Frequently Asked Questions

Going to college online .... what's that all about?

The demand for online learning has been growing at a frantic pace since the turn of the century. In the United States alone, there were over 4.6 million college students studying online in fall 2008 or more than one in four taking at least one online course according to a research study published by the Sloan Consortium.

Most of the nation’s traditional colleges and universities have added online courses to their offerings and many provide full certificate and degree programs online. In addition, several more recently established for-profit institutions offer a wide range of opportunities to study via the Web. Institutions in other countries, too, are making higher education more accessible via this new digital format to students around the world.

Who studies online?

Today, nearly every college student studies online to some extent as most instructors put at least a portion of their course materials online even if their class is offered in a campus classroom. But what about those students who study online from a distance...who never come to campus? Although many institutions report that a majority of the undergraduate students enrolling in their online courses live on campus, other students may live across the country or halfway around the world. These students may be in the traditional 18-24 year age bracket or much older. Most of these adult students are working, living at home, and going to school part time. They may be studying at the undergraduate, graduate, or professional level. Many cannot go to campus or prefer the convenience of studying from home or work.

Is online learning right for me?

That depends. Students who are most successful are self-motivated, have clear goals, have set aside appropriate time, and are Web-savvy. Many institutions have a self-assessment tool on their site such as this one to help you gauge your likeliness of success studying online.

What kinds of educational offerings are available fully online?

The offerings vary by institution. Some colleges and universities offer only a few courses, while others offer complete programs leading to a credential. Students can earn a certificate, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a PhD, JD, or other professional credentials.

From accounting to zoology, students can find programs and courses in most disciplines. Some programs may include one or more on-campus components for those learning modules best addressed in a face-to-face environment. In others, students may never set foot on the campus until they attend graduation—if they even go there then. Today, using webcams and other technologies it’s even possible to participate in your graduation ceremony when you are thousands of miles away from your campus.

Are there different kinds of online courses and programs?

Absolutely! Some are completely online, while others we call “hybrids” require students to come to campus or to another location for some activities such as lab work or tests or specific modules or perhaps week long residencies or more. Some have set start and ending times or dates while others are flexible. Some require students to participate in real time activities using chat tools or discussion boards for group activities. Some have deadlines for assignments and assessments, while others are self-paced. Some courses are highly interactive while others require students to work more independently.

Is online the only “study at a distance” option?

No. Some colleges and universities offer a variety of delivery methods including interactive TV, video tape, audio tape, and correspondence. In general, however, many institutions are concentrating on developing courses in the online format in response to student demand and because the online format fosters interaction between students and the instructor and among students more readily.

Do online courses count the same as on-campus courses?

In most cases, yes, especially if the institution is offering the same credit course both online and face-to-face. But what if you take an online course at an institution other than the one where you are seeking a degree? Usually, there is no distinction on transcripts between online courses and on campus courses. If you have any doubt, however, be wise and check in advance with the registrar, adviser, advising center or other appropriate party at your credential-granting institution.

Another word to the wise: Even though you may be able to transfer a course for credit to your credential-granting institution, it may not articulate (or count) toward your degree program. So you want to ask a two-part question to the appropriate party: will it count and how will it be counted (general education, major, or elective)? Again, check in advance when you wish to transfer a course.

Are online courses easier?

No, online courses are as much work as traditional face-to-face courses. In addition, online courses require that you be well-organized, self-motivated, and have good time management skills. A rule of thumb: If you are taking a three-credit course in a 15-week semester, you should set aside at least six hours per week to participate in class activities and complete assignments.

Keep in mind, too, that online courses usually require a substantial amount of writing. You may be required to share your understanding and opinions in threaded discussions, chat, or other activities as well as in the usual writing assignments. Think about how comfortable you are communicating in writing, especially in asking for help.

Is it cheaper to study online?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Tuition is often the same, although some institutions add on a technology or other fees. You may save time and money, however, by eliminating your commute to campus, parking fees, and childcare or other costs. Some campuses may add a distance education or technology fee but then waive fees for services that online students will not need, such as parking, health center and recreation facilities. In-state and out-of-state tuition rules may still apply to online students so there may be a benefit to studying at a school in the state in which you live. Some institutions, however, offer online courses to out-of-state students at the in-state tuition rate.

Can I afford to get a degree online?

The rules and requirements for financial aid apply to online students just as they do for on-campus students. Most colleges and universities have a financial aid office with lots of information about loans and scholarships online, but a great place to start is with the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, called FAFSA for short. Check it out! Start with the tab called Student Aid on the Web for lots of good resources whether you plan to go to school on campus or online. The FAFSA site is now available in Spanish too.

How can I find the online program I need?

If you have a particular institution in mind, search its website for “distance education” or “online education”. If you want to search all the institutions in your state or across the country, you can use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator. It won’t tell you if the program is online, but it does have may cool tools to help you search and compare programs. You can even save your favorites so that you can visit their sites to see if the program is offered online. If you are particularly interested in online programs offered by regionally-accredited institutions located in the WICHE states, you can search through those online programs listed on WICHE’s Internet Course Exchange (ICE).

What if I am just looking for a single online course?

Start by looking on the websites of institutions located near you or ones with which you are familiar. Your state may have a statewide distance learning web portal to help you find courses from all or most of the public institutions in the state. Many community colleges have an “open door” policy so you may be able to enroll right away. Other two-year schools and colleges and universities may have a two-part process: you must apply for admission and be accepted before enrolling in a course. This can take several weeks unless the school has a “quick admit” process which offers immediate and/or conditional acceptance for enrolling in a limited number of courses. Just be sure to check with your advisor at your home institution before enrolling if you are planning to transfer the course.

How do I select a U.S. college or university for my online study?

There are so many more schools to select from when you choose to study online because you are not limited geographically. If you are just taking a course for enrichment and don’t need to acquire credit, look for the best fit for your needs in terms of content, cost, and convenience. If you want to earn a certificate or degree—or take a credit-based course to satisfy a requirement—you should make sure that the college or university is accredited by an agency recognized by your institution for transfer. Again, you can use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator and then visit the websites of those that interest you to determine what they offer online. If you want to study online at an institution in the WICHE states, check out those institutions with online programs listed on WICHE’s Internet Course Exchange (ICE).

What is regional accreditation and why is it important?

Accreditation is a process used by higher education to evaluate colleges, universities, and educational programs for quality and to assess their efforts toward continuous quality improvement. Accreditation is conducted by private, not-for-profit organizations designed specifically to conduct external quality reviews. In the United States, there are regional accrediting organizations operating in six different regions of the country. These organizations review degree-granting nonprofit and for-profit institutions within their regions, both two-year and four-year schools. Regional accrediting bodies accredit colleges and universities that operate totally online, just as they accredit traditional institutions.

Regional accreditation ensures that an institution’s academic program meets acceptable levels of quality. Institutions must be accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency to qualify for participation in federal financial aid programs that provide low cost loans to students. Oftentimes, too, employers want to verify the accreditation of a college or university before they will pay for tuition or fees as part of a company-sponsored benefits program.

Attending a regionally accredited institution is an important consideration if you think you might want to transfer credits to another institution or will want to pursue admission to graduate programs later on. Regionally accredited colleges and universities typically accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions. Each individual institution may decide which transfer credits to accept, however.

The regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the states (WICHE states underlined) whose institutions they oversee are:

♦ Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools

Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands

♦ New England Association of Schools and Colleges

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont

♦ The Higher Learning Commission—North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming

♦ Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

♦ Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia

♦ Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities—Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Four-year institutions in California, Hawaii, American Somoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Republic of Palau.

♦ Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges—Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Two-year institutions in California, Hawaii, American Somoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Republic of Palau.


What are some other types of accreditation?

There are also national, professional and specialized accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Credits earned at nationally accredited schools may not transfer to regionally accredited institutions but still may be suitable for some students’ needs. For example, some postsecondary schools of cosmetology are accredited by the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences.

Some professions or employers may require that an institution, department, or program have professional or specialized accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. For example, the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board of the American Society of Landscape Architects accredits baccalaureate and master’s programs leading to the first professional degree in landscape architecture while the American Bar Association accredits programs in legal education and professional schools of law. Some accrediting bodies such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredit both degree-granting and non-degree granting schools that are predominantly organized to offer education in art, design, or art/design related disciplines. Thus, some institutions will be both regionally accredited and have some additional national, professional, or specialized accreditations.

For more information, go to U.S. Department of Education’s overview of accreditation. If you are confused by some of the accreditation terminology, check out the Department’s glossary.

How can I verify that the U.S. institution or the online program I select has appropriate accreditation?

Check out the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and the Council of Higher Education Accreditors’ (CHEA) Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organizations. Some may appear on one list or the other or both.

How can I be sure the accrediting agency is legitimate and not an accreditation mill?

That is an important question! Periodically, we get inquiries from students who have received information about a school that claims to be accredited but on further investigation it appears that the accrediting body is bogus. This is an easy scam in the online world so if the accrediting body is not listed above, make sure it is included on CHEA’s list, Recognized Accrediting Organizations.

What if I want to take online courses from a college or university outside the U.S?

Again, if you are simply taking a non credit course for pleasure or enrichment, you might just look for the best fit for your needs. If you need to take a course for credit that will transfer to an institution in the U.S. or want to earn a degree that will be recognized in the states, you should check the list of institutions recognized by Council of Higher Education Accreditors and check with the U.S. school where you expect to transfer later.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) hosts EDGE (Electronic Database for Global Education) that provides information about the educational systems in other countries. There is a fee to use this database, so talk with the registrar at your local college or university who may be able to check on a foreign school for you.

Never pay money to an online degree provider in a foreign country until you have thoroughly investigated the school and the nation’s educational system, otherwise you may find the degree invalid in the U.S.

I want to study online at a US institution, but first where can I find out if I can build on my education from my home country?

If you know which college or university you want to attend, call the admission’s office and ask about having the records from your former school evaluated. Alternatively, for a fee you can have your prior education evaluated through AACRAO’s Foreign Education Credential Service.

If two accredited schools offer the same online program or course, how do I choose?

Look carefully through the campus website. Can you access all the student services you may need online such as academic advising, library and bookstore services, technical and tutoring services or do you have to go to campus for these services? Are the services available at a time that will work with your schedule? What are the technical requirements for online courses and does your computer system meet them? For example, do courses use a lot of streaming media that requires broadband access?

Is the content on the campus site up to date, consistent and informative? Is it easy to find what you are looking for and to find out who and how to contact the staff when it isn’t? Are communication standards posted so you know when to expect a reply?

In selecting a program, are all courses taught online or do some have an on-campus component? How long has the online program been in existence? Can you transfer credits into the program you have earned elsewhere? Where are former students employed? Make a list of questions and send them to the contact for each program you are interested in and then compare the responses.

In selecting a class, what are the instructor’s credentials? What is her field of study and experience teaching at this and other institutions? Is she experienced in teaching online courses which requires doing things differently than in the face to face classroom?

What do former students say about their experiences in a particular program or a certain class—information you may find provided by the campus on the site or you may want to look at one of the many comparison websites to learn more about the institution or the instructor. Adult students can compare some institutions and programs at College Choices for Adults.

Can I take online courses from multiple institutions simultaneously?

Many students do, but it is important to be realistic about the workload for each and how the deadlines mesh together. Moreover, make sure you get approval in advance from the registrar or advising staff at your primary institution for each course you want to transfer for credit.

Sometimes students think they can just take courses at multiple campuses and then apply them to a degree at a different institution later. This can be problematic. For example, an institution or a program may have a limit on the number of transfer credits they accept toward a degree or certificate. So a word to the wise: thoroughly review the admissions requirements and regulations for your destination school as early as possible.

Another issue is that students may only accept most types of financial aid from one institution at a time. Campuses may or may not have agreements to allow students to use aid from one campus at another one. Again, check with the financial aid officer at your primary campus.

Where can I get help deciding about a career before I take online courses?

Great question! Too many students start taking courses without any goals in mind. Later, they find out that the courses they have taken will not be helpful for the credential or employment they are seeking. They end up spending more time and money taking the right courses to meet their goal, and often delve further into debt.

Most colleges and universities have a career services center where you can talk with a counselor and also take a series of assessments to help you determine your interests and strengths. Many institutions make these services available to their current and prospective students online.

Or try the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) CareerOneStop. Click on the link for students. You’ll find a wide range of resources to help you explore your interests, and learn about different careers and what kinds of education and training are required for them. And don’t miss DOL’s Financial Aid Advisor where you can learn about scholarships and funding sources in your state.

Most states have employment sites, too, with many kinds of resources to help you learn about future employment trends, average salaries, and job openings.

How will employers view my online degree?

Getting a degree online is a relatively new way to learn but acceptance has grown quickly among most employers. In general, online degrees from regionally accredited colleges are widely accepted, while those from other providers may not be, especially if you are seeking public employment or work in licensed professions. To be on the safe side, check with your employer or prospective employer in advance. In addition, check with your institution to see if the word “online” will be included on your diploma.

What is WICHE’s Internet Course Exchange (ICE)?

WICHE ICE is an administrative tool institutions can use to share extra seats in online courses. It allows students to register and use their financial aid at their home institution for online courses taught by an instructor at another ICE member institution. It can be especially helpful when a student can’t enroll in a course on his/her campus because it is full or when she has a special interest in a topic not offered at his home school like the Alaska students who take certain social work courses at the University of Wyoming. The courses exchanged through ICE appear on the student’s transcript as though they were taught by his home institution, so no transfer hassles later. Visit the list of ICE members to see if your institution participates in ICE. If it does, look in your catalog or schedule of classes for information about what courses are available through this program or contact your institution’s ICE PIC (Program Information Coordinator).

How can I learn more about online and distance learning?

Check out The Distance Learner’s Guide, authored by WCET, from your local library or order it from Pearson Education, Amazon, or another online bookstore.