How do I tell the difference between good and bad online programs or schools?

It seems like some online programs are scams, but some are actually very good. Is there an easy way to double check and know for sure?


Nikki Morgan, Previous student at online university-level programs

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The first thing to check when it comes to online programs is whether or not the university is accredited. Here is a website from the US Department of Education that can help you figure out whether or not the schools you're interested in are accredited or not. I would also look at whether or not the university is for-profit or not-for-profit. I have a bias towards not-for-profit schools. Then, I would look at the specific program you're interested in applying to find one that is a good fit for you. Some universities offer fantastic online programs like the online graduate education programs through USC that use a learning module system that allows you to have live, synchronous classes online. The system is fantastic for dialogue among classmates but is not as great for flexibility with scheduling. The College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University offers online programs in many different disciplines. Most of these programs, to my knowledge, are asynchronous, which offers greater flexibility. Some of the programs are blended, which means you attend some classes in person and others online. It really depends on what program you’re interested in and what your needs are, but as I mentioned before, the most important factor to look at for weeding out schools is accreditation.

Ipek Bakir, Consultant, researcher, human-centered design and data advocate

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In addition to above-mentioned points about accreditation, there are a few questions I suggest you see if you can answer about a given online program. It may be helpful to collect your short answers on an Excel and compare your options at the end.

  • Level of students (grad, undergrad, certificate)
  • # of students enrolled/max. limit
  • Source of the course (bought through large provider or homegrown?)
  • Instructional mode (self-paced, cohort-paced or both?)
  • How the school/provider presents itself? (what's the website like or presentation of the course?)
  • Time model (asynchronous, synchronous or both?)

Beyond the question of good or bad (since there is no universal metric for measuring the quality of online courses), you should take advantage of the fact that online programs are meant to provide you with the option of choosing the learning method that works best for you.

Andrea Aebersold, College Professor, Reader

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In addition to accreditation, you should consider online programs that are attached to actual brick and mortar schools (meaning colleges and universities that have a physical presence). This means you can be sure you're getting an education from a reputable and recognized school which will serve you better in the job market than a degree from a for-profit, virtual-only school. Typically these degrees are not as valued or respected. So my advice would be to stay away from schools like the University of Phoenix and focus on universities and colleges that offer online programs as part of their overall curriculum.

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Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Along with all of this great advice, I would add that you want to look at who is teaching your classes. Are the professors all contingent faculty? This creates a problem when you are in need of letters of recommendation or mentoring as contingent faculty members also have high turnover rates. How available are the professors? Does the school use only asynchronous online learning, or do you have opportunities to use synchronous learning when you can talk with teachers and colleagues in real time? I echo the warning about for-profit schools. They are making profit. I am not saying they don't care about your success; I am saying that a business' first priority is making a profit.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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Excellent feedback here already. In addition to accreditation, which is ESSENTIAL, try to avoid purely for-profit online programs. Very often, they sound too good to be true...for a reason. See this recent article about the newest investigation into the University of Phoenix and other for-profit online colleges. Buyer beware applies here. You are investing plenty of money and time into getting a degree, so do your homework first.

In addition to doing your homework, locating a brick-and-mortar school (with an online program, if that is what you prefer), and checking into students' perceptions, also contact the registrar's office or office of student relations and ask about the school's graduation rate and job placement rate. They may be able to tell you percentages of students who graduate in four - five years, plus the number of graduates who obtain full-time employment after graduation. If you know which department you are interested in, contact the department directly and ask for those numbers from them as well. Ideally, you will select a legitimate program with a good graduation and job placement rate, with professors who are personally invested in helping you succeed.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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I agree with Andrea's answer. Here is a ranking of online programs conducted recently by US News and World Report: The list breaks down top programs by subject, but some of the program links connect you to other majors offered.

These listings include email addresses for admissions officers/counselors. Considering Grace's answer, I would contact these people and ask if they can put you in touch with former students. Sure, some of these selected students will be full of praise for their program, but you might be surprised at the honesty of their replies. Whenever I am asked to do something like this by my alma mater, I answer the questions of prospective students but also refer them to my classmates who had different experiences.

Anonymous, Teen Leader and Freelance Writer

Considering this may be for you, look at past students' reviews. Making sure you get the quality education everyone deserves is important, especially when you're investing in a class. Talk to past students about the professor, search around for similar classes. (Honestly, finding a great program is a class itself!) Good luck! xx

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