Online degrees are quickly becoming a popular alternative to expensive four-year institutions. But is an online education right for you?

Online degree programs: A smart way to save on higher education, or a good way to get scammed? You’ve probably heard both sides of the debate.

Fortunately, there are more options than ever for online education. Several universities have joined MIT’s OpenCourseWare in offering free online classes for anyone who wants to learn. But you still have to pay for coursework that counts toward a degree. We’ve examined the pros and cons of going to school through a screen, and found out whether it really can save you money.

When should you consider an online degree?

Sometimes an online program is the best option. In other cases, you’re better off attending classes in person. A lot depends on your situation and the degree program you’re interested in.

An online degree may be right for you if:

  • You plan to work full-time or part-time while going to school. Most online courses allow you to set your own times for completing coursework and accessing lectures. Even if your job doesn’t come with a flexible schedule, you can still fit in online learning.
  • You need geographical flexibility. If you live in a remote area, you have limited mobility, or you want a specific degree program that’s unavailable nearby, an online degree is worth considering. As long as you have an Internet connection and the software required by the school, you can finish many online degree programs anywhere.
  • You’ve got great time management and self-motivation skills. With no professor looking over your shoulder, you’re responsible for getting yourself up to speed – including reaching out for help if you don’t understand the coursework. If your only education so far has been in a classroom setting, this may be harder than it seems!
  • Your course of study doesn’t include a lot of hands-on training. Physical therapy, certain STEM fields, medicine, dentistry, and other fields require training you’ll need to complete in a physical environment. “Hybrid” programs, which combine online classes and in-person sessions or residencies, can be a good choice for a hands-on field. And even programs in more traditionally customer-facing fields, like hospitality management, are expanding their online class offerings. But if you’re hoping to go completely digital, make sure you won’t be missing out on any vital learning experiences.

Which degree programs can you complete online?

Good news. Online degree programs are growing faster than traditional degree programs, and more colleges and universities are getting on board. You’re most likely to find an online coursework option at a two-year college or a public four-year college, where about 90 percent of institutions offer online courses.

Chances are whether you want an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or professional degree, you can find an online program matching your field of study.

Two types of schools offer online degrees. One type is an online-only college such as the University of Phoenix. Another type is a college with a physical campus which includes online education programs.

How can you tell whether an online degree program is legitimate?

A legitimate program isn’t a “diploma mill.” Nobody wants to get scammed. Many online degrees are offered by for-profit universities (Kaplan and DeVry are well-known examples). These universities tend to be pricier and may not offer the education they promised. Some are called “diploma mills” since they graduate students rapidly without giving them the training they’ll need.

Here are some warning signs that an online degree program is more scam than opportunity:

  • It lets you earn a degree in less time than most schools would – a six-month bachelor’s degree, for example.
  • It charges tuition on a per-degree basis. Accredited schools will charge by semesters, courses, or credit hours.
  • It offers discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs.
  • It implies official approval and licensing, and lists impressive-sounding credentials, but none of these credentials match the ones the U.S. Department of Education recognizes.
  • Its name is similar to a well-known university but not quite the same.
  • Its address is a post office box or suite number.

A legitimate program is accredited. This is the most important factor to look for in an online program. Accreditation means the school meets the standards of an outside regulating agency—either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Usually the program will have this information on its website or brochure. You can also search for specific schools on the Department of Education’s website to see their credentials.

There are three common kinds of accreditation: national, regional, and programmatic.

National accreditation means approval by a national agency. The standards for this accreditation aren’t as difficult to meet as regional standards, and these colleges and programs tend to be less expensive. These agencies include:

  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • The Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission

Regional accreditation means approval by a regional or local agency. This accreditation is more rigorous, and these programs will often be more academically challenging. Credits from regionally accredited schools are more widely accepted at institutions across the country than credits from nationally accredited schools. So, if you plan to transfer to another program later on you should take this into consideration. Many schools have both regional and national accreditation.

These agencies include:

  • New York, Mid-Atlantic, and Puerto Rico: Middle States Commission on Higher Education and Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools
  • NY State only: New York State Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education
  • New England: New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • Midwest/Southwest: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
  • Northwest: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • South: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
  • California, Hawaii, and U.S. territories: Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges or Senior Colleges and University Commissions
  • Christian/religious schools in the U.S.: Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission.

Programmatic or specialized accreditation applies to specific pre-professional programs like law, business, physical therapy, or health care. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has a comprehensive list of programmatic accrediting agencies for different fields of study.

Accreditation means your degree will earn respect and recognition in professional and academic settings. It ensures you’re getting the education you paid for. Don’t sign up without it!

A legitimate program is (usually) connected to a residential campus. If you’re deciding between an online-only program and a program with ties to a residential school, the school-related program will be your best option in many cases. These programs have longer histories of educating students, more resources if you want to access them, and tend to be more easily recognized by employers. You can get these benefits even if you don’t physically visit campus.

And possibly the biggest bonus: a residentially-connected program often gives greater access to federal financial aid.

How much does an online degree cost?

Unfortunately, it’s a myth that online degrees are always cheaper than residential degrees.

The most common ways to save on an online education include skipping on-campus room and board charges, along with any expenses associated with commuting, and having the schedule freedom to work part-time or full-time.

But to really crunch the numbers, compare the costs of an online degree program to a similar program offered at a residential school. Prices per course or credit hour may be about the same. One survey found about 75 percent of online courses are the same price as their residential equivalents. U.S. News and World Report found online courses can even be more expensive. The average cost of an in-state online course was $277 per credit in 2013, compared to $243 per credit at an in-state residential course.

Depending on the program, you may be able to save on tuition by taking online courses offered in the state where you live. Some schools give cheaper rates to in-state online students, others have better rates for out-of-state online students. But you’ll almost always spend less at a public university than a private university.

Don’t forget to fill out the FAFSA! As long as your school’s accredited, you can access federal and private financial aid for an online program.

If you’re not paying for room, board, or travel, how can online programs rack up the charges?

Online degree programs charge fees. Lots of fees.

Technology fees are the most common. These fees cover equipment and maintenance costs for the college. The amount can vary depending on your school, but expect to be paying $20 or more per credit hour (most schools charge by the credit hour) in technology fees.

Application fees, between $20 and $50, kick in at the very beginning. Then there’s a matriculation fee for enrolling, which can fall between $100 and $500. You can even end up paying a parking fee for a spot on campus you’ll never use!

Despite the tacked-on costs, you can still save money. On-campus students pay plenty of fees too, just for different services. Don’t forget to add fees to your overall calculation when you’re deciding what you can afford.

How much time does an online degree take?

Your time investment will depend pretty heavily on your major. But as a general rule, most undergraduate courses take about three hours per week of in-class time for three credits. This doesn’t include time spent doing homework, studying, or preparing for class.

You can expect to spend five hours a week or so on coursework outside of class time. Double this amount for classes in a graduate program like an MBA, where the work’s more demanding. That’s a minimum of eight hours per week, multiplied by the amount of classes you’re taking at once.

You can always take fewer courses at a time, but you’ll take longer to graduate. Some online programs have a minimum enrollment requirement for degree-seeking students.

How will potential employers view an online degree on your resume?

As technology becomes more central to our lives, employers are getting more open to online degrees at every level of study.

The institution and type of degree will be far more important than whether or not you earned it online. So, an online degree from an accredited school with a good reputation will get you as far as an equivalent on-campus degree would. And if you have several years of work experience under your belt, experience will come before education in employers’ eyes.

If you’re in or looking to enter a field where hands-on experience is key, make sure to seek out this experience during your online course of study—through fieldwork, practicums, residencies, a hybrid program, or something similar. Ask the college what opportunities they provide.

Summary

Online degrees can be worth it, and they may even be the best choice for you. Like any other life commitment, signing up for an online degree requires research and knowing your options.

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Amy Bergen Writer
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Amy Bergen is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. She's interested in technology, literature, and how the world will change in the future. You can reach Amy on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.