Earning a Degree Online: What You Need to Know

Earning a Degree Online: What You Need to Know
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By Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President and CEO, Western Governors University

If you're an adult who has been working a few years and maybe even completed some college, you could be looking for way to earn your degree. Most universities, as well as the laws and regulations governing U.S. higher education, are still focused on traditional, full-time students--recent high school graduates who study and live on a campus, don't work full time, and don't have families. But today, traditional students are in the minority. The typical college student of the 21st century is older and self-supporting and must balance work, family and school.

If you're planning to become part of this nontraditional student majority, going to college online can be a great option for you. There are many choices and providers, but they are not all the same. Here are some things to know before you choose a school.

Traditional Universities
Most campus-based colleges and universities offer at least some online courses and degree programs. For the majority, online is more of a sideline, offering some, but not all, of the same classes they offer on campus, but delivered through the Internet. The cost is generally the same as--or more than--on-campus courses and programs, and the selection of degrees and programs is usually limited.

The online experience will be very similar to the classroom--usually it's the same syllabus, reading, lectures and assignments. Courses are on fixed semester or quarter schedules, and students are required to move at the same pace, regardless of their prior knowledge or learning styles.

Fully Online Universities
There are also a number of fully online universities. They usually offer a large selection of programs, and because they were created to meet the needs of busy adults, they provide a higher level of flexibility--if they have specified course meeting times, for example, they are likely in the evening.

While there are some high-quality options, most all-online universities are for profit, which means that they have a dual responsibility to educate students and to return a profit to shareholders. This may make them more expensive than a public or nonprofit online university. In addition, some online universities are nationally, not regionally, accredited. Regional accreditation is the "gold standard" for university accreditation, so it's an important indicator of quality and credibility.

Competency-Based Universities
There are a few universities that are using competency-based education. Pioneered by WGU, competency-based education is ideal for adults who have some work experience and prior learning in their area of study. Competency-based education typically uses computer-based curriculum, which allows students to study and learn on their own schedule and pace. High-quality programs also provide significant faculty support, usually one-on-one. Students spend as much or as little time in each course as they need to master the subject matter, and when they demonstrate that they've mastered it, they move on. As a result, students can accelerate their time to a degree, saving both time and money.

Making the Best Choice
Any one of these online options for earning a degree may work best for you--it depends on your work, budget, and family responsibilities. But before you choose, make sure you ask these questions:
  • Are there set times and schedules? Ask if programs and courses are synchronous or asynchronous--do they require you to attend at specific times or can you study and take tests on your own schedule? As a busy adult, you want to choose something flexible.
  • Is it affordable? While student loans and Pell Grants may be available, make sure you understand what your degree will cost. There are high-quality, affordable options, so keep looking until you find what you need.
  • Is it regionally accredited? This is important if you want employers and other academic institutions to recognize and respect your degree.
  • Will my degree prepare me for the job I want? No university can guarantee that you'll get your dream job, but, if you're like most adult students, you want a degree that will help you change or advance your career. Do some research on the university and the program you're considering to find out 1) if the program is in a high-demand field, and 2) whether graduates are getting the jobs in their field.
  • Will I get a good return on my investment? Finally, you want to know whether your degree will pay for itself and how long it will take to complete. Learn what you are likely to earn when you graduate.

Earning a college degree is a major commitment in both time and money, but it can change your life. Take time to do some homework, and you'll find an option that will work for you.

About "GenDIY"
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)- how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love - on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

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