There are several ways to gain a competitive edge in today's business world and as you might have guessed, continuing your education still tops the list. But if you're like most people, finding the time to fit classes into your schedule can make going back to school seem impossible. It may come as no surprise then that online degree programs are rising in popularity: you do your coursework when (and where) it's convenient for you.
Finding an Affordable Program
Have you put off pursuing your degree because work and other obligations rule your calendar with an iron fist? You're not alone, which is why more and more people are choosing to continue their education online. When you've got control over when you attend class, suddenly getting that degree doesn't seem so far-fetched.
However, if you've been delaying going back to school because of money, don't assume that earning your degree online will result in considerable cost savings. While it's true that online tuition is usually less than in-class tuition, that doesn't mean every online program you look at will align with your budget.
Take the time to research the area of study you're interested in and gather tuition estimates from several online schools before you apply. Then, see which ones offer federal and/or other financial aid and if you qualify for these loans. If you hit a wall, remember: you may still qualify for traditional student loans and banks don't care whether you're getting your degree online or not.
Evaluating Online Schools
Each college or university offering online degree programs takes a different approach to delivering that education to its students. This is great news because it allows you to choose the approach that best suits your needs, but how you'll receive and complete your course of study is only part of the equation.
Once you've found an online degree program in your intended field of study, spend some time on the school's Web site or make a call to the admissions office to answer the following questions:
- Is the school and online degree program accredited?
- Which agency provided the accreditation?
- How long has the online degree program been in place and how many students are currently enrolled?
- What is the student-to-instructor ratio?
- What financial aid programs are offered or supported?
- What are the policies that govern tuition refunds?
- What are the characteristics of quality programs?
Above all things to consider when you're choosing an online degree program, accreditation is the most important. Accreditation is a statement of an online school's or degree program's overall quality. Simply finding a program that's accredited isn't enough: Accreditation, whether the institution offers online degree programs or not, isn't a formally regulated process.
Accreditation agencies are privately run and criteria varies from agency to agency, state to state and often by the field of study; not all accreditation agencies are legitimate either, so be sure you choose an online degree program that's been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education.
You also want to be sure that if you need to take board examinations to obtain a license to practice in your field of work that the examination board in your state approves the online degree program's accreditation or you'll have spent and money for nothing.
It's also a good idea to limit your online degree program options to schools that have been offering online courses for at least two years and have anywhere from a 10:1 to a 20:1 student-teacher ratio.
How to Succeed in Your Program
Once you've chosen a school and a program, don't wait for classes to start to begin developing good habits to help you succeed. Regardless of whether you take classes on campus or online, the same principles apply for getting the most out of your education.
The flexible nature of online degree programs is what attracts most students, but if you don't have the time management skills necessary to define and adhere to a schedule that includes time for all areas of your life, that flexibility might backfire on you. A good way to start is determining what time of day is best for you to study and committing to do nothing but course work during that time. Consider dedicating space in your home or finding a library, cafe or other place away from home that you use only for study.
Despite the advances in multimedia technology, most online degree course work won't be presented in video or audio format. The sooner you familiar yourself with the text format in which your course work is presented and organized, the easier it will be to identify and highlight the information you need from the text.
Although most online degree program instructors are available to you as a resource, you won't have the same opportunities for dialogue as you would in a regular classroom. If you're that experienced using the Internet as a research tool, start developing those skills and don't be intimidated by interactive resources like student chat rooms or discussion boards which can be valuable ways of connecting with others in your online degree program to exchange information.