The Parent’s Guide to the Online Education Decision

The reputation of online colleges has vastly improved since the early years of expensive, fraudulent diploma mills. Today, accredited online institutions offer degree programs that are just as academically rigorous as programs offered at traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Online schools provide flexibility as well and may deliver all coursework in a distance learning format, or may combine on-site attendance with online classes in a hybrid program.

Online schools typically use a content management system to deploy course materials. Syllabi, lectures, assignments, reading material, class discussion, quizzes, and exams are contained within one easily navigated system. Social media is often used as an adjunct for students and instructors to hold discussions.

Students in an online class can expect a considerable amount of out-of-class time studying. While this learning model definitely requires self-motivation, it doesn't necessarily mean students work alone. Many online students work in groups, both on assignments and as peer reviewers, and collaborative projects are not uncommon.

Today, a growing body of research is demonstrating the quality of the online learning medium. A recent study by Ithaka S+R, a strategic consulting and research nonprofit, found that students following online learning produced similar, or better, results than students in traditional face-to-face education. And as the technology improves, many surveys find that professors' initial scepticism is being assuaged: a nationwide study released by the Sloan National Commission on Online Learning showed the majority of professors who have taught an online class before rated the experience equally or more effective than classroom instruction.

The traditional college experience — i.e., attending a four-year university while living on campus — is no longer the only way to obtain an education. For many students, this learning environment is not optimal. In fact, a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011 revealed that only 56% of enrolled students finish four-year degree programs, and only 29% of students in associate degree programs go on to finish.

Your student might not fall into the mold of a traditional student for a number of reasons.

  • Some high school graduates are unprepared for rigorous academic work. As many as 60% of college freshmen may find they need remedial courses in mathematics or English before they can compete with their better-prepared classmates. Remedial classes cost money, but do not reward students with college credits.
  • The emotional stress of living away from home and managing one's time without supervision proves to be too much for some freshmen. Some students may simply be homebodies by nature and better suited for online or commuter classes. Others may need some practice with time management before being launched into the adult world.
  • Not every freshman has a clear idea of what he or she hopes to achieve in college. Those who have yet to declare their majors may find themselves a bit lost on a busy campus. Changing one's major can also be costly both in tuition and time.
  • The high cost of education is a deterrent for many students. The average annual tuition at a public state college totals $22,261 before room and board. Private school students can expect to pay an average of $43,289 per year. Online classes may be especially appealing during these rough economic times.

Pursuing part or all of a degree online can solve many of these problems.

  • Graduating from high school does not automatically mean that a student is ready for the ‘college experience'. Whether socially immature or too likely to enjoy parties instead of classes, many a college freshman could be better served by initially taking classes from home. A student who needs remedial education in some subject areas can also achieve this on his or her own schedule by taking online classes, relieving some of the pressure of attending college.
  • Undeclared majors can avoid general confusion and save tuition by earning general education credits online. Exploring interesting online classes may also help your student discover where his or her interest lies, eventually leading to the choice of a major. Students who lack a clear set of educational goals may perform better in an environment that allows them to go at their own pace.
  • While tuition rates will vary, online schools are often much cheaper than traditional brick-and-mortar schools. For example, tuition for a full-time student at U. Texas in Austin is $9,816 before any extra fees like room and board are added. The U. Texas online program, however, costs about $6,350 a year, including fees, books and supplies. Many students opt to spend their first two years earning general education requirements online before transferring to a more expensive traditional environment for junior and senior year.

Not all online programs don't have students' best interests at heart, and operate solely turn a profit. It's important to be a wise consumer when choosing online schools; otherwise, you're likely to waste money and time on a substandard education. Until diploma mills are weeded out of our educational system, it's up to the consumer to judge whether a school is reputable or not. Fortunately, there are several solid criteria that parents and students can use.

Accreditation is absolutely a hallmark of a reputable educational institution. Accredited programs have been scrutinized against high academic standards, and signify to future employers that your student has had a good education. A trustworthy school will list accreditation's clearly on its website; not finding this information easily should be a red flag. Beware of phony accreditation's; some shadier institutions list nonexistent or substandard accreditation's. Ensure that your school is accredited in some fashion by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and/or the U.S. Department of Education.

Reputation is as important for online schools as it is for traditional colleges. Several entities rank schools based on academic performance and value. Consider checking any potential schools' rankings on U.S. News and World Report, a publication that most consider to be the industry standard. A Google search may pull up many sources of rankings for online schools, but sometimes these are simply advertising; carefully investigate the source of any other rankings.

Some programs offer all classes online, from start to finish. Some, however, are hybrid programs that mix online coursework with on-campus time. A major may influence the format; for example, nursing majors commonly earn their degrees in hybrid programs. Much of the coursework can be accomplished online, but applied nursing skills and clinical practices must be learned in person. Consider whether this mix is right for your student. Some students switch easily between the two learning models, while others find it to be difficult and perform better in a consistent learning environment.

The ability to transfer credits to traditional academic environments is another hallmark of a good online program. This is particularly important if your student is a timid freshman who will eventually be ready for campus life, as well as for students who choose to save money by taking general education classes online in freshman and sophomore year. Carefully explore your school's website to ensure that credits are transferable; this information should be clearly stated.

The Open Education Database (OEDb) provides many excellent tool for families considering online education as an option. Informative articles on online education, how it works, and whether it is right for your student are available for perusal. In addition, a robust search tool allows you to browse more than 1,500 schools. Accreditation, degree programs, and the school histories are easily identified by this dynamic resource. Parents can filter searches by degree level, location and college board entrance requirements, and request more information with a click. Financial aid and career advice is offered as well.

Online education may not be suitable for every family, but it can certainly meet the needs of some better than traditional education formats. Even obtaining part of a degree online can still provide substantial benefit to the right student. The growing field of reputable online academic resources offers you choices outside of the realm of "traditional" college, and may be the ideal solution for your student's needs.