If you’ve been thinking of going to college, and have been considering completing your degree by way of distance learning, then you have more to think about than just signing up for some Internet courses. Over 3,330 accredited colleges and universities now offer online classes that count toward a college degree. Some schools allow you to complete your degree online, while others offer a combination of online and on-campus classes. In any case, you want to make sure that you enroll in a program that’s right for you, so before you commit to any online education, consider these important steps first.

Verify the School’s Accreditation

Earning a degree is a lot of money and hard work, so BEFORE you start make sure your school is accredited with the U.S. Department of Education. Most schools list their accreditation somewhere on their websites. If you can’t find it, either call or e-mail the school directly (check the CONTACTS section of their website) or go to the Department of Education’s accreditation database of post secondary schools and search on the name of the school in which you’re interested.

Also consider the reputation of the school. Find out what the rate of hire is for those who graduate, as well as which of the school’s degree programs lead to the broadest career paths. Make sure that professional organizations recognize the school you’re considering (for example, the American Bar Association, if you’re studying law) and that other schools will take your credits (from that school) if you choose to transfer before you complete your degree.

Get Credit for Previous Work

And speaking of credit transfers, it works both ways. If you’ve already been to college but didn’t finish, and now you want to go back, consider schools that will take the college credit you’ve already earned. Not all of them do, so if you can find a school that will recognize at least some of the college work you’ve already completed, you’ll be able to graduate sooner.

It is worth noting, however, that college credits in technology have a very limited shelf life. Because technology changes so quickly, colleges and universities (online or otherwise) aren’t keen on the idea of giving credit for older classes. That means, for example, that the COBOL or FORTRAN class you had 20 years ago probably won’t fly today. However, English Lit (especially pertaining to the classics) usually stands the test of time. Just be realistic in terms of what you expect to carry forward from a previous college experience.

Focus on Your Major

If you know what you want to major in, find the best online school that offers exactly what you want. Don’t settle for something that comes close when there are so many schools from which to choose. For example, if you want a Business Administration degree with an emphasis in contracts management, then find an accredited school that offers that specific area of study.

On the other side of the same coin, if you’re not sure what you want in terms of a degree or a career, then find a school that allows you to pick a major with a broader scope. For example, bachelor degrees in Professional Studies or Liberal Arts are becoming more common, because it prepares students for a variety of careers and at the same time gives them a solid foundation if they choose to go on to graduate school.

Find Out Where Graduation is Held

This might seem minor, but you may decide that you do want to attend commencement after you’ve complete college, even though you didn’t think you would when you started. So when you choose an online school, be sure to find out where the graduation ceremonies take place. If all things are equal between two online colleges, you may want to select the one that is physically closer to you, so if you do decide to participate in graduation, you don’t have to travel as far.

Research Payment Plans

An online college education costs about the same per unit as a brick-and-mortar college education. The savings come in that you don’t have to physically commute, and you have more flexibility with your work schedule while you go to school. However, it’s still expensive, so it’s definitely worth checking into which online schools offer adaptable payment plans and financial aid. Beware, however, of schools that try to lock you into student loans. If you can, avoid students loans in favor of taking a lighter class load so you can work while going to school. Yes, it will take you longer to graduate, however, you’ll do so debt free!

Choosing a school for your online education should not be taken lightly. Next to your job, it’ll take up most of your waking hours, and since time is your only non-renewable resource, you don’t want to waste it.

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