What to Look For In an Online University

Selecting an online university? These must-ask questions will help you determine which program will bring the most value to you.

1. Is this university regionally accredited?

Accreditation should be the first criteria by which to choose an online university. Regional accreditation is the highest form of accreditation in the U.S. This credential ensures that the education you receive from the institution meets the established standards for quality curriculum, governance, faculty, student services, and financial stability, among others. In addition to quality assurance, regional accreditation is important because students who attend such institutions typically are eligible for federal student aid and their course credits generally transfer between regionally accredited universities.

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are only six recognized regional associations in the United States that serve as accrediting bodies. Each regional association is independent but cooperates closely with the other associations and each mutually recognizes each other's accreditation. If the school you're considering is not accredited by one of these regional associations, save your time and money and find one that is.

2. Does this online university offer the degree program(s) that I'm interested in?

Now that you have verified the accreditation of a particular university, it's time to evaluate the school's programs and curriculum. Start your research with the mission statement of the university. Does it appeal to your values? Next, find out about the programs and specializations offered. If you're interested in an MBA, does the school have a comprehensive program with the option to specialize in your field of interest, such as project management or entrepreneurship? Research the courses themselves; do they provide a good balance between theory and practical knowledge that enables you to put your new skills to work in a meaningful way? Is the material relevant and current?

What about the faculty? Ask about the background of the content experts who designed the courses. Are they leaders in their fields with appropriate credentials? Are the faculty members who facilitate the courses experienced in online teaching? How accessible are they? Find out if your school or degree program has received the endorsement of any professional associations, such as the Project Management Institute or the American Academy of Financial Management. If you're interested in teaching, are the courses aligned with your state's standards? This is a good time to open a dialogue with someone from the university to determine whether their programs are right for you.

3. How positive is the student experience?

The best online universities cultivate a strong, positive, and supportive culture for their students, faculty, and staff. Just because you are learning in a virtual format does not mean that your experience must be isolating and devoid of bona fide interaction among peers and faculty members. Insist on a school that cultivates the positive atmosphere that supports your achievements.

You should have a rich, interactive experience in an online setting - every bit as engaging as one found at a traditional, land-based school. You may be surprised to hear that many students who have experienced both say that the online format often exposes them to the perspective and insights of students from broad (and global) backgrounds that they wouldn't have otherwise experienced. Is the school you're considering one that has an established learning community? Does the delivery easily support robust communications? How is group participation facilitated? How accessible are your faculty members? Ensure that the school you attend has course content that is developed specifically for the online adult learner and challenges you as a student and makes it easy to interact with others.

4. What are the technical requirements?

The delivery of the content and ease of access can vary from one online university to another. Find out what e-learning platform your school uses. How and when are classes accessed? How do you receive assignments or communicate with your faculty members and fellow students? What equipment do you need to take full advantage of your educational experience? It's also extremely important to find out the level of your school's technical support. Don't choose a school that has anything less than round-the-clock support.

5. What kind of support services does the online university offer?

Another important factor in choosing an online university is the level of support services provided that will optimize your education experience. Does the school have committed, knowledgeable academic advisors who will guide your progress throughout your program? What is the quality of online library resources? How well does the school communicate with its students and faculty? Is there a true sense of community among students and the administration? Insist on a university that offers personalized service and round-the-clock support.

As an independent learner, you don't want to feel isolated from your faculty members and peers. Ask about the interactions you can expect to have. Also critical: Is the university committed to your professional development? You are here because you want to advance in your field of your choice. Determine whether the school has comprehensive career development services that will ensure that your academic achievements align with your professional goals.

6. How much will my education cost and what are the financial aid options available to me?

Because many land-based schools are state-supported, you may find that the tuition at online universities are a bit more expensive by comparison. The higher costs for quality online schools may be attributed to hiring experienced and credentialed faculty, as well as the infrastructure to support completely online learning. The difference in price is offset by the convenience and flexibility of such an education. With a bit of research, you will find the tuition and fees among the best online universities to be very comparable.

If you find an online school whose costs are substantially lower, make sure it is indeed accredited and that it has a high-caliber, experienced staff. Also insist on a school that has extensive financial aid resources at your disposal. Consider whether the school you are considering accepts transfer credits, credit by exam, or credit for prior learning that may significantly reduce your costs. With a combination of tuition assistance, loans, grants, and other benefits, many online adult learners find that earning their degrees and advancing their careers are financially feasible.