventional universities provide on-campus housing, which allows students to develop independence in a safe environment. Most of the time, these conventional campuses provide athletics, clubs, and other student activities that foster a feeling of community.

Meanwhile, an online school allows students to study from the comfort and privacy of their own homes, making it a wonderful learning style for older students who may already have families. It is also an excellent alternative for students who cannot afford on-campus housing or want to live at home with their parents.

Students who select an online college education have access to materials and lectures via online portals, websites, and web apps. Because the lessons are completely virtual, they may reside wherever they choose. Video conferencing, chat, and email are used for all communication with lecturers and advisors. Students may connect with classmates through message boards or online study groups but they rarely engage in person.

With the effects of the pandemic significantly felt in the education sector, online classes and programs are increasingly becoming a viable option for many students. Among those who responded to a National Center for Education Statistics survey, 45% have planned to take classes in different formats than what they did in the previous semesters. This typically entails going from a traditional classroom setup to remote or hybrid learning during the following semester.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

Certain schools and universities integrate online learning with conventional classroom instruction. These schools allow students to take a combination of in-person and online college courses. This enables students to benefit from the best of both worlds. They may be able to take classes remotely while still having access to real libraries, study sessions, and counselors. They can also meet with instructors in person to discuss classwork while still enjoying the convenience of an online college class.

Learning Resources and Coursework Materials

A traditional higher education institution often houses a library, computer labs, a student center, and other facilities that allow learners to study on their own, with their peers, or even tutors. They also provide offices for professors and advisors where students can consult about their academic and professional goals.

On the other hand, these physical resources are usually not available to online students. However, they have online resources that act as substitutes for these. Many, if not all, universities offer digital libraries where students can access ebooks, multimedia files, and other resources to help students with their coursework. Meanwhile, communication tools such as chat, email, and video conferences are used to consult with advisors and professors.

Curricula and Methods of Instruction

For the most part, traditional and online programs typically follow the same curriculum or program objectives. Many traditional degrees have online counterparts with similar goals, requirements, and standards.

Whereas traditional classrooms follow typical discussions and lectures, online classes focus on independent learning. Some courses may require students to attend online classes through video conferencing. These are typically designed to supplement course modules. As such, self-studying is a core, if not the primary component of online programs.

Experts are continuously researching different ways to provide the same quality of instruction and coursework to online students as they would to those attending traditional institutions.

For example, a research paper published in Higher Learning Research Communications proposes a unique approach to the integration of virtual meetings and support for online students in doctoral programs. According to the study “Design, Development, Implementation, and Support (DDIS): Supporting Online Nontraditional Doctoral Candidates,” the DDIS approach creates a framework that caters to online learners’ development while providing adequate support and maintaining course standards (Russell, 2021).

This approach “resulted in the identification of developmentally phased synchronous interactions designed to support online nontraditional doctoral candidates.”

“The interactions identified were linked to the development of critical processes, skills, and knowledge to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the candidate’s progress,” according to the researchers.

Scheduling and Flexibility

Because students do not need to be physically present to attend classes, online programs are generally more flexible than their traditional counterparts. Most of the time, coursework can be adjusted around a learner’s busy schedule. The opposite is true for traditional colleges.

Additionally, the best online colleges and universities often offer a certain degree of flexibility when it comes to completing degree programs. Students with full-time jobs or those with families often enroll as part-time students where they can choose specific courses to take every semester. On the other hand, other programs may offer accelerated tracks if students can accommodate more classes and coursework.

Choosing an Online School

Just like any college or university, you should conduct thorough research on affordable online colleges as each institution has its own curricula, delivery of instruction, and overall quality of programs. Naturally, you would want to look into programs based on your desired major. On top of that, you should consider the following factors to ensure that you are choosing a reputable online college or university.

Degree Level

Before selecting a degree level, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, what degree of education have you previously attained in your life? Second, what are your professional goals and aspirations?

In addition to the numerous online bachelor’s degrees available, you may also want to consider online associate’s degrees and online master’s degrees, depending on your professional goals. To help you better explore these choices, below is a list of potential degree levels you can take through an online college.

Online Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree may be earned by full-time students in two years on average. It is excellent for individuals with a high school diploma who want to acquire practical job skills immediately.

In addition to being more affordable, several online community schools offer programs that prepare students for careers as legal assistants, medical technicians, or billing and coding specialists. It is also a cost-effective option to finish general education requirements before moving on to four-year programs.

Online Bachelor’s Degree

For the majority of full-time students, earning a bachelor’s degree online may be completed in four years. An online bachelor’s degree program may be appropriate for you if you have a high school diploma or some college credits. Some schools even offer degree completion programs, especially for students who have obtained an associate degree and would want to complete a bachelor’s degree program in their field of study.

A well-rounded individual with critical thinking and communication abilities is in high demand in business, healthcare, and other industries. All of these abilities may be acquired via an online bachelor’s degree, making students more attractive to employers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduates of bachelor’s degree programs earn around $1,300 every week (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). This holds true even for those who have attended online colleges and universities, as employers are more concerned about the reputation of the school than the mode of instruction.

Online Master’s Degree

Most online master’s programs may be finished in fewer than three years of full-time study. You may get your graduate degree in as little as 12 months by enrolling in one of the many institutions that offer accelerated online degree programs. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you should think about taking a graduate degree if you wish to change professions, qualify for more advanced leadership positions, or improve your earning potential.

A master’s degree and professional license or certification may be required in some areas of study and work. Certified public health professionals and licensed counselors are a few examples of these.

Based on the same report by the BLS, professionals with graduate degrees can increase their average income to about $1,500 per week (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Additionally, online programs are much more common at postbaccalaureate levels, and their acceptance is much more prevalent.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

Accreditation

Any student applying to college should make it a point to check the school’s accreditation. The status of accreditation may affect your ability to seek financial assistance or transfer credits to another institution.

Each school’s official website should include its accreditation status. Alternatively, students may check a school’s accreditation status with the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education (CHEA). Both organizations maintain lists of accredited schools from regional, national, and programmatic accrediting agencies.

Accreditation is important because it establishes quality standards for online degrees. As a result, employers and graduate schools know that you have a degree from a reputable institution that provides all the necessary skills for your specific profession.

Unaccredited degrees, on the other hand, may cost you more than just a job. Employers, graduate schools, and professional certifying organizations may not accept a credential obtained from a diploma mill.

National and Regional Accreditations

Most regionally accredited online colleges are run by the government and/or non-profit organizations. Two-year and four-year colleges are evaluated by seven regional accrediting organizations in the United States. Others have their own accrediting bodies that are separate from regional organizations. Through the Office of Postsecondary Education, you may discover more about each agency and its authority.

Most nationally recognized online schools are for-profit and adhere to relatively lower academic requirements than their regional equivalents. Research the school’s reputation and learn how academic standards vary among regionally recognized institutions. Also, most nationally recognized colleges and universities accept transfer credits from regionally accredited institutions.

Programmatic Accreditations

Sometimes, specific programs may be certified by a third-party agency as well. For instance, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology assesses academic programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology. As a result, students may be certain that their school’s department provides a credible program.

Additionally, the completion of an online degree with programmatic accreditation is a requirement for certain state-level professional licenses.

The overall quality of one online institution over another may be difficult to judge even after verifying accreditation. All regionally recognized programs in the United States are subject to the same academic and professional standards regardless of whether they are provided online or on-campus. These criteria apply to both full-time academics and adjunct teachers hired by institutions.

With the pandemic changing virtually all aspects of the education industry, accrediting organizations are adjusting to the new needs and circumstances of higher education institutions. According to the paper “Accreditation of Engineering Degree Programs: What is New?” published by IEEE, accrediting bodies have begun or are beginning to keep up with the recent changes in the education sector (Shaposhnikov, 2020).

According to the researcher, “traditionally, an engineering degree program accreditation procedure includes a site visit of the assessment team. During such a visit, members of the assessment team have meetings with students, teaching staff, alumni, and the assessed program management. It is also a possibility to visit and evaluate teaching laboratories, libraries, other elements of the learning environment.”

“Due to Covid-19, the accreditation agencies had to revise their procedures in a manner to be still in line with the existing rules and regulations. Some agencies in countries of Europe established specific procedures. Changing the format of the accreditation audit of the degree program to the online audit in such cases allows agencies not to violate the approved schedule of accreditations and conduct the audit in compliance with the existing criteria of international program accreditation,” the paper added.

Modes of Instruction

Depending on the institution and the program, the implementation of online courses may differ. As such, this affects their overall flexibility and accessibility. These are some of the most common modes of instruction:

  • Synchronous courses – Students are required to attend courses, attend lectures, engage in group discussions and dialogues, and complete homework all at the same time, in accordance with a pre-determined timetable or syllabus.
  • Asynchronous courses – Students are given regular deadlines for completing projects, reading, watching, or listening to lectures, as well as engaging in group discussions (typically through an online message board), but they may finish these activities at any time before the deadline.
  • Open schedule – Open schedule courses, a kind of asynchronous class, enable students to begin classes at any time, regardless of a conventional quarter or semester schedule. Students complete tasks at certain times during the course, depending on their start date. Usually, there is little discussion and contact with other learners.
  • Online synchronous classes – No in-person sessions are needed, but students must log in to virtually attend and take part in a class at certain times, typically through virtual conferencing platforms or learning management systems.
  • Hybrid online classes – The bulk of the materials and teaching are delivered online and may be completed remotely. However, students must meet in person at least once throughout the course to fulfill certain requirements such as laboratory work or internships.

Cost of Attending Online Programs

One of the most important parts of attending college is tuition fees and other expenses. Obviously, choosing an online program can save you a significant amount of money and loans. However, these courses are still quite expensive. As such, you need affordable online colleges that offer your desired major.

Online programs have different direct expenses from their on-campus counterparts. The cost of tuition for distance learners may vary depending on the institution. Some schools charge a technology or internet access fee per credit. Many of the costs connected with campus-based services, such as leisure facilities and on-campus healthcare, may not apply to online students.

Net Cost of Tuition Fee

Online degrees are not always less expensive than conventional on-campus degrees; the typical online bachelor’s degree program costs between $38,000 and $60,000 in total tuition (Kerr, 2020). However, enrolling in an online degree program may save you money on transportation and supplies. Most significantly, it allows you to work while earning your degree more readily than if you have to attend courses in person.

Net cost also includes scholarship, grant, or other financial assistance amounts. In other words, if you get a scholarship that pays $10,000 per year, and your school charges a total of $60,000 for a bachelor’s degree, you can essentially deduct $40,000 from your program’s fees.

Students who attend online programs may not be eligible for all of the financial assistance benefits that are made available to traditional learners. While some schools do not provide in-state tuition rates to online students, certain public institutions are able to subsidize out-of-state tuition.

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Tuition Fee for In-State and Out-of-State Students

If you are contemplating an online college over a traditional campus institution, one of the major benefits is that you do not need a campus to attend classes, so you may go to school from wherever you live or work. Since conventional in-person courses are not required, it is possible to look at schools and online degree programs that you would not otherwise be able to consider.

Many students enroll in public schools in their home states to take advantage of reduced in-state tuition rates, which may save them thousands of dollars. To get a public online bachelor’s degree, in-state students pay an average of $38,496, while out-of-state students pay $54,183 (Kerr, 2020).

However, many public schools now provide in-state tuition rates to all online students, regardless of residency. This may result in thousands of dollars in annual savings, as you pay less out of pocket and take out fewer loans to cover the cost of online degree programs. If you are seeking a high return on investment or joining a profession that does not offer a six-figure income right out of college, do thorough research to determine if the program you are interested in is available in a state where you qualify for in-state tuition.

Other Fees

Along with tuition, the majority of students must pay a variety of fees. To begin, the majority of schools and universities charge a non-refundable application cost of about $100. Specific institutions may waive this cost for certain student groups, including veterans, active-duty military members, and their dependents.

While online students usually avoid paying costs for campus-based services like parking, food plans, and obligatory student health insurance, they may be required to pay distance education fees. For example, a college may charge a per-course or per-credit price for online learning tools, but many schools now include this cost in their technology fees.

Additionally, universities may impose fees for credit transfer, enrollment in special courses, and missing the tuition payment deadline. Contact your college’s financial services or billing office to determine the total amount of fees you may be required to pay as an online student.

Coursework Materials and Other Supplies

Books and other course materials are one of the most often incurred indirect expenses by online and on-campus students alike. At the start of each semester, teachers provide a list of resources that students must have access to in order to participate in class discussions and complete course requirements. While you may often check out books for free from your college’s library, some single-use items, such as workbooks, may need payment.

Rather than purchasing physical copies of books, some institutions allow online students to pay a fee for virtual access to all necessary course materials. Typically, colleges create a library of articles, videos, readings, and problem sets and then charge students a fixed yearly fee to access these resources via computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Scholarships for Online Students

While applying for scholarships may seem overwhelming, establishing a strategy may assist in streamlining the process. Applying for scholarships becomes less stressful and more effective when you follow an organized approach of beginning early, doing research, and following application requirements.

  1. Invest your energy in your essay. Essay-based scholarships enable students to highlight their talents and set themselves apart from other applicants. Allow sufficient time to write a meaningful answer that is customized to each application. Always double-check for typos and grammatical mistakes.
  2. Conduct thorough research. Take the time to research any feasible scholarships when they become available and promptly determine if they apply to you or not. Ascertain that you understand the conditions of each grant to prevent losing out on a scholarship that is a perfect match for you or wasting your time on something for which you do not qualify.
  3. Follow instructions precisely. Scholarship applications, like college applications, need a particular set of documents and information in order to establish eligibility. You may be rejected for failing to follow instructions or being judged ineligible due to missing documents.
  4. Prepare copies of required documents. Scholarships typically require proof of graduation from high school, your transcripts, and other documentation. Prepare several copies of these ahead of time so you can easily submit them.

There are numerous scholarships available to online students based on their academic aptitude, socio-economic status, type of major, and more. These are often available through organizations, government agencies, private companies, and even colleges and institutions. Here are a few of them.

  • Unigo Education Matters and $10k Scholarships – Students must be at least 14 years old, a U.S. citizen, and currently lives in any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia. Unigo offers $5,000 for Education Matters or $10,000 for the $10k Scholarship.
  • Niche “No Essay” Scholarship – The $2,000 “No Essay” Prize is a no-essay scholarship that can be used to defray the costs of tuition, housing, books, and other educational expenditures. Monthly winners will be chosen at random and notified personally and published in Niche’s e-newsletter and on the Scholarship Winners website. Winners are chosen each month and you may apply once every period.
  • R2C Scholarship Program – Applicants should be at least 17 years old (no maximum age), a U.S. citizen, or a legal resident. They must be starting a bachelor’s or master’s program within the next 12 months after application. Those currently studying part-time or full-time are also eligible for the $1,000 award.
  • TheDream.US National Scholarship – The organization offers $33,000 for a student in a bachelor’s degree program and $16,500 for those in an associate degree. Additionally, the scholarship awards $1,000 per year as an additional stipend for supplies, textbooks, and transportation.

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Other Financial Aids For Online Students

To get an online college degree, students must spend significant time and money. Many students, especially those from families with little financial resources, have to seek grants and loans to help them finance college. There are many notable examples of students who are able to pay for their tuition and other expenses through a monthly payment option. No interest is charged, but you have to pay the whole amount at the end of the semester.

Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Student Loans

To qualify for federal student loans and many scholarships and grants, a free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be completed. The application form can be accomplished and submitted online. The FAFSA asks about the applicant’s financial situation, such as their family’s income, tax history, and assets.

An online college or university will use the FAFSA form to assess the student’s financial need and then offer them federal student loans and private loans. In addition, the institution will assist the students through the steps involved in accepting a portion or all of the offer. Students who complete the FAFSA are reimbursed from the school’s budget through disbursements. The funds are typically distributed twice each academic year.

Students may apply for loans from the federal government or from commercial lending organizations like banks or credit unions. Federal loans have a set interest rate and may be tax-deductible. These loans do not have to be returned until the student graduates or leaves school. Individuals who are having difficulty repaying their loans may be eligible to delay or decrease their monthly payments.

On the other hand, private lender loans usually have a variable interest rate—up to 14% in certain instances—and the money is seldom tax-deductible. Students are often forced to begin repaying their debts while still enrolled in school. Private lenders may also impose limitations on how the assistance money is used. However, if you are unable to make your monthly payments on your private student loan, refinancing and consolidating alternatives are available.

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Grants and Fellowships

A grant is a kind of financial assistance that is given to students in the form of a flat payment. The federal government offers subsidies to low-income students, and many schools and institutions do as well. Fellowships are a kind of award for students who undertake their own research studies. Scholarships are comparable to grants, except private groups often offer them.

Some grants, fellowships, and scholarships include limitations on how the funds may be used. Recipients who do not adhere to these criteria may be required to repay part or all of their reward. Otherwise, unlike loans, many types of financial assistance do not have to be returned. Some grants, fellowships, and scholarships are given to students in a lump sum. Other renewable grants are available for studies lasting two or more years. In order to obtain consecutive payments, students may need to reapply for renewable grants.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs

According to a Society of Human Resource Management survey, more than half of private companies provide tuition reimbursement programs to employees pursuing a postsecondary degree or certificate (The Society for Human Resource Management, 2018). These plans benefit both the company and the workers. Employees who get help may offset part of their out-of-pocket school expenses, and businesses can improve their workforce by hiring employees with advanced training in their area. Tuition reimbursement, however, will not cover all of the student’s costs.

Each year, a company reimburses about $4,600 in tuition costs. Furthermore, the individual may be obliged to work for the company for a certain period after receiving their degree or certificate.

Work-Study Programs

The Federal Work-Study program is intended for students who are in financial need. They may work part-time while enrolled in classes under the program. Any student enrolled in a school that offers Federal Work-Study is eligible for the program. Those pursuing undergraduate, graduate, or advanced degrees and those enrolling part-time or full-time are included.

Federal Work-Study positions are often linked to the student’s major. The program may provide on-campus and off-campus jobs. On-campus workers often work for the institution, while off-campus employees frequently work for charitable groups or government agencies. The college’s financial aid office will review the student’s academic record and class schedule to determine the number of hours he or she may work each week. All students who participate in Federal Work-Study receive the federal minimum wage. Positions requiring specialized knowledge or skills may pay more. Furthermore, earnings are determined by the quantity of available financing at the institution and the student’s financial needs.

Starting Your Academic Journey Through Online Learning

Before diving into an online degree program, you need to thoroughly consider the factors outlined above. While online learning is gaining acceptance among employers, students, and the general public, it still brings unique challenges to learners. Students in different majors may have varying experiences and outcomes depending on the program or even the major itself.

For example, students under an online web development degree program may thrive easily as their entire industry ‘lives’ on the Internet. On the other hand, someone taking an online nursing program may have a different experience as one may require occasional in-person classes for laboratory work or internships. Make sure that you explore the best online degree programs before choosing the right one for you.

 

References:

  1. Kerr, E. (2020, January 14). What you’ll pay for an online bachelor’s degree. U.S. News. https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/what-youll-pay-for-an-online-bachelors-degree
  2. Russell, D. (2021). Design, development, implementation, and support (DDIS): A curriculum supporting online doctoral candidates. Higher Learning Research Communications, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.18870/hlrc.v11i1.1186
  3. Shaposhnikov, S. O. (2020). Accreditation of engineering degree programs: What is new? 2020 International Conference Quality Management, Transport and Information Security, Information Technologies (IT&QM&IS). Published. https://doi.org/10.1109/itqmis51053.2020.9322794
  4. The Society for Human Resource Management. (2018). 2018 employee benefits. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/documents/2018%20employee%20benefits%20report.pdf
  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, April 21). Education pays : U.S. bureau of labor statistics. https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm

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