Most institutions of higher learning only seriously compete with one or two other schools. Students often wish to attend a school near home, so the decision is often based on geography instead of educational quality. In addition, many public schools charge much higher rates of tuition to students from other states than they do to students from their own state. This results in most students attending school in their home states and it also results in a significant reduction in school competition. Schools get students not because they offer the best education, but because they just happen to be in the right state for the students.
With online education, every school is competing against every other school which offers a similar degree program. This forces online schools to compete on factors such as educational quality, price, and customer service.
Comparing Online Schools
With a traditional school, you can visit the campus, meet the staff and faculty, and generally get a feeling for the experience of attending the school. With online schools, this is also possible — but the process is very different.
Evaluate the Faculty
Find out who the major faculty members are in your degree program at each school which you are seriously considering. Research their names on the web. Connect with them on LinkedIn. Friend them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter. If they don’t have time for you before you enroll, they probably won’t make time for you after you enroll. On LinkedIn you should be able to see their major credentials. If you can’t find the faculty online, there is probably a reason for that.
Be careful to evaluate the faculty with whom you will actually be working. Major universities sometimes like to use a “bait and switch” tactic where they advertise well-known and academically respected professors, but those professors do not teach many classes and are almost never available for discussion. Instead the university assigns actual teaching duties to graduate students with almost no experience. This technique is not unique to online schools and is actually more common at very expensive “Ivy League” type schools.
Connect with Students
Students, especially online students, love to talk about their school experiences. Search on the web for the name of every school you are seriously considering along with the word “review”. For example, if you are seriously considering attending Arizona State University, search the web for “Arizona State University review”. You’ll want to read reviews by current students, but you will also want to read stories from graduates writing about their experience obtaining a job with their new degrees. Be careful though — some unethical schools post fake reviews to improve their online image. In addition, some reviewers will obviously blame a school for a bad experience for which they should take responsibility. One or two bad reviews is not the end of a school, but you should look for patterns in the data.
Next, search LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook for current students and graduates. LinkedIn is good for seeing where graduates are currently employed. Twitter is great for striking up conversations with current students about their educational experience.
Find out what accreditations each prospective school has. Some accreditations apply to the entire school, while others apply only to one degree program. All accreditations are not created equally. Some accreditation groups exist only to collect fees for accrediting lower-quality educational institutions. In some fields, your degree will be nearly worthless if your school was not accredited by the proper agency. In other fields, accreditation is almost completely irrelevant.
Review the Courses
Take a look at the courses in each degree program. Many of the more traditional schools offer, and require, classes which waste both your time and your money. If you are going to school to earn a degree in Computer Science, you probably don’t want to waste too many hours in “Diversity Studies” or “Inter-Ethic Relations”. However, schools absolutely love classes like that because they are easy to teach and they boost the schools profit margins.
In your core curriculum, look for classes which look too easy. Those can often indicate that the school has a too-lax enrollment policy, which will almost certainly result in your receiving a substandard education. If the school requires you to take a class in Microsoft Office to complete your Computer Science degree, for example, you might want to look elsewhere.
Also, look for classes that are out-of-date or out-of-touch with current needs in the job market. If the job market is demanding skills in Oracle, credit hours spend studying Artificial Intelligence will likely be wasted. Technology changes rapidly, study the job openings for graduates in your field to find out what skills employers are focusing on. Make sure the school you select offers classes that teach those skills.
At most schools, there are various methods of testing out of some of your lower-level courses. You might be able to take a CLEP (College Level Examination Program) test, or a proprietary test created by the school. You might also get credit for “life experience” which will get you out of some courses. If you took AP (Advanced Placement) classes in high school, they might also help you to avoid some of the more mundane lower-level courses.
If you get credit for these courses, you can save time and money by having to take fewer credit hours to graduate. If you don’t get credit, but are allowed to skip lower-level courses, you can get a better education by replacing those courses with higher-level courses or even independent study courses. Every school has different policies, so be sure to ask questions and get the answers in writing before you enroll. Some of the worst institutions bait students with vaguely worded promises regarding transfer credits and then reject the transfers in order to charge the students more money.
Reputation is a very difficult thing to measure and it is also extremely significant in determining the market value of a degree. If you go to a great school and get a fabulous education, but that school has a terrible reputation among hiring managers, you might lose out on two-thirds of the value of the degree you just completed.
Unfortunately, reputations are not given fairly. Some of the oldest and most respected schools give the absolute worst educations. They pack hundreds of students in classes taught by graduate students, their top faculty focus on research and publication instead of on teaching students, they use aging curricula and require irrelevant classes in order to boost profit margins, and they don’t focus on student placement because their priorities are elsewhere. Nonetheless, a degree from one of those aging institutions might look top-notch to a hiring manager.
On the other hand, a degree from a two-year old school with first-rate modern curricula and classroom instructors with top academic and professional credentials could be worth far less because the school has not yet had time to build a reputation for itself. This is not fair, but… life is not fair. This is where you have to make the distinction between the value of an education and the value of a degree. We often join the two in our thinking, but they are in reality very different and not closely related.
Online education is still relatively new and, in education, new advances are not easily trusted. Because of this, it is often best to choose an online program from a traditional university with a long history and a good reputation. Be certain to ask exactly what your degree will say. For example, Colorado State University marks each online degree with the phrase “CSU Global”, but the University of Massachusetts grants the same degree to both online and offline students.
What do you think? How else should students evaluate online schools? I would love to hear from you in the comments!