What to Look for in an Online College

Deciding where to attend college is a challenging but critical step in your journey toward advancement.

Where you choose to pursue a degree determines not only your career path but also the quality of your industry knowledge when entering your desired field. 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has become more prevalent than ever. Many colleges that have historically offered a strictly in-person format have made the shift to online education. Comparing online schools can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a list of 11 elements you should look for in an online program to ensure you make the best decision to reach your career goals. 

11 Elements to Consider when Choosing an Online College

1. Curriculum Design

Many traditional, on-campus schools responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by converting their in-person class model to an online format. The reality of the situation, however, is that in-person and online experiences require different approaches and methods to maintain engagement and personalization. Simply live-streaming in-person classes isn’t enough. To receive the highest quality of education, it’s important to look for a program specifically designed for an online format, not just an in-person class attended remotely. 

2. Learning Environment

Students have different styles of learning, and it’s important to find a school that aligns with yours. Research the various colleges you’re considering and determine how they foster learning for their students. Think about what online learning approach or method works best for you, as well as your preferred learning environment. 

For example, does the school emphasize experiential learning? Are there any internship or co-op opportunities available? Finding a school that invests in your individual success is essential. To succeed in an online learning environment, engagement is critical, so look for a school that offers an interactive, personalized curriculum. 

3. Program Outcomes

It’s crucial to evaluate the outcomes of prospective online programs. Try to find a program in which your degree is the same whether you study online or in-person. Confirming the online learning objectives are similar to those of in-person programs ensures your degree can contend with a growing competitive job market. This also confirms that the college adheres to its academic standards across all programs—both in-person and online. 

4. Online Learning Expertise

One of the benefits of online learning is access to high-quality schools that would otherwise be inaccessible due to proximity. As a result, many students are overwhelmed by the number of options that had previously been out of reach. In spite of this abundance of options, it’s best to consider how long a school has offered distance learning. 

While you can certainly obtain an excellent education from a school that recently implemented remote learning, many institutions were forced to create online programs in response to the pandemic. As with any program, schools that have a longer history of optimizing online learning are typically at the forefront of the industry with the best educational offerings. Try to find a program that has an established presence in online education and has a track record of making adjustments and modifications based on student feedback and changing trends. 

5. Program Flexibility

Many prospective students opt for an online learning experience because of their schedules. Whether you’re juggling a job, family commitments, personal obligations, or all of the above, you need a program that meets your needs. Evaluate the program’s flexibility to ensure it aligns with your time commitments. It’s also valuable to check whether the program is synchronous—class attendance required at specific times—or asynchronous—learning at your own pace within a specific time frame. 

If you’re looking at schools in your area, you may even be able to explore additional flexibility options. Many colleges offer hybrid learning opportunities that allow you to attend classes both in-person and online. Whatever option you choose, make sure it’s the right fit for you. 

6. Accreditation

One of the most important factors to consider when comparing options is accreditation status. Obtaining a degree from an unaccredited school can be financially challenging since you won’t qualify for federal financial aid. It can even prevent you from obtaining licensure in some professions. Therefore, it’s advised that you consider accredited institutions. Visit to verify the national or regional accreditation of any online universities you’re considering. 

7. Faculty Quality

What are the qualifications of your school’s faculty? In your search, you might encounter programs that rely on course material to teach their students, rather than investing in qualified instructors. Try to find schools with resourceful and experienced online faculty that can offer invaluable knowledge of your chosen field. Some schools, including Northeastern University, have the same faculty teach both online and in-person, ensuring the educational experience is the same across the board. 

8. Credit Transferability

During the course of your college education, it isn’t uncommon to consider transferring to another school. Your online educational experience might have been lacking, or your change in major may force you to switch institutions. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to ensure that the credits you earn from your online education are transferable. Contact the schools you’re considering applying to and ask about their credit transfer policy.

9. Student Services & Support

One of the major downsides of online learning is the inability to walk into student support offices. When evaluating your options, make sure there are ample resources for online students. These include academic advising, career services, tech support, disability services, military support, and more. Most universities offer a wide range of services to traditional college students, but many times it doesn’t apply to its online students. So make sure your future college has a track record of providing quality support to its online learners. 

10. Financial Aid

Cost is always going to be a factor when evaluating higher education programs. While it shouldn’t drive your decision, it’s nonetheless important to evaluate the financial aid options available to you. In your research, try to determine whether financial aid is different for online and in-person students, or whether they’re the same for both groups. What scholarship opportunities are available? Reach out to the financial aid offices of the schools you’re considering and ask about these various options. They’re the best resource in providing personalized advice regarding financing your education. 

11. Community & Alumni Network

Many times your career prospects are contingent on your college degree, but a professional network is just as valuable when entering the workforce. Many schools offer extensive opportunities to make quality professional contacts while in school and post-graduation. When comparing options, evaluate schools’ alumni networks and consider whether they’re accessible to online learners. Many institutions also have employer partner programs with companies willing to hire students from their college or university. Just remember to check that this opportunity is also available to online students. 

Is an Online Degree Program Right For You?

Making the decision between an online vs. in-person program can be challenging. There are multiple factors that need to be taken into consideration. You need to consider factors such as available equipment, learning styles, and your schedule. Remote learning isn’t for everyone, so it’s important to determine if this is the best option for you.

What You Need Before Selecting an Online College

To succeed in an online learning environment, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Here are five things that are necessary if you’re considering attending school online.

Online Learning Checklist graphic Online Learning Checklist graphic
  1. Reliable computer: Technical difficulties should be avoided as much as possible. Make sure your computer runs well and meets the required specifications for the online education coursework. 
  2. Stable internet connection: Online learning often requires streaming video content—live or pre-recorded. This means that a stable internet connection is a must. You don’t want your internet to crash in the middle of an online test.
  3. Productive workspace: Particularly for synchronous classes, it’s important to limit distractions. Your study space should be conducive to your learning style. 
  4. Flexible schedule: Depending on whether your institution offers synchronous or asynchronous learning, you’ll need to make sure you have time for class and coursework and adjust your schedule accordingly.
  5. Motivation: Remote learning is incredibly difficult if you struggle to focus or organize your schedule effectively. Oftentimes motivation is the missing element of a successful online learner. It’s incredibly important to your success in a remote learning environment. 

Learn More about Northeastern’s Online Learning Experience

Hear from current students about what it’s like to take a class online, tips for excelling in an online learning environment, and more.

Watch the Student Panel

Key Differences Between Online and On-Ground Programs

When considering whether to attend college online or in-person, it’s essential to recognize that each option provides unique benefits, but one isn’t inherently better than the other. 

  • Location: One of the glaring differences of online and in-person classes is location. Online learning can be done from a distance, whereas in-person learning requires a physical presence on campus. Each option provides benefits, depending on your life circumstances and career goals. 
  • Flexibility: Typically online courses offer increased flexibility. Even blended or hybrid learning options extend more flexibility benefits as compared to an in-person format. This can be highly beneficial for those with full-time jobs or familial obligations.
  • Community: Both online and in-person classes offer unique opportunities for connecting with a community. However, while most in-person attendees of public colleges live within 50 miles of the school, online courses don’t limit where students live. While in-person classes can increase your ability to network with local businesses, online college classes provide opportunities to network with a more diverse population of local, national, and international students.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is an online degree as good as a traditional degree?

It depends on the institution offering the degree. The quality of an online education program is conditional on the learning environment, faculty, and curriculum. However, there’s no inherent difference in quality between remote and in-person learning. 

In most cases, job prospects are largely the same when it comes to online education vs. in-person. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 92 percent of employers have favorable opinions of online degrees from brick-and-mortar schools, whereas 58 percent would bypass candidates who hold degrees from a university that operates solely online, regardless of its accreditation. 

Is online college cheaper?

Online learning is generally more affordable than in-person. This is largely due to the fact that room and board, meal plans, and transportation expenses aren’t applicable to online students. Tuition is also typically less expensive online for both public and private colleges. 

Are online degrees harder than in-person?

An online degree requires the same level of focus and motivation as a traditional classroom environment. However, additional difficulties can arise, making online learning more challenging. Distractions are much harder to avoid online (e.g., children or pets requiring attention). The right study habits and organization are crucial to combat these common online learning challenges. 

Who benefits from online learning?

Online learning can be beneficial for anyone with a computer and stable internet connection. It might be particularly beneficial for you, however, if you’re: 

How can I be successful in online learning?

Organization is incredibly important to succeed in online college. To get the most out of your online education, try to follow these tips:

  • Ask questions regularly
  • Turn on your camera
  • Dress as though you’re in the classroom
  • Create a designated space to work and study
  • Give yourself time to rest
  • Take breaks to go outside and stretch
  • Give yourself time to wake up before class starts
  • Find community and support in others

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