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Getting Your Online Education Started

With rapid improvements in technology and the convenience of remote access growing more appealing to many students, online school is quickly becoming the new standard of education. While in the past online courses may have seemed limited or less-than when compared to in-person options, distance learning has made great strides and is now regarded as equal in quality. Despite these changes, online school is still a new concept for many and getting started can feel complicated. To make things easier on you, we've created this simple guide to the first steps you'll need to take to successfully enroll in online college.

Key Considerations for Choosing the Right Online School

When it comes to getting a degree, picking the right school can really make your entire experience. As soon as you start researching different schools, we recommend checking whether the ones you're looking at are accredited or not -- accredited schools have been evaluated by qualified organizations for the quality of education they offer. It's important to attend accredited schools, as only these schools are eligible for most professional and financial aid opportunities.

Once you've ensured that all of the schools you're considering are accredited, things get more nuanced, as the quality of each school really comes down to your own preferences. There are several factors to research when choosing your college, such as cost, program offerings, and current student satisfaction rates, and what will matter the most to you depends on your unique education needs. To get you started, here are some factors to look into:

1. Programs Offered

For many, one of the first considerations is whether the school in question has a program that is personally appealing. Perhaps you already have a major or a career goal in mind, or maybe you're still unsure. In either case, checking a list of all of the programs each school you're looking at offers is a good place to start -- that way you'll see if anything piques your interest, whether expected or unexpected. If you do find programs you want to know more about, we suggest researching further and checking what courses are required for the major, as well as what careers such a degree could lead to. From there, compare each school on your short-list and figure out which ones you can envision yourself succeeding in.

If you're truly unsure about what field you'd like to study, look to the future: do you want a job that pays more? That suits your personality and hobbies? That allows you to directly help others? While you can't predict what you'll want later in life, just having an idea of your priorities is a great jumping-off point for choosing a major. It's also important to keep in mind that getting a specific degree won't necessarily pin you to a specific line of work for the rest of your life. Remember: there are people in almost every career that hold a seemingly irrelevant degree for their field.

2. Course Styles

While online colleges of course offer their courses online, there are still distinctive course styles that vary between programs. Here are the three main course structures offered by online colleges:

  • Synchronous: Synchronous courses take place in real time. Classes are on a set schedule, and students will need to attend classes on time each week. Schoolwork will need to be completed by clear due dates as well, and students will learn and study at the pace set by the professor. This works out well for students in need of stricter structure.
  • Asynchronous: Asynchronous courses are at least somewhat self-paced, allowing students to watch pre-recorded lectures and turn in work within a set window of time -- exactly how open this timeframe is will depend on the individual course, with some being more self-paced than others. This is a great option for anyone needing a particularly flexible learning environment.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid courses include a mix of online and in-person classes, meaning they will require you to live near or be able to easily travel to your college's campus. This works well for students who want to experience both online and classroom-based schooling.

All these course structures offer notable flexibility not typically available with fully in-person classes, and which will best work for you depends on your education goals and needs. Always keep your learning style and your schedule in mind when enrolling.

3. Cost and Financial Aid

Cost is a huge consideration when it comes to picking a school. In our experience, most online programs are fairly affordable, and most offer financial aid options to qualifying students. Once you've created a list of schools that have programs you are interested in, check tuition costs and try to research what kind of financial aid you may be eligible for at each school. Most aid opportunities fall under the following categories:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Student Loans (Federal or Private)

Scholarships, which can be need or merit-based, cover costs up to a stated amount and do not need to be paid back. They can be earned from a wide variety of private organizations, which typically require potential recipients to apply directly. In many cases, schools offer their own scholarships, which they may not require separate applications for. Usually funded by the government, grants also don't need to be paid back and typically based on income. When it comes to borrowing money, there are federal and public loans, each with their own terms attached -- we suggest researching the loan process ahead of time before committing, to ensure you're borrowing under the best terms you can.

In order to qualify for the most aid possible, you'll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will be used to determine your federal aid eligibility. Alternatively, for certain private colleges, you may need to complete a College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Many private schools use this form to determine eligibility for their non-government aid.

4. Added Student Services

Now that you've narrowed down your options, it's time to look at what extra amenities each school offers. While online colleges may not have services such as on-campus meal plans or events, they do manage to provide helpful opportunities to students. Common benefits include student/alumni discounts, professional career help, 24/7 tutoring, counseling services, or access to guest speaker events, to name just a few. These amenities may seem small on paper, but they can make all the difference in your school life and in your career. Look into the student services that each college offers to get an idea of what you want out of your education.

What You'll Need and What to Expect

Once you've been accepted into your chosen program, you'll need to make sure you have the right setup to succeed. Online classes require a laptop or computer that you have regular access to, as well as a reliable internet connection -- if either of these is a problem for you, know that some colleges and organizations have programs to help students in need of at-home computer access. If possible, try to study from a room that stays reasonably quiet so you can get the most out of your classes. Although most online courses are flexible, you'll need to block out enough time in your schedule to accommodate both lectures and schoolwork.

While online college is generally very convenient and easy to adapt into your current schedule, taking on school will mean less free time and more of a need to stay organized. If you find that your coursework is overwhelming or taking up too much time, consider opting for a part-time program. While part-time programs take longer to complete, they are a great option for anyone with a particularly busy everyday life.

Although college does take time and effort, once you complete your degree you will be able to reap multiple benefits, whether that's a new career, a promotion, higher wages, or the satisfaction of mastering a subject. Getting started might feel like the hardest part, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. By taking some time to list out your expectations and do your research on multiple schools and programs, you can be on your way to your new degree and new life in no time.

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