5 Things to Look for in an Online Graduate Degree Program

Five Things That Make or Break an Online Graduate Degree Program

  • Accreditation
  • Graduation Rate
  • Tuition and Fee Transparency
  • Curriculum and Credits
  • Support Services

Online programs are a popular way to earn college degrees. They allow graduate students to keep their jobs and study at their own pace. While many brick-and-mortar institutions and reputable online schools offer distance-learning programs, there are many for-profit corporations that offer less-than-amazing degrees. Here are five ways students can tell if their online programs are worth the time and money they will invest in them.

1) Accreditation

Probably the most important consideration, lack of accreditation may mean students who attend an institution will not qualify for federal financial aid. Professional organizations evaluate schools and programs according to elements they consider vital for general higher education or for educating people in certain disciplines. Schools who meet the requirements for accreditation by that group meet basic standards of excellence. Degrees from accredited institutions therefore mean more than those from unaccredited schools. Students who are uncertain if their schools or online programs are accredited can do a search through the US Department of Education’s database.

2) Graduation Rates

This figure, expressed as a percentile, tells the student how well a school is meeting its goals for awarding degrees. The usual rate is for four-year graduation, but schools are increasingly expressing the figures as six-year graduation rates. Another statistic that fits in here is the retention rate. That figure, also given as a percentile, shows student satisfaction with the institution in terms of how many return for a second year of study. According to the American Council on Education, There is some debate about the reliability of these figures because they don’t represent all students. Part-time, late-registering and students who transfer from one school to another may not be included in the figures. Still, the numbers are a factor many educators consider when evaluating a school.

3) Tuition and Fee Transparency

Most school websites have “tuition and financial aid” sections on their menus. If a prospective applicant must fill out a form to request financial information, or if they are pressured into an online “chat” with a school representative to get that data, students should be wary.

4) Curriculum and Credits

Students should look at the course descriptions and the degree requisites to evaluate the courses they will take. Each discipline has a certain body of knowledge necessary for successful career practice. If the online courses are substantially different than the traditional curriculum, students should wonder why the difference exists. They should also ask which credits are transferrable. If few or none of the credits are accepted by other schools, it may be cause for concern. Also important is whether students can get credit for previously-taken courses or for life achievements.

See: 30 Best Online Schools for Graduate Degrees

5) Support Services

This consideration is not only whether the services exist, but what kinds of support are provided, according to an article in the U.S. News and World Report. As in any institution of higher education, guidance counselors are vital. So are financial counselors, but if the school financial counselor is pushy and indicates the student should allow the school to choose the best options and apply for aid, students should step back. It is important to ascertain what kinds of support are available, including veteran’s program advisers, and how accessible counseling is.

Online programs, especially for graduate students, can mean having the ability to earn an advanced degree while maintaining a job or supporting a family. Not every program is equal, though, and it is worth the time it takes for students to look at their schools in light of these, and other, indicators of good online graduate degree programs.