The Best Dang-Darned, Most Comprehensive Guide to Going to School Online

This information comes courtesy of longtime BB&W member, Tammy Ghalden. Thanks Tammy, for sharing such valuable information with all of us.

The Basics of Higher Education and Choosing Online Programs

Tammy Ghalden

When it comes to post-secondary education, there is a bit of a learning curve. I will start with a few of the basics you should know. The most important thing to understand is accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes accrediting organizations directly and indirectly through CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). You can find out which organizations are recognized by these two at this link.

You can check to see if a school is accredited at this link.

There are two types of accreditation in the U.S.: institutional and programmatic. Programmatic accreditation is usually optional. It’s something extra to show that a specific program meets higher quality standards. AACSB for business and accounting is an example of this. While it’s not required for any license in most states, and most employers don’t ask about it, it’s an accreditation held by the best business schools. If you want to get a graduate degree and work in academia in the future, you would be limiting your employment options by getting a graduate degree at a school without this accreditation. AACSB-accredited schools will not hire professors who do not have an AACSB-accredited degree.


In other cases, programmatic accreditation is important for licensure or employment. The federal government will not hire psychologists without an APA-accredited degree. ABET is usually required or makes it a lot easier to become licensed as a professional engineer. CSWE accreditation is usually required for social work.

The other type of accreditation is institutional. This is accreditation for the whole college. It says that the college is legitimate and meets overall minimum standards. It also qualifies a school for Title IV Funding (federal financial aid in the form of grants and loans). “Diploma mill” is often a misused term. It only applies to unaccredited schools that basically let you buy your degree or receive it after completing little work. There are some legitimate schools that are unaccredited. It can take 5-10 years to gain accreditation. A state will give approval for an unaccredited school to operate as long as it meets the state’s standards. Some states have a condition that requires that the school become accredited within a certain number of years. I do not recommend anyone attend an unaccredited school because it might not be recognized by employers or licensing agencies, it is illegal to use an unaccredited degree in some states, and it will be nearly impossible to transfer credits or to get into an accredited graduate school.

Within institutional accreditation, there are national accrediting organizations and regional accrediting organizations. This might sound backward, but credits and degrees from regionally accredited schools are more accepted nationwide than those from nationally accredited schools. Regional accreditation is seen as the gold standard in academia. The most well-known national accreditors are DETC, ACICS, and ACCSC. While these are recognized by CHEA and USDOE, I do not recommend attending NA (nationally accredited schools). The credits from these schools are more difficult to transfer than those from RA (regionally accredited) schools. Degrees from NA schools can also limit your options among graduate schools. Some state and local agencies do not recognize NA degrees for licensing and/or employment.

There are six regional accreditors: Middle States Commission on Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (junior level), and Western Association of Schools and Colleges (senior level). You want to make sure that the school you attend is accredited by one of these organizations.

Financial aid: always fill out the FAFSA at this website.

This is needed to receive federal grants and loans. States also use this to award state grants and loans. If you don’t qualify for federal financial aid for whatever reason (immigration status, past crimes, defaults, etc.), your state might have its own financial aid form to fill out. Don’t automatically assume that you make too much money for financial aid. Most people qualify for some form of aid.

Tax status: there are private non-profit, public, and private for-profit colleges. Public colleges are run by a government agency at the local, state/territory, or federal level. These are usually the cheapest for in-state and/or in-district students. Community and junior colleges usually have different rates for in-district students (those who live within a county, city, or metropolitan area that pays taxes to the school), in-state students, and out-of –state students. State colleges and universities usually have in-state and out-of-state rates. Some public colleges will charge in-state or reduced tuition rates to out-of-state students attending online.

Private, non-profit colleges are usually more expensive than public colleges. However, some of the well-ranked private colleges receive large endowments from philanthropists and alumni so they are able to offer a lot of loan-free aid to students. It is my opinion that if you’re not going to receive enough loan-free aid from a private college to make it cheaper than a public college, then the private college probably does not have enough prestige in the job market for it to be worth the extra cost. There are plenty of highly-ranked public colleges to attend, even online.

Private, for-profit colleges do not have a good reputation. They have the image of caring more about money than education. 99% of these schools are open enrollment. They will accept anyone with a high school diploma or GED and do not require the SAT, ACT, or any kind of placement exam. Community/junior colleges and even some public universities have nearly 100% acceptance rates, but they are usually much cheaper than for-profits and will require some kind of entrance/placement exam. If you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT, a CC (community college) will usually require a placement test like the Compass or Accuplacer. These tests help them determine if you’re ready for college level math and English/reading. If you aren’t ready for these, you will have to complete remedial courses. Since for-profit universities accept anyone and don’t require placement tests, people are often dumped into classes they aren’t ready for. This has led to for-profit colleges having low graduation rates and high student loan default rates. Among the three types of tax status, for-profit colleges have the highest student loan default rates, highest student loan debt among students, and the lowest graduation rates. Only community colleges have lower graduation rates on average, but I blame much of this on the fact that many people are only looking to get transfer credits from CCs to a 4-year school and don’t care about graduating with an associate’s degree. People also take CC courses for professional development or personal enrichment with no intention of graduating with a degree.

There are many misconceptions about online education. The first main one is that the well-known for-profits are online schools. In reality, regionally accredited, 100% virtual schools are very rare, even among for-profits. Many for-profits have been around since before online courses existed. Most of them still have brick and mortar campuses around the country. Devry University in Irving, TX even has dorms. The next misconception is that for-profit colleges are unaccredited or only nationally accredited. The biggest for-profits that have the biggest share of students are regionally accredited. The third misconception is that only for-profit colleges offer online degree programs. They are just the biggest advertisers. Two criticisms that I have of for-profit colleges is that, on average, they spend a lot more on advertising than non-profit colleges, and they spend more on marketing than education. In my opinion, for-profit colleges should be avoided because they are usually more expensive than public colleges, and the well-known ones have bad reputations among employers.

I recommend looking for online degree programs at these websites. They will show a mix of NA, RA, for-profit, public, and private colleges, so you have to do your research.

Graduate programs.

Your state might even have a consortium website of online degrees offered by state and community/junior colleges.

There are thousands of traditional, non-profit, brick and mortar colleges that offer online degrees. This brings me to another misconception. Most colleges do not distinguish between their online and on campus students. In most cases, your diploma and transcript will look exactly like those of on campus students. The only way an employer can tell you attended school online is if he or she compares your work history with where you attended school. If you worked in California while attending a school in New York, then an employer might notice that. Acceptance of online degrees is growing. When the baby boomers retire or die, then there should be almost as much acceptance of online degrees as on campus degrees. Those younger than 35 are very open-minded about distance education. Some employers just have a misconception of what an online degree is. When they are asked about online degrees in surveys, they are most likely thinking of for-profit schools with bad reputations like University of Phoenix, Kaplan, ITT Tech, and Devry. I read an article where employers admitted that they are finding it increasingly difficult to tell if someone attended school online since so many traditional colleges offer online degrees. If I attend a school online within the metro area where I work, no one would ever be able to tell that I attended online. Among the thousands of traditional colleges that offer online degrees are Harvard, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Columbia, and state flagships (the biggest and most well-known state universities) like Texas A&M and Penn State.

What to expect in online courses. First of all, some schools still offer correspondence courses. These have been offered for over a hundred years. They mail the course materials to you, and you mail assignments back for grading. These types of courses are not as common as online courses. There are two types of online courses: asynchronous and synchronous. Most online courses are asynchronous. You can log into your virtual classes at anytime, but you still have to adhere to deadlines for assignment completion. Some schools offer self-paced courses that give you a semester/term to 6 months or a year to complete all of the required assignments. Synchronous courses will require that you log in at specific times to participate in a live chat room or listen to or watch a live lecture. Like I said, these aren’t that common.

Even among asynchronous courses, some instructors will offer an optional chat session or live lecture. Some will upload recorded lectures. I haven’t encountered this much. Normally, presentations and written lectures are uploaded. A thing that I commonly hear from students who have taken online courses is that they require more work. Instead of taking tests due to perceived security issues, tests/quizzes/exams are replaced with papers. In my opinion, it takes a lot more effort to write a paper than to prepare for a multiple choice or essay exam. Also, since you aren’t in a class to participate in discussions, most online courses will require discussion board posts. They will make you write 100-500 word discussion board posts regarding a topic, and you often have to provide citations. These aren’t opinion pieces. They will also make you respond to the postings of 2 or 3 classmates. Compare this to sitting in a classroom of 15 to 500 people. Most of the time, you probably won’t have the chance or even be asked to speak. If you do speak, you might utter a few sentences. You also don’t have to provide a detailed response to something a classmate said.

Many online courses still require tests whether proctored or unproctored. Proctored means that you have to find an approved person to watch you while you take a paper or online exam. You can use someone at a library or a testing center at a local college. I only had one course that required proctored exams. I took them at a local university and paid a testing fee of $20. More and more colleges are using an online proctor called ProctorU. In the comfort of your own home, a ProctorU employee will watch you through a webcam to make sure you aren’t cheating.

Among unproctored exams, I’ve had many that are timed. If I didn’t know the material, I didn’t have time to look up the answer to every single question in the textbook or online. A couple of courses used the Respondus Lockdown browser that prevents you from doing anything else on your computer while taking a test. I admit that this probably doesn’t do much since people these days tend to own mobile devices with internet access.

Another misconception is that cheating is rampant among online students. Out of all the studies I’ve read, the conclusion is either that online students cheat just as much as ground students or that they cheat less. Online students tend to be of the non-traditional college age and older students cheat less than younger students. One study said that people find it easier to cheat off of classmates when they see them face-to-face on a regular basis. Cheating is not only possible on papers (on campus students do attempt to buy papers), but they are possible with tests. Even at the top colleges, take home tests are given. While this is not cheating, some courses at respectable colleges have in-class tests that are open book and/or open note.

A little bit about my personal experience. This is my first year taking college courses on campus. I completed all of my credits for an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, graduate certificate, and master’s degree online. I first attended a for-profit college when I was very naïve. When I noticed that it was too expensive and that the quality of education was poor, I dropped out. I transferred my credits to a CC in Texas (I live in Texas but I was hours away from this school). I took some online courses from them, but I decided I did not want to study computer science and dropped out again. I also had a lot of family problems that made it difficult to concentrate. After a little break, I enrolled in another for-profit college. I had trouble focusing (I think I have ADD) and dropped out again. After taking a break for several months, I enrolled at my local community college district. I wish I would have done this in the first place because it only cost me about $54 per credit at the time. I took online courses at those colleges too. After doing a bit of research, I found out about three colleges that are great for non-traditional students.

There is something called the residency requirement. This is used in two different ways. One way refers to the amount of time you have to spend on campus when in an online program. Usually in online doctoral programs, you have to spend a couple of weeks on campus each semester or year. The other way refers to how many credits you have to take at a school in order to be awarded a degree. These credits can be taken online or on campus. Most schools require that you complete at least 25% of your degree with them. This is around 30 credits at a school on the semester system and 45 credits on the quarter system (I’ll explain later). There are only 3 colleges in the U.S. that have virtually no residency requirements: Charter Oak State College, Thomas Edison State College, and Excelsior College. These are unranked schools, but they are great for older students with a lot of credits and have had trouble completing a degree. Their degree programs are flexible, and they are very liberal when it comes to accepting transfer credits. In most cases, you will only have to take 1 or 2 courses with them online in order to complete your degree. Everything else can be transferred in. I completed my bachelor’s degree at one of these colleges.

Another cool thing about the Big 3 is that they accept a lot of non-traditional credits. I’m sure most people have heard of Advanced Placement exams. These allow high school students to test out of college courses. Adults can take these, but it’s not convenient. You have to find a school that will let you sit for the test, and I think the tests are only offered once a year. These tests are offered by the College Board. The College Board also offers an alternative to the AP exams called CLEP. Thousands of schools give credit for CLEP exams. Hundreds of colleges across the country offer CLEP exams year-round. There is a similar test called DSST. This was created by DANTES (a department of the Department of Defense), but they are now offered by Prometric. Again, you can take these year-round at hundreds of sites across the country. Lesser-known options are Ohio University exams (you have to find a proctor), Uexcel ECEP (formerly known as Uexcel and Excelsior Exams) taken at Pearson testing centers, and TECEP (a test created by Thomas Edison State College and you have to find a proctor). Passing a TECEP or Ohio University exam is like earning credit directly from those schools. Uexcel ECEP is approved by the American Council on Education for college credit. Thousands of schools are members of ACE. These schools will consider ACE-approved credits. ACE also approves some courses for credit from nationally accredited schools making them easier to transfer, corporate training, military training, and professional licenses/certifications. The Big 3 are liberal in accepting ACE credits too.

I sped up the process of completing my AAS and BA by self-studying and passing CLEPs, DSSTs, free courses from FEMA (the Big 3 and some CCs give credit for FEMA’s emergency management courses), and one ACE-approved course from ALEKS. After graduating with my BA, I was accepted into a graduate program at a public university in Texas. That was completed online in 14 months. I was then accepted into an on campus, PhD program in Criminal Justice at a state university that is well-known in Texas. As soon as my funding package is put together, I will be receiving a stipend to attend school, which will allow me to quit my job. If you’re curious about what my other degrees are in, my AAS is in Environmental, Safety, and Security Technologies; my BA is in Social Science (it was the easiest way I could combine my criminal justice, sociology, and psychology credits), and my master’s is in Security Studies which is a sub-field of international relations. I also have a graduate certificate in Terrorism and Counterinsurgency Studies. My master’s degree just got me a job as a criminal justice instructor at a vocational/technical college.

Just in case you are unfamiliar with the credit system, U.S. schools are either on the quarter system or semester system. Most schools are on the semester system, and several quarter schools are switching. A bachelor’s on the semester system is around 120 credits and around 180 credits on the quarter system. They both take about 4 years to complete on a traditional schedule. I personally do not like the quarter system because it’s more expensive in relation to comparable colleges. $200 per credit on the semester system is cheaper than $150 per credit on the quarter system. Also, if you want to transfer from a quarter school to a semester school, you will more than likely not receive full credits for courses. For example, a semester school will require 3 credits for English Comp I. At a quarter school, English Comp I is 4 credits. However, a semester credit is equal to 1.5 quarter credits. So, your Comp course from the quarter hour school is only worth 2.67 credits at the semester school. You’re short 0.33 credits.

I have some success stories to share from online students. You can talk to a lot of these students on these two forums.

One guy that I helped with completing a degree graduated with a BA in Social Science at Thomas Edison and got a higher paying job. One woman finished a degree at Excelsior and was accepted to Texas A&M’s graduate program in statistics (I think she might be studying biostatistics). One person was accepted to a top 30 or top 50 law school (although, since the market is oversaturated, it’s recommended to go to a top 14 school or don’t go at all). One woman was accepted to a top 25 MBA program and was awarded a stipend after graduating from Thomas Edison. I think one woman was accepted to medical school (an osteopathic program) with a Thomas Edison degree. Another woman was accepted to a great international business, MBA program after completing her bachelor’s at Charter Oak. It was a bilingual program in Spain.


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