Common Questions and Concerns about Online Degrees

The concept of earning a degree online -- also known as distance learning -- is relatively new. And while most people are rightfully skeptical about receiving their diploma from an Internet institution, the truth is that distance learning is actually a viable choice for many people. Remember, though, that there is a difference between a so-called degree mill -- a place that, for a fee, will print any degree you request -- and an actual accredited online college that requires reading, examinations, and written assignments.

Before you jump into an online program, make sure to consider the following common concerns:

Is an online degree the same as a traditional one?

Some online diplomas are viewed by employers and graduate programs as equal to those from traditional colleges. Some, though, will be considered greatly inferior.

There are physical, regionally accredited colleges that run online programs, and these tend to be the best choices. In fact, most will provide you with a degree identical to the ones earned though traditional means. Schools without physical campuses can work too, but make sure that it is accredited by the proper regional association. Beware 'diploma mills' that appear to be accredited, but are typically through bogus agencies. You should always consult the Council on Higher Education Accreditation to see if the accreditation association is recognized.

If the online school has proper recognition from one of the six regional accreditation agencies, the degree you earn will be accepted pretty much everywhere, including for employment and graduate programs, such as those in medicine, business, and law. Their programs have similar rigorous requirements to traditional universities, and are every bit as good as their physical peers. You can even transfer credits to another college if you later decide that distance learning is not for you.

Is it easier to get into an online college?

Just as the academic programs are neither harder nor easier than those of traditional universities, the acceptance requirements are neither more lenient nor more stringent. While not affected by the limitations of physical space, online colleges still limit enrollment so that their professors can still provide one-on-one attention to students. This means that admissions requirements are still in effect.

Acceptance to almost all distance learning programs will require that you submit a high school transcript, scores for the SAT or ACT, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay, just like traditional colleges. A program not requiring an application package similar to those used by physical universities should trigger a red flag that you might be looking at a diploma mill.

Is an online college cheaper or faster than a traditional one?

Just as physical colleges differ in price, so too do online schools. While some programs are less expensive online, others are equal or greater in price. Scholarships can help, just as they do for traditional universities, but online education can still be pricey. If money is a concern and you are trying to find a more financially accommodating distance learning program, remember to always double check its accreditation.

As far as time to graduation, you will probably not complete your studies substantially faster than you would at a traditional college. While online degree programs offer greater flexibility and thus the chance to speed up or slow your education as appropriate, do not expect that you can graduate in six months. If any online school promises a degree 'fast', you're probably dealing with a diploma mill.

What are the pros and cons of earning an online degree?

Pros: The flexibility of distance learning will make it easier to balance work or family lives with schooling, and may be a terrific choice for individuals with disabilities that make traditional college less accessible. You will earn a degree that is every bit as valuable and recognized as a traditional degree -- provided it comes from a properly accredited school, of course -- and potentially do it faster or more cheaply.

Cons: Distance learning is not for everyone, and may not be a good fit for typical graduating high school students. Online programs take away the social components of typical college education, and may harm learning due to lack of classroom discussion and personalized interaction. You also run the risk of being scammed by a phony diploma mill and ending up with a useless degree.

Is an online degree for me?

Distance learning is a good alternative for many people, but is not a perfect match for everyone. The independent nature of online college requires a self-motivated, organized, and committed individual who will not fall victim to procrastination. Young students who crave a more traditional 'college experience' may also feel unsatisfied by the isolation.

Also remember that you will be almost entirely self-taught in an online program. Interaction with professors and peers is minimal, and you should feel comfortable with extensive reading and the self-propelled nature of distance learning.

If you feel that earning an online degree may be the right choice for you, make sure to read my 7 tips about How to Spot a Diploma Mill.

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