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By Derek Newton
October 30, 2020
Rangely Garcia / Money

Before the pandemic forced nearly every college online, digital and remote courses were already growing.

For nearly a decade, online learning options have been drawing new students while the more traditional college options have declined. And early undergraduate enrollment numbers for this fall follow that pattern: Primarily online colleges grew enrollment nearly 7% since last year, while overall undergraduate enrollment looks to be down about 4%.

The high degree of access and flexibility offered by online programs means they are likely to remain a popular and rewarding choice for many students. But online classes aren’t foolproof or for everyone, and they’re not all the same. You should be prepared to skip past the ads and fast-moving enrollment pitches some schools make and instead carefully compare programs, teachers, school types, and costs.

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If you’re considering taking classes online, here are five questions to ask before starting.

Is online right for me?

It’s crucial to start by asking whether you’re the type of student that’s likely to succeed in an entirely online format. That may not be the case.

“Online is right for some students,” said John Katzman, founder and CEO of Noodle Partners, which helps colleges manage their online programs. But, he says, “To succeed in an online program, it helps to be organized and motivated. And, of course, it helps to have a place to work, with privacy and a reliable wi-fi connection.”

Katzman also notes research showing that students who need extra learning support or accommodations may not do well online.

Of course, how well a student does with online courses depends not only on their personal learning styles and needs, but also on the style of online teaching a program is offering. “If the program you’ve signed up for is nothing but Zoom lectures, you may find yourself snoozing,” Katzman says. “All online is not created equal. Ask the schools you’re thinking of applying to if you can see examples of their online course materials,” he says.

Is there a campus I can access?

Even as online education has grown, it’s increasingly become local. Now, most online students take classes less than 50 miles from their school’s physical campus. In addition to being able to meet with an advisor or a professor in person, many key learning and support resources exist on campus — resources that may not be available online.

“Online students should insist on a tour of the library, even if it has to be done virtually,” says Kevin Walthers, president of Allan Hancock College, a public community college in California. Because, he says, “A college library is more than just books and journals. A good college will make the library the hub of the academic program, with librarians teaching classes or providing training in research methods and media literacy.”

Katzman, of Noodle, agrees with the importance of having access to a campus. He says another, often overlooked, advantage of studying locally is that you’ll have more recognition in the job market. “Local employers know people from that school, they’ve hired people from that school, they trust people from that school,” he says. “In Minnesota, for example, employers love Carleton and they love Macalester. They have no opinion about Tulane. But, of course, the opposite is true in Louisiana.”

Is the school a for-profit?

Knowing what type of college you’re considering is important because they can operate very differently, especially online. Not all for-profit schools are bad, but many have had significant problems, including low completion rates and leaving students with high debt obligations. Employers can also view them differently.

In almost every case, if the program you want is offered online by a local community college, that’s a better option than the same program at a for-profit college.

“Any class or program taught by a for-profit college is almost certainly available from the local community college, taught by more qualified faculty for a much lower tuition rate,” Walthers says. “And online students have the advantage of being able to choose from any community college in their state without paying a premium for non-resident tuition.”

According to a 2018 survey of tuition, for example, the price per credit hour at a for-profit, two-year college was $601, compared with just $135 at a public community college. And the Department of Education estimates that a year of tuition at the median two-year, for-profit college costs $27,356, while the median cost at a public two-year college was $9,787, as of 2018.

While community colleges will be your least expensive bet, there are other factors to consider as well, says Sara Leoni, CEO of GreenFig, which designs job-ready business skills courses offered through colleges. “At the end of the day, you need to solve for the learning outcomes you’re trying to achieve.”

If you’re looking for a specific skill to help you take on more responsibility (and pay) at work, a short, not-for-credit certificate course may be your best option. But if you’re looking to completely switch careers or start a job that requires college, you’ll probably need to look at degrees offered by two- and four-year colleges.

How large are the classes and who’s teaching my class?

New research shows that in order to be effective, online classes should actually be smaller than in-person ones. Unfortunately, some schools pack too many students in their online offerings or hire inexpensive, less qualified teachers to teach online.

It’s smart to ask not only about the number of students in a specific online class but also about the school’s average class size for online courses. Also ask about the instructors for online courses — for example, whether they are full-time, on campus teachers or remote teachers only.

“I would want to know, who is the instructor, and what are their credentials or experiences?” Leoni says. “Do I think they have the background needed to lead a course where I can achieve my learning outcomes?”

How am I paying?

Since some online schools have run into trouble by pushing student loans as part of registration, leading to increased student debt and loan defaults, it’s essential that you understand what you’re paying and how. Ask specifically whether the school is getting money directly that is actually a loan in your name, money you owe whether you graduate or not.

“Families need to read the fine print when signing up at a college. Specifically ask if the financial aid package includes loans because proprietary [for-profit] schools will sometimes show loans in a way that makes it look like grant aid,” Walthers says. “First-generation students are particularly vulnerable,” he said.

Finally, keep this in mind: Education can be the best investment you ever make, but it is an investment. Asking good questions can help you make it wisely.

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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