Hundreds of online schools exist that provide a variety of degree and certification programs for individuals wanting to further their education in pursuit of a stable, well-paying career. While the majority of online schools are accredited and qualified to teach comprehensive instruction in many subjects, some online schools exhibit characteristics superior to other online schools in regards to facilitating and enhancing the online learning experience. Choosing the best online schools in which to enroll and eventually earn a degree is vital to a student desiring a comprehensive education and respected degree that promotes their ability to find long-term and lucrative employment.
Who Can Attend Online Schools?
Anyone who has a high school diploma, a computer, high-speed internet connection and the ability to spend at least one to two hours a day on assignments can attend an online school. For individuals who do not possess a high school diploma, many online schools offer classes designed to assist people in obtaining a diploma without needing to actually attend high school classes.
How Do You Enroll in an Online School?
Enrollment procedures differ slightly among online schools but several steps involved in registration process are basic to all schools. These steps include:
- Submitting copies of a high school diploma or GED to the school’s registration office via email
- Submitting copies of a photo I.D. and social security card
- Providing contact information such as physical address and phone number
- Some online schools may request that you take an entrance examination prior to signing up for classes to determine your education level
- Paying the registration fee (varies between $40 to $100)
- Applying for federal financial aid (FAFSA)
- Talking to a student counselor about your field of study, what degree you wish to earn and addressing any questions you have regarding the online school experience
- Attend an online orientation class (only for new stuAdents) that provides instruction regarding how to log into your classes and using any software unique to that school’s online programs
For graduate students enrolling in master or Ph.D programs, the enrollment process involves submission of additional documentation, such as:
- Prior transcript records of undergraduate classes
- Letters of recommendation from professors who have worked with you in class or research projects
- A mission or goal statement delineating your aspirations regarding your field of study
- Examination results from one of several pre-graduate program assessments (online school graduate programs differ when it comes to this testing process)
- Financial aid information
- Some online schools may request a resume or CV from potential graduate students
The Financial Aid Process
The U.S. Department of Education provides financial aid for students who exhibit financial need in order to attend a higher learning institution. All students will need to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), obtain a PIN number and email the form to the FAFSA office. Once the form is received, representatives will assess the information provided by the student and determine whether the student is eligible to receive a Pell Grant. This information is then relayed to the school in which the student plans to enroll. If a Pell Grant is granted, the school will receive disbursement of the grant and apply it to the amount of tuition a student owes. Any excess financial aid is then mailed to the student who can use this money to purchase textbooks and supplies.
Title IV Financial Aid Programs
Most students are eligible for one or more of the aid programs offered by the Department of Education. Pell Grants are the most utilized form of financial assistance which provides up to $5200 (as of 2012) for low and middle income students who are unable to pay for schooling. Pell Grants do not need repaid once the student has completed his or her degree program.
- Other grants available that do not need repaid include:
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants
- Afghanistan and Iraq Service Grant (for students who are not eligible for a Pell Grant but had a parent who died while in Afghanistan or Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attack)
- LEAP (Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership)
The government also offers federal student aid loans for graduate and undergraduate students presenting financial need. These loans are provided by money constituting the U.S. Treasury and must be paid back once the student completes his degree program. Direct loans are found under the terms unsubsidized and subsidized loans; Federal Perkins Loans; consolidation loans and PLUS loans intended for graduate students or parents of students who need additional financial assistance. Students have a grace period of six months following graduation before loan payments are expected to begin.
What If a Student is not Eligible for Financial Assistance?
Online schools offer payment plans for students who are ineligible for financial assistance due to their income levels exceeding federal assistance guidelines. However, students should be aware that everyone is eligible to apply for and receive unsubsidized federal loans. However, these loans do need repaid, unlike grants.
People who are ineligible to receive any kind of financial assistance includes those without a high school diploma or social security number and individuals who are not U.S. citizens. In addition, men over the age of 18 must be registered with the Selective Service (Selective Service Registration) prior to receiving education financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.
Disbursement of any excess financial aid to the student after is discussed with the school’s financial aid representative during the registration process. Students can receive this excess by check or by automatic deposit into their checking account.
What Happens After Enrollment is Completed?
After a student is accepted into an online school program and tuition payment provided by the Department of Education or payment plans are established, the student can then register for classes and purchase the necessary supplies and textbooks. All students speak to an adviser prior to enrolling who explains which classes and how many credits are required for the student to receive a certification, associate or bachelor’s degree in their chosen program.
Classes are selected by simply checking the those desired and submitting them to the school’s registration office. Each class will have a short description of its contents, the instructor’s expectations and what textbooks or supplies need to be purchased for completion of assignments. Some schools provide online textbooks for students of particular programs while others will mail the students their books via UPS or FedEx.
How to Online Courses Work?
Students need to log in each day to access assignments, quizzes, tests and any other documents uploaded by the instructor of the course. Depending on the field of study, some classes will entail several hours on the computer while others may require less than 30 minutes. For example, online math classes generally consist of a heavy load of practice problems provided by the instructor in addition to textbook assignments that need turn in at specified dates. Alternatively, an online photography course relies more on a student’s creativity and less on solving equations.
- Online classroom instruction is provided using a variety of methods, such as:
- Bulletin boards
- Web conferencing/tele-conferencing
- Streaming audio/video
- Pre-recorded lectures
- Chat boards
While many online schools allow students the flexibility of logging on at any time during the day, some programs require students enrolled in a certain class log in at the same time each day. Prior to enrolling in an online program, students should find out how a school expects students to log into classes in order to prevent issues with work or family schedules. When students fail to log in at assigned times, instructors will mark the student as “absent”, which could potentially affect the student’s final grade.
How Do I Contact My Instructor If I Encounter Problems?
Good online schools will provide students with the ability to contact instructors via email, chat or message board, who will return the student’s request for assistance in a timely manner. Some instructors may give students a contact phone number where they can be instantly reached in cases of extreme emergencies. Additionally, students are given the opportunity to interact with their classmates and obtain email addresses of other students in case they need to ask for clarification of an assignment.
What If I am Having Trouble Keeping Up with Assignments?
Just like traditional colleges and university, online schools want their students to succeed in receiving a diploma or degree. They have trained academic advisers available who are experienced in assisting students new to the online experience and the necessity to manage time wisely while enrolled in online courses. Students will also have access to free tutoring services for math, science and writing classes as well as any other difficulties encountered while taking an online school program. A student’s instructor will also help with problems arising due to comprehension and assignment issues.
What Makes an Online School Excellent and Reputable?
Students researching online schools in which they are interested in attending should follow these guidelines to ensure they have chosen an authentic and accredited online school:
Make sure that the school’s programs are regionally accredited and/or accredited by a national agency relevant to that program’s field of study. Being accredited indicates that the schools has passed a rigorous review process conducted by educational professionals who inspect the quality of a school’s curriculum, program requirements, instructor education level and administrative procedures. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation Database contains over 8000 non-degree granting and degree-granting higher learning institutions offering 20,000 programs recognized by the U.S.D.E. (United Stated Department of Education) and CHEA.
To earn a degree from an excellent online school, students will need to enroll in classes, submit assignments and perform the same tasks expected of students attending a traditional college. Never expect to receive a valid degree from an online school that purports to “give” you a diploma or degree in exchange for a lump sum of money. This kind of degree is worthless and will contribute nothing to your employment potential or expected attainment of a high school diploma or undergraduate degree.
The best online schools will have several contact phone numbers, a physical address, an excellent record with the Better Business Bureau (minimal or no complaints) and retention rates that indicate more than 2/3 of its students eventually graduate from one of their programs. In addition, most prestigious online schools have been in operation for at least ten years to 15 years and rank among the top 25 online learning schools.
Searching for information on the internet regarding the online school may also provide any additional news that helps the student decide whether this school is right for them. Never enroll in a school without talking to at least two different representatives, academic advisers or instructors that work for the school. Inquire about all aspects of the school and make sure you receive answers that are clear, concise and identical to what the school displays on their home page.
Successfully Completing an Online School Program
Key characteristics of students who are able to successfully receive a degree from an online school are:
- They remain self-disciplined and motivated
- They manage their time by adhering to a strict schedule and turning assignments early or on time
- They participate in online classroom discussions, ask questions and actively engage in critical thinking skills in regards to research paper writing
- They have an area at home conducive to studying—quiet, isolated and free of distractions
- They maintain an organized study environment by keep assignments is separate, marked folders and constantly updating an assignment ledger
- They are not afraid to ask for help from the instructor, from classmates or from their academic adviser when necessary.
Earning an online degree is no longer viewed as being substandard to earning a traditional degree at a physically-based university campus. Instead, employers now recognize that online schools are subjected to the same intensely rigorous educational standards to which all colleges and universities are subjected. As a result, individuals receiving online degrees from accredited schools are attaining higher levels of respect and obtaining advanced positions that were previously inaccessible to students completing an online program.