The Grad Student’s Guide to Choosing an Online Degree

Online education is continuing to make gains in the overall education market. In fact, more than 6.7 million students (approximately one third of higher ed enrollment) took at least one online course during the fall of 2011, according to a report from the Babson Survey Research Group.

Schools appear to be responding to the demand. The number of online degree programs nearly doubled from 32.5% to 62.4% in 2012, according to the report.

While online degree programs continue to gain popularity among students, the quality of programs varies significantly across institutions. With so many variables, it can become overwhelming to know what makes an online program a worthwhile investment. This guide will help students begin their research.

Accreditation

Determining the quality of a college or university can be a challenge. Fortunately, accreditation is one way to ensure a program meets an important industry-standard measure of quality. Generally speaking, accreditation ensures a school, program or degree has a qualified faculty, high-quality courses and a plan for continued improvement.

Unfortunately, there are tons of different accrediting bodies, making the process a bit confusing. The easiest way to begin is by visiting the U.S. Department of Education to see the accrediting agencies recognized by the USDE. Accreditation is organized by such parameters as geographic location, program or institution. Some disciplines, such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the American Bar Association, also have specific accreditation for their field.

Industry Perception

Measuring how your school stacks up is an important part of the research process. Check to see if your school is listed in the US News & World Report, or the college rankings of The Princeton Review. Forbes has its own list of top American colleges, and Payscale also publishes an annual report on the schools that provide students with the best return on investment.

Tuition

While online tuition is often comparable to that of a brick-and-mortar institution, students can save money on out-of-state rates, housing, transportation, etc. Plus, students can more easily hold down a day job with the flexibility of online learning.

But don’t let the incentive of saving some money cloud your judgement. When investigating the tuition costs of online degree programs, make sure to ask yourself some hard questions. Does the dollar amount match the value of the degree? Are the online courses similar to brick-and-mortar options? Are the faculty experts in their field of study? What sort of scholarships are available for prospective students? The Frequently Asked Question guide from Arizona State University Online has some great questions you can apply to all schools in your search.

Communication/Networking Opportunities

Technology ensures that it is possible to get a quality online education experience, but that doesn’t mean all schools have invested in the necessary tools. Make sure your school is up to par with current standards for online graduate schools, such as access to 24/7 technical support, digital libraries, expedient faculty response times and mobile tools.

Student Testimonials

Student testimonials are another avenue to hear past students’ opinions about the program. For example, the online Western Governors University has a student experience tab featuring student testimonials. Not every school features this sort of material, and remember, most schools don’t have any reason to publicize the bad student experiences. Networking or reaching out to recent alumni is the best way to get an honest opinion on student experiences.

Program Flexibility

The schedule and structure of online programs varies across the board. Some courses are self-paced, some have specific enrollment periods, and others may have courses that are only available during specific times of year on the quarter or semester schedule. Make sure you investigate the options available at the schools on your list — especially if a flexible curriculum is important to you.

Evaluating Grad School Options

Growth in the industry and advancements in technology have elevated the quality of online graduate programs to the same levels as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Yet rigorous research is still critical for students who want to find a program with high standards, flexibility and overall value. Industry perception is important, and costs and interest rates should be weighed against the overall investment.

The best way for students to select an online school is to carefully consider the requirements of each degree program and individual preferences . Comprehensive research, tough questions and a range of information sources will help you find the best program for your preferences and needs.

Financial Aid Resources for Online Grad Students

The cost of higher education shouldn’t hold back any true student from earning an advanced degree. A range of financial aid sources are available to today’s students, and many are viable options for both online and campus-based institutions.

Federal Loans and Private Loans

Federal aid comes in many forms with many different interest rates, deferment and repayment options. Here is a quick overview:

  • The Direct Subsidized Loans have the best terms, since the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest while students are in school, for the first six months after graduation and during periods of deferment. Plus the interest rate is only 3.4%.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available for students who don’t qualify on the need-basis for the subsidized loans. The unsubsidized interest rate is 6.8%, and it does accrue interest while students are in school, in deferment or in a grace period. Interest is capitalized and added to the principal of the loan.
  • Grad PLUS loans are paid through the U.S. Department of Education for graduate or professional degree students. They have the highest interest rate of the federal loans at 7.9 percent, but they can make up the cost of attendance for anything that other financial aid isn’t able to cover.
  • Students with “exceptional” financial needs may qualify for a Federal Perkins Loan. The Perkins loans are distributed through individual universities rather than the federal government, and the interest rate is 5 percent. Students also have a nine-month grace period after finishing school before payments are collected.
  • Federal work-study is another great options for students who qualify — students with demonstrated financial need are eligible for part-time employment to help finance the costs of their education. Students are paid an hourly rate of no less than the federal minimum wage, but wages vary depending on position and university.
  • State Sponsored Aid is also an option. Individual states provide a range of grants, scholarships, and other financial aid options. Monies come from a range of sources including federally-supported state programs, community-based organizations and grants.

Beyond federal options, there are virtually thousands of private loan sources to choose from. As a general rule, students should pursue a private loan only after if they’ve already maxed out the federal options; federal options generally allow students to graduate with less debt through lower interest rates, grants and work study options.

More and more students, however, have turned to the private loan industry with private student loan volume growing far more rapidly than federal student loans through 2008. Thorough research is necessary since terms and interest rates vary depending on the lender; we’re talking a range from 2.5 percent to 10 percent. Many require a minimum payment while students are in school, and offer deferment or grace periods upon graduation. This site provides information about the annual and cumulative loan limits, interest rates, fees, and loan term for the most popular private student loan programs.

Other Federal Programs

There are many other federally-supported programs beyond the typical grants, loans and scholarships. Here is an overview of some potential options:

  • Military families have a variety of resources offered by nonprofit organizations and the federal government. Money and resources are available for veterans, future military personnel, active duty personnel as well as the family of veterans or active duty personnel.
  • There are several tax benefits for attending higher education. The American Opportunity Credit is often available to students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, but the Lifetime Learning Credit allows any student to claim up to $2,000 per year for college or career tuition and fees, as well as books, supplies, and equipment.
  • Several volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps, and other service-oriented aid provide education scholarships, aid and incentives. The Peace Corps, for example, allows students to combine their master’s degree and volunteer service to pursue fellowships, tuition waivers and grants. Some agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, offer tuition repayment programs. For example, the Indian Health Service awards up to $20,000 per year for the repayment of qualified student loans for professionals who agree to practice full-time in predetermined locations. The National Institutes of Health offers a similar program for researchers and scientists. The NIH Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) allow students to pursue research careers by repaying up to $35,000 of their qualified student loan debt each year.

Scholarships and Grants

Free money is arguably the best way to finance online degree programs, so be sure to explore all the different grants and scholarships available to U.S. students. They can vary by provider, amount, and eligible recipients, but they don’t need to be repaid. Many institutions have a pool of scholarship funds that they provide for enrolled students based on both need and merit. In addition, there are thousands of scholarships from government agencies, alumni networks, non-profit organizations and businesses. The criteria ranges widely, but some are based on specialized programs, merit, leadership potential or minority status.

A great place to start investigating is the FastWeb scholarship search since it has a large, searchable database. This guide has great information on how to organize the scholarship search.

Continuing Education

Some students can capitalize on their currents jobs or internships by getting their employer to help pay for their degree. Many companies see financing an employee’s education as an investment in their workforce, which pays off in the long run. A vast majority of these opportunities involve business and technology degrees.

Employees can negotiate this deal by proving their worth to the company. This might mean demonstrating ways you have cut expenses, boosted sales or improved employee morale. Check your handbook to see if a formal education reimbursement is among the benefits your company offers, and approach your boss as if you are asking for a raise. Your approach should include a well thought-out argument that clearly lays out how a your education will benefit the company. Be sure to include a statement about how enrolling in one of many online degree programs allows you to continue to work while furthering your education.

Don’t let all the options overwhelm you — financing your online education is possible with some thorough research. Applying to all your financial aid options will mean less debt to repay later on, and remember, excellent advice is always available through financial aid offices.