The Guide

If you want to earn more money, change careers or get that promotion, yes. If you’re looking for a flexible, affordable education from a reputable university — absolutely.
 
You already know degree holders earn more than their peers and enjoy better job security, so you’re sold on going back to school. But before you go through the application, admissions and financial aid process, take the time to develop a clear understanding of the types of programs you’re considering.
 
The term “online learning” can mean many things— a fully online program, a combination of online and on-campus, a competency-based program, or a self-paced independent program. Some programs are offered “at a distance,” which may not be online at all.
 
Fully online, combination online/on-campus, and competency-based programs are by far the most prevalent, all being term-based programs in which students are required to complete courses or demonstrate knowledge and abilities within an institution’s specific time frame. Here's a primer on the kinds of programs you may encounter.
 
What Types of Institutions Offer Online Programs?
Before you start narrowing your search, be sure you are aware of the different types of institutions that provide online degree and certificate programs. Do you want or need a purely virtual program, or might you consider one that is a combination of virtual and on-campus? What does it mean if you attend a non-profit or for-profit institution? Learn more about which kind of program will best meet your needs.
 
How Long Will It Take?
Admission and enrollment counselors get asked this question frequently, and it is difficult to give a precise answer because it depends on the following important variables.
 
The amount of time it takes to complete a program will vary according to:
  • the structure and organization of the program under consideration;
  • the possibility of transferring in prior credit earned or applying prior work-related experience, training, and/or knowledge to the program you are entering; 
  • whether you can test out of certain courses through such things as CLEP,DSST, and ACE (for undergraduate programs only); and
  • your skills, prior knowledge, and how many courses you can effectively fit into your schedule.
Program Requirements
A general rule of thumb is that it requires about 60 credits, or approximately 20 three-credit courses, to earn an associate’s degree; about 120 credits, or approximately 40 three-credit courses, to earn a bachelor’s degree; and about 36 credits, or approximately 12 three-credit courses, to earn a master’s degree.
 
In addition to completing required courses, you may have to complete a number of credit-bearing assignments, such as capstones and independent study projects for business and information technology majors, clinicals for medical-related majors, and student teaching experiences for education majors.  
 
If you enroll in an online program with such requirements, faculty, staff, and administrators will help arrange these types of face-to-face, mandatory assignments in areas geographically near where you live and work.
 

First-timer? Here’s what you can expect — and what is expected of you — when taking an online course. If you have basic computer skills and an Internet connection, you can learn online. In fact, most institutions offer free online course demonstrations via their websites to give you a feel for the experience. They even give new online learners the chance to participate in an online orientation prior to enrollment. And if you get stuck, these schools provide tech support via telephone, online chat and e-mail.
 
The Skills, Habits, and Qualities of an Online Learner
Succeeding in the online learning environment requires a set of soft, technical, and modern information-oriented skills.  Soft skills include your ability to write, communicate, present, manage time and projects, work in teams, and be organized. Technical skills are related to your adeptness with the use and maintenance of computer hardware and software, also referred to as computer literacy skills. Modern information-oriented skills refer to being information literate and web-savvy.
Most online programs today have courses that will inform you about the skills and habits you will need to navigate through Internet search engines and online library databases in order to find valid, trustworthy information. It is a good idea to take full advantage of any library services offered by the institution you are enrolled in as soon as you are considered a registered student with a valid student ID username and password. It will be beneficial for all of your coursework throughout your academic career, and you will learn Internet-based research skills that will serve you well both personally and professionally.

Get Help if Needed

Don’t worry if you happen to be lacking in any of the skill areas mentioned here. Take advantage of the introductory or demonstration online courses and tutorials that every online program offers its students; they’re helpful, easily accessible, typically free, and they go a long way in ensuring your overall success as an online learner.

A free tool, provided by the Louisiana Board of Regents, to help you determine if you are ready for online learning is "SORT" the Student Online Readiness Tool.  Within this tool there are surveys to help you determine your technology experience, access to tools, study habits, lifestyle, goals and purposes, and your learning preferences.  After each survey, depending on your level, it will provide resources for you to improve on those skills if necessary. While the interface is not flashy, the information provided is solid and can help give you a good idea of what you may need to do in preparation for beginning an online learning program.
 
Starting Off in the Right Direction
The first step toward success as an online learner requires that you clearly understand that this pathway entails hard work, and that you consistently maintain a high level of energy and commitment.  
 
Learning online will be a challenging experience that requires a certain stick-to-it-iveness. Online learning is not in the least bit easier than learning in a traditional, on-campus setting. Overall, you’ll need to start by setting up a comfortable and effective learning environment, along with establishing a strong commitment toward meeting, in a timely fashion, all of the required academic tasks of a typical online program.
 
 
Essentials for Success
In order to become a successful online student, you’ll need all the study habits and skills  associated with any kind of academic achievement, plus a keen sense and ability for working effectively without the benefit of face-to-face interactions with your peers and faculty members.  
 
Honestly, the necessary skills are not that different than it takes to be successful in any endeavor. Here's a short video, originally from Ted2005 where Richard St. John shares the 8 secrets of success he garnered from 7 years of research and over 500 interviews with successful people.
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Necessary skills for the successful online learner include: having strong online communication abilities, reading comprehension, typing, computer and information literacy, writing, online test taking, and, where appropriate, math. For more on these skills, check out the sections linked below.
 

You can find online programs that interest you by searching on the web, but you’ll want to be careful about where these searches take you. Top-level search engine results will link to a wide variety of websites that publish information about online programs. However, many of these websites are driven by a variety of marketing and advertising mechanisms that may not have your best interests in mind.
 
But don’t worry: At College Choices for Adults, we’re committed to providing you with quality data, not marketing fluff. All of our data are reviewed by a 3rd party higher education non-profit, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies for quality assurance.
 
What’s more, program learning outcomes, assessment measures and results of those measures are difficult to find elsewhere, even on an institution’s own site, but all programs here MUST provide that information in order to be published. And all of our participating institutions are regionally-accredited.
 
And you can rest assured that we’ll never ask for personal information – even our website feedback form can be submitted anonymously. That means we won’t provide our members with leads; rather, their small annual dues go to hosting the data on College Choices for Adults, 3rd party review of the data and maintenance and development of this website.
 
 
 

How Do I Apply? And Will I Get Admitted?
You have numerous opportunities to pursue an online education, regardless of your age or your academic history. Getting admitted into any institution will depend on what level of higher education and the specific program you are thinking about pursuing. But rest assured that anyone can get started at just about any time, depending on an institution’s course offerings and schedule.
 
 
 
 
How Much Will It Cost? Can I Get Assistance?
While tuition and fees for online programs can vary to a wide degree according to institutional policies and degree level pursued, online learners can take advantage of financial aid programs just like any other college student.

Some online programs have in-state and out-of-state tuition fees and others do not. A variety of supplemental fees may apply for additional services and materials depending on the program. Your best bet is simply to talk to a counselor about tuition and fees. Every institution offering online programs also has extensive information about financial aid easily accessible online, making the process as easy as possible for you.
 
That said, there is one universal starting point: FAFSA.  Be sure to read this crucial advice before continuing!
 
Financial Aid Categories
Most regionally- and nationally-accredited institutions offer financial aid under the following categories:
 
All institutions offer some kind of payment plan in which you can segment out your tuition payment schedule to better meet your budget. 
 

In addition to the aforementioned financial aid scenarios, your employer may help finance your education if it has an education reimbursement program.


Q. What, exactly, is online learning?

Q. How long do such programs take to complete?

Q. What kind of computer/tech skills will I need?

Q. What kind of computer hardware/software will I need?

Q. It’s been years since I wrote a paper/took a math class/studied for an exam. What if I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned?

Q. How do I know if the institutions I’m considering are well respected?

Q. What should I look for in terms of an institution’s faculty?

Q. Will I get admitted?

Q. What financial assistance is available to me?

Q. What, exactly, is online learning?

A. Online learning programs includes those which are fully online, a combination of online and on-campus, competency-based, or self-paced and independent. Some programs are offered “at a distance,” which may not be online at all.
 
Fully online, combination online/on-campus, and competency-based programs are by far the most prevalent, all being term-based programs in which students are required to complete courses or demonstrate knowledge and abilities within an institution’s specific time frame. Here's a primer <link to internal page "Primer"> on the kinds of programs you may encounter.
 

Q. How long do such programs take to complete?

A. That depends on the structure and organization of the program under consideration; any transfer of prior credit earned or application of prior work-related experience, training, and/or knowledge; whether you can test out of certain courses; and your skills, prior knowledge, and how many courses you can effectively fit into your schedule. More information can be found in "What, exactly, does online learning entail?"   
 

Q. What kind of computer/tech skills will I need?

A. You must know how to work efficiently on a computer and navigate around online and offline electronic environments. Computer- and Internet-related proficiencies that will come in handy as an online student include knowing how to:
  • copy, paste, delete, and save files;
  • download and install software;
  • keep your computer in good working order, including proper maintenance and backup procedures;
  • use word processing software (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.), presentation software (Microsoft PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.), and spreadsheet software (Microsoft Excel, Google Docs Spreadsheets, etc.), depending on the program enrolled in;
  • create PDF documents;
  • attach documents to e-mail communications;
  • be information literate, in short, the ability to search effectively online, including analyzing resources and the utilization of an online library service
  • manage and organize computer files and folders;
  • effectively use a web browser and its favorites folder;
  • participate in synchronous and/or asynchronous discussion forums; and
  • navigate within an online course management system where many of the elements of your course will be displayed.

 Most online programs provide students with online orientation sessions that are facsimiles of an actual online course. Many programs will require that you enroll in an online orientation session prior to taking your first full course. Sometimes these courses will award students with one credit upon successful completion. You also typically can find free demonstrations of actual online courses, open to the general public, at many of the online programs’ websites.

 

Q. What kind of computer hardware/software will I need?

A. A typical required hardware and software scenario might look like this: 
 
Hardware:
  • Either a PC or a Macintosh computer running the most- or second-most-recent operating system
  • Decent amount of hard drive space, starting at a minimum of 10 GB
  • DVD-Rom or CD-ROM
  • Sound card with speakers and microphone
  • Video card
  • Minimum of 256 MB of RAM; it is strongly suggested to have at least 512 MB or more if possible
  • Backup storage device
  • Printer
  • Fax and scanner (access to one via a local business center will suffice)
 
Software:
  • Current operating system for your computer
  • Free Plug-ins, including Windows Media Player, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Flash Player, and Java
  • Antivirus software
  • Internet security software
  • Compression utility software
 
Internet/E-mail:
  • Preferably a broadband cable or DSL Internet connection, but a 56K dial-up connection will often be noted as the minimum requirement for Internet access
  • An e-mail account (free via gmail.com, yahoo.com, live.com, etc.)
 

Q. It’s been years since I wrote a paper/took a math class/studied for an exam. What if I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned?

A. You’ll be in good company. Many adults who return to school get jitters about having what it takes. Don’t worry if your skills are rusty. Most programs have freely available online tutorial services that will jog your memory. “What does it take to succeed in an online learning environment?” will help you understand the skills necessary to excel.
 

Q. How do I know if the institutions I’m considering are well respected?

A. Knowing the accreditation status of any institution and program you’re considering is a crucial part of your decision-making process. Accreditation is a process whereby educational institutions or specific programs are endorsed by an association as viable teaching and learning establishments based on a set of rigorous educational standards. There are three types of accreditation that you need to be aware of: regional, national, and programmatic.
 
All institutions listed on the College Choices for Adults website are regionally accredited. View each institutions’ profile to see who accredits that institution.
 
For institutions who are not part of College Choices for Adults, you also can visit the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator website, type in the institution’s name in the “Name of School” box, click on “Show Results,” and then navigate to the “Accreditation” tab, where both institutional and programmatic/specialized accreditation status are listed for almost every higher education institution in the United States.  
 

Q. What should I look for in terms of an institution’s faculty?

A. Ask for documentation, such as biographic information or a curriculum vita (academic resume), about who will be teaching some of the courses in the program you are thinking about pursuing. See if you can communicate with any of the faculty members prior to enrolling. Ask what percentage of faculty is part-time or adjunct, what percentage is full-time, and how many have doctoral degrees. See if there are any faculty members in your program who are conducting specialized research (and are thus contributing knowledge to the field), then check out what they’ve published. Basically you're looking to find out who's teaching and how will their knowledge/skills contribute to your goals?
 

Q. Will I get admitted?

A. You have numerous opportunities to pursue an online education, regardless of your age or your academic history. Getting admitted into any institution will depend on what level of higher education and the specific program you are thinking about pursuing.
 

Q. What financial assistance is available to me?

A. While tuition and fees for online programs can vary to a wide degree according to institutional policies and degree level pursued, online learners can take advantage of financial aid programs just like any other college student.

Some online programs have in-state and out-of-state tuition fees and others do not. A variety of supplemental fees may apply for additional services and materials depending on the program. Your best bet is simply to talk to a counselor about tuition and fees. Every institution offering online programs also has extensive information about financial aid easily accessible online, making the process as easy as possible for you.
 
Our "What do I need to know about admissions and funding?" section provides you with more information on financial aid options and how to apply for aid.

Other Consumer-information & Accountability Efforts:

With our focus on adult students, this site may not provide all the information you were looking for.  If you're a traditional aged student or are looking for more information on elements of college life such as campus activities, residence halls and the like,  you may want to check out one of the other information and accountability efforts listed here:

The College Portrait is a straightforward presentation of comparable information directly from public universities.  It helps prospective students make careful and informed decisions about which institution is the “best fit” for them.  Sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, each university’s College Portrait includes information on admissions, campus life, student characteristics, degree programs, campus safety, graduation rates and more.

The NAICU (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) consumer-information initiative U-CAN (University & College Accountability Network) is designed to give, in a common format, prospective students and their families concise, Web-based consumer-friendly information on the nation's nonprofit, private colleges and universities.

 

Popular News Media:


The first step to choosing the right school and program for you is to understand your goals are personally and professionally.  If you know what industry or career you'd like to pursue, it will be easier to find a program that will help you gain knowlege and skills in that area. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, has two sites which might also help you in determining what industry you'd like to pursue a career in.  The first, BLS Career Information Home Page, is a aimed at K-12 students however, it still contains concise, useful information.  The other resource is the Career Guide to Industries.  This resource is more broadly aimed and contains a wealth of information on many industries.  These may help you set your list of learning goals to match the industry you'd like to pursue.

About.com also has a list of a few free self-assessment tools to help you discover your strengths, choose an industry or career that matches those, and set your goals.

Once you  have your goals set, you can search our Find a Program section to see the stated program learning outcomes, assessments and results of those assessments for each program listed on our site.  You can even compare two programs side by side to determine which one will bring you closest to meeting your goals.

Prior to enrolling, it is a good strategy to understand the online curriculum’s requirements, teaching and learning methods, and what the programs objectives and proposed outcomes are. Getting a solid idea about the variety of online program course requirements and teaching and learning methods you may encounter, as well as what the program claims you will learn, know and apply once you graduate, is a good strategy to take prior to possibly enrolling.

 
Every online program has a unique set of courses and teaching and learning strategies for putting you on track to gain the appropriate knowledge and skills for career advancement. One of the best ways to find out all the information you need to make an informed decision about any program is to simply ask the counselor assigned to you a lot of questions. If you feel that the counselor cannot effectively answer your questions, don’t hesitate to ask to be connected to another representative, such as a dean, department chairperson, or faculty member. To help you formulate your questions, use our 21 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling.
 
What to Look At
Here are some areas of interest that may be relevant to your search process as you decide on what program to pursue:
 
 
A Word on Math Courses
If you are thinking about enrolling in a program that emphasizes management and leadership practices or the sciences and engineering, you may want to know what kind of math-oriented courses you will be required to take. Math-oriented courses, which are called “quantitative” courses by academics, basically deal with numbers, factual statistics, and data. To succeed in these courses, you’ll need a strong set of math skills, ranging from algebra through calculus; know how to work with spreadsheet software; and perhaps have a good understanding of statistics, accounting, and/or finance. Make sure you are prepared to take these kinds of courses before you actually enroll in one. Ask your counselor what kind of skill set you will need if you will be enrolled in quantitative courses. Typically the program will offer some kind of remedial courses or tutoring in these areas to help you if needed.
 
Online Faculty
Understanding the faculty at any institution is another factor you may want to consider when choosing an online program.  Information about the professionals who are teaching online courses is not always prominently displayed on many websites. However, that does not mean that you cannot obtain this kind of information from counselors or the administrators who manage the program you are thinking about pursuing. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about the faculty. 
 
Assessing the Overall Quality of an Online Learning Experience
As you discuss how the final learning outcomes of any online course or program will benefit you, bear in mind that the end result of your studies should be no different than if you were to enroll in a traditional on-campus course or program. Make sure you feel comfortable knowing that the quality of any online program you are considering is equal to or greater than any traditional on-campus education experience.
 
And don’t forget, it is up to you to take an active role in your education — online or otherwise — in order to get all the benefits an institution has to offer. Education is a two-way street; you must bring your own knowledge and experience to class to share with your instructor and classmates so that everyone can benefit from and build on that perspective.

System Requirements
Online programs will list the minimum requirements for the computer system you’ll need. Still, consider investing in the most updated system you can find at a reasonable price.
 
As an online learner, you’ll be spending a good deal of your time at a computer workstation either at home or at work, working both online and off-line, utilizing some of the latest learning technologies available today. At the very least, you’ll want to have a reliable computer with the right software and a fast Internet connection. 
 
 
 
The Technology of Online Courses
Educational technologies comprise the software and web-based functions, features, and tools that a program’s faculty and students utilize. You may work with a wide variety of educational technologies in your online program, or you may work with only a few. Nonetheless, having a general idea of the kind of educational technologies that will be utilized in your courses could be a factor to consider when choosing any online program.

Types of Educational Technologies

In addition to technologies such as the course management system and discussion board, relatively new educational technologies are making their way into online programs and are facilitating more interaction and a sense of community between students and faculty. These tools also are providing faculty and students with more ways to self-publish online, as well as more opportunities to use digitized audio and video presentations that often can enhance the total online learning experience. Some online learning educational technology trends, depending on the program, could include: streaming lectures, web conferencing, blogs and wikis, social media, virtual worlds, simulations, interactive digital environments, online quizzes and exams, and a variety of other electronic communication and presentation tools. For the most part, many of these technologies are not yet deeply entrenched in the world of online learning, but it is safe to say that they are on the horizon.

Streaming Lectures

Web Conferencing

Blogs and Wikis

Social Media

Virtual Worlds

Simulations

Online Quizzes, Tests, and Exams

Grading

 
For More Information
A great source of information that covers some of the latest education technologies is the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative “7 Things You Should Know About” series which provides concise information on emerging learning technologies and how they are being used by colleges and universities.