In today’s fast-paced, tech-centered world, anyone can get a great education without ever stepping foot in a classroom. The best online college programs offer both academic degrees and vocational skills that are on par with the education you’d get in on-campus programs.
With an increased flexibility to complete assignments and classwork from anywhere, online colleges offer convenience for “non-traditional” students, including those who:
- Are working parents
- Didn’t immediately go to college after high school
- Are going back to school for a second career
- Want to complete a degree while working full-time
Even students right out of high school might consider the benefits of an online college. If you are interested in an online college program, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know about how they work.
Questions Students Are Asking About Online Programs
You’re likely already familiar with how on-campus college programs work: you apply, get accepted, sign up for classes, attend classes, take tests, get credits, and repeat until graduation day when you shake hands with the dean and receive a diploma. But, a lot of prospective college students have questions about how exactly an online program works, including:
- Starting Your Online Program
- Online Programs 101
- Online Program Costs and Financial Aid
This guide will tackle these common questions about online programs to help you understand the basics of what it looks like to attend college online.
Starting Your Online Program
Your first step to completing your college degree online is to choose and enroll in a program. Many different types of good online programs offer a variety of certificates and degrees in a number of subject areas.
What Online Programs Are Available?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics , as of 2016, nearly 4,500 accredited institutions offer 100% online programs, with another 4,200 offering some online programs or class options. Online colleges include private profit and non-profit institutions, as well as public schools.
The following types of online degree programs are currently available:
- Certificate programs: These online programs help students qualify for the professional certifications they need to begin or continue in a specific career. Examples of certificate programs include HVAC, medical coding, and office management.
- Associate degrees: These two-year degree programs prepare students for entry-level positions in a variety of technical fields, including nursing, accounting, graphic design, and more. Online associate degrees may lead straight to a career or act as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree.
- Bachelor’s degrees: This four-year undergraduate degree is offered by most accredited online colleges. A bachelor’s degree can give graduates a more well-rounded academic education. They often require general and elective credits and are offered in a wide range of fields, from art history to nursing. Online bachelor’s degree programs can lead to a great career or provide a foundation for graduate or professional studies.
- Master’s degree and PhD programs: Graduate degrees can be completed online. They can take from two to six or even more years to complete, and often require original research in addition to coursework. Fields such as psychology, law, business, and social work often require an advanced degree.
How Do I Enroll in an Online Program?
The answer to this question will depend on which online college and degree you choose. The first step to enrolling in an online program is to visit the college website, where you will find contact information and instructions on how to get your application process started. If you have any questions, contact the admissions or enrollment office by phone or email.
Some programs—usually entry-level certification or associate degree programs or open-enrollment for for-profit colleges—require you to simply apply, talk to an academic advisor, and make your first tuition payment.
Open-enrollment online programs typically require only a GED or high school diploma for admission. Other online programs, such as bachelor’s and master’s degrees at selective private or public colleges, may require an application where you list your experience, previous education, and references.
Online Programs 101
While online college programs will give you an education similar to an on-campus program, the online experience is definitely different. Here’s what it looks like to participate in an online college program.
How Does An Online Program Work?
Online programs usually work in one of three ways, depending on the institution and subject area:
- Hybrid: Some programs are fully online and can be completed from any location. Other colleges use a hybrid format, which is a combination of both online and on-campus classes. These types of programs are more typical for degrees that require hands-on training, such as health services.
- Traditional schedule: Online programs may consist of a specified number of classes or credits to complete each semester. Students in these classes will need to complete homework assignments, projects, and exams by certain dates.
- Self-paced: These courses permit you to work as slowly or quickly through the coursework as you want or need to. There will likely be a deadline for when the entire course needs to be completed. This is a great option if you want to complete your online program as quickly as possible, or if you don’t have a lot of time to study and need to work slowly.
When Are Classes Held?
An advantage of online college programs is that there are no traditional classrooms. Online schools know that their courses are taken by busy people who can’t always arrange to meet at a specific time. Instead, “class” is held by each student individually through an online portal, where you’ll have access to the syllabus, lectures (either pre-recorded or written) and weekly assignments. You will also use the portal to submit assignments and interact with other students either through message board forums or video conferences.
How Long Does it Take to Complete An Online Program?
Typically, an associate degree is considered a two-year degree, and a bachelor’s is a four-year degree. Certificates may take a few months to a few years, and graduate programs typically take anywhere from two to six years. Some online college programs follow these ranges and structure courses around semesters. Others divide the school year into even shorter terms.
As the student, you’ll decide how many courses and credit hours to enroll in during each semester or term. If you take fewer courses, it may take longer than average to graduate; enroll in more at once and you’ll finish graduation requirements more quickly.
Some programs will have a set minimum or maximum number of credits you can take in a semester—make sure to review these requirements to make sure you’ll have enough time to balance work and family and can complete the course on a timetable that meets your goals.
Are Online Programs Credible?
Yes, many of them are credible. Rest assured that online programs are becoming more and more prevalent, and if you graduate from an accredited school with a good reputation, your degree will be respected and credible. Most employers will accept an online degree.
Typically, colleges are accredited either national or regionally by certain accrediting agencies, and are recognized and verified by the United States Department of Education. Search through this online database to find out if the school you’re interested in is accredited.
Online Program Costs and Financial Aid
Costs for online college programs, including tuition, fees, and textbooks, tend to be lower for online programs than on-campus ones. When you attend college online, however, there’s no need to live on or even near campus, which cuts down on room and board costs.
How Much Do Online Programs Cost?
Some online colleges will charge a flat rate for a degree, while others will charge a fee for each semester, and many charge by the credit hour. The average annual tuition for attending an on-campus undergraduate program in 2016 was $39,011, not including fees and other costs.
According to a LearningHouse study, the average cost per credit for online undergraduate programs is $345, and for online graduate degrees is $615. This puts the average total tuition cost per degree at $24,880 for a bachelor’s degree and $23,800 for a master’s degree.
Can I Get Financial Aid For An Online Program?
The most common barrier to higher education is the price tag. Luckily, a number of resources are available to help students pay for college, including online programs. A LearningHouse study reports that 42 percent of students who attend online programs were assisted by student loans, and 40 percent of undergraduates received federal grants.
Students accepted to and currently attending online college programs accredited by the Department of Education are eligible to apply for financial aid. Students must apply and qualify for aid using the FAFSA, the same as they would for an on-campus program. This universal application gives students needs-based access to government financial aid, including:
- Federal grants: The Pell Grant (the most common federal grant given to students) and other federal grants are awarded to students based on financial need and academic performance and do not need to be repaid.
- Student loans: These loans are borrowed from the federal government and must be paid back with interest. There are two types of student loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans mean that you are not responsible for paying interest on your loan. The U.S. Department of Education will cover your interest loan payments. With unsubsidized loans, you are responsible for paying the interest, in addition to your loan itself.
- Work-study: This federal program provides employment related to a student’s field of study to help pay for college expenses.
Other types of financial aid that can help pay for the costs of online college include merit-based scholarships, state-level financial aid, employer tuition benefits, and private student loans. Before applying for any financial aid, check that your chosen program will be eligible for the award. If you need help paying for school, contact a financial aid advisor at your online college to discuss your options.
Deciding If An Online Degree Is Right For You
Understanding how online colleges work will help you decide if distance learning is the best route for you. It offers a unique flexibility to both traditional and non-traditional students, without sacrificing quality of education or access to financial aid resources.
To pursue an online degree, do a search for a program you’re interested in and begin the application process. You’ll love being able to complete your classes from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection, all while working full-time or fulfilling your other responsibilities.