How to Choose an Online Graduate School

Guide to Choosing an Online Graduate School

Think back to the amount of time you put into choosing a college — that's just a fraction of the effort you'll have to put forth to choose an online master's or Ph.D. level degree program. For starters, with advanced degrees, the stakes (and costs) are often higher, not to mention that now you are older, you're more likely to have a job and family responsibilities to juggle along with your schooling. Throw online learning options into the mix, and there's a whole additional set of criteria that will affect your ultimate decision.

If you're wondering how to choose an online graduate school, start with this guide, which breaks down the biggest questions to ask yourself as you explore different programs. By thinking through each item carefully, you can narrow down your options and find the best match for your career goals, academic interests, lifestyle and budget.

What do you want to study?

Whether you're considering a career change or pursuing a way to advance in your current industry, do some research into the types of advanced degree programs and specializations that overachievers in your field of interest typically pursue.

Keep in mind that some emerging professions might not have an online advanced degree program associated with it, or there might only be a few in the nation, while others like an MBA, are more widely available.

Think about how niche you want to go and if that's to your benefit. On the other hand, you might rather embark on a more general advanced degree that can be adapted to a number of different career paths. More important, once you make that determination, do a search for your preferred degree to generate a list of schools that are offering it as an online program so you can start delving deeper.

Is the degree worth the paper it's printed on?

Whether you're seeking an online or a brick-and-mortar degree, it's important to be sure that the school you choose is accredited and that the program is the degree level you're seeking. Especially in the case of online schools, you want to be sure that you are choosing a reputable institution and not a diploma mill. If you're considering a school that is not a state university or well-known private college, you'll need to do some investigation.

To check a school's accreditation, start by seeing which accrediting bodies it lists on its website. Then, verify that those accreditors are recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education.

Regional accreditation is considered the highest standard, and it's done by one of six regional organizations. There are other recognized accrediting bodies, however, including the Distance Education & Training Council (DETC). Furthermore, specialized programs are often accredited by industry organizations. For example, the American Bar Association can accredit a law program, and so forth.

All in all, doing your due diligence will ensure that your degree will be recognized by future employers and that it meets licensing criteria if your end goal is a professional license.

What will be the cost of the degree program (and how will I pay for it)?

The cost of an advanced degree can be hefty, but it's important to consider the sticker price while factoring in financial aid opportunities. Oftentimes, students qualify for financial aid to help make their program of study more affordable. In addition, some programs award credit for prior learning, and some employers might offer tuition reimbursement.

Consider what the cost of a graduate education is likely to be, how you will finance it and how long it will take to get a return on your investment.

Where is the school located?

While you might think location doesn't matter for an online degree program, keep in mind that some schools do have in-person lab or residency requirements. If that's the case, make sure you are comfortable with getting to the campus location, or narrow down your school choices to ones that are nearby.

What is the structure of the program?

With graduate degrees, especially online ones, programs are designed to appeal to different learning styles and to accommodate a variety of schedules. Here are just a few of the alternative program types you may consider:

  • Self-paced online learning
    These programs allow students to complete coursework as fast or as slow as they'd like, within certain boundaries, as opposed to courses that have start and end dates.
  • Accelerated programs
    Some online graduate programs have a fast-paced, condensed schedule in order to allow students to complete their degree more quickly. These programs are a big time commitment and more intensive.
  • Part-time programs
    If you need a slower pace in which you can take a course or two at a time, you might choose the part-time route. While it's more laid back, you could potentially double the length of time it takes to complete the program.
  • Year-round classes
    Unlike the traditional college semester schedule, some online programs are given year round, providing students with more options for when their start date will be.

Can I handle the program requirements?

Not all online graduate degrees have the same level of intensity, and some institutions expect higher standards than others. When evaluating potential programs, be sure to look over the degree requirements to get a sense of what is involved, and make sure you're comfortable with them. Also, make sure that you meet their minimum admissions requirements before you apply.

Here are some more things to consider: Will you have to write a thesis? Is learning a foreign language part of the requirements? Is there a minimum undergraduate GPA requirement? Will you have to take a GMAT or GRE?

What's more is that with an online degree, you'll need to meet some technology requirements as well. That means not only making sure your computer is adequate, but brushing up on basic tech skills if necessary. For example, do you know how to upload and download files? Will you be required to use video conferencing technology? Have you ever used Skype or participated in a chat or forum? These are the sorts of things you may be doing regularly as an online student.

Will my old credits count?

If you have completed some coursework at another school, getting credit for it will give you a head start into your degree program and save you money. However, transfer credit policies vary greatly by school and by program, so you'll have to ask each prospective school on your list how your past schooling will be applied so there are no surprises.

Does the school cater to online students?

If you're leaning toward e-learning, it's important to choose a school that is just as supportive of its online students as it is for its campus-based ones. Find out what online student services are available, such as academic and financial advising, wellness counseling, career support, and digital library access.

What is the school's ranking?

While rankings should never be the sole factor to make you choose one online degree over another, they can help you get an apples-to-apples comparison of how similar schools stack up against each other. Take a look at our list of the best online graduate schools by degree type to see how they rank in terms of flexibility, cost and program prominence.

As you can see, choosing an online graduate school is a complex decision. If you start by assessing your own goals and preferences and do ample school research, you can find a program that matches your needs.


Regional Accreditation, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, http://www.chea.org/Directories/regional.asp

"Online Degree Programs: How to Tell the Good from the Bad," U.S. News & World Report, Kelsey Sheehy, November 9, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2012/11/09/online-degree-programs-how-to-tell-the-good-from-the-bad