Online Graduate Schools: What You Should Look For

Many graduate degrees can be obtained online these days, but you need to ask some questions before you pick a program. Things to consider include program accreditation and cost.

There are many schools that offer high-quality online or hybrid graduate programs. Prospective students should evaluate program quality, consider the curriculum and look at the cost before enrolling.

Overview of Programs

To complete a graduate-level program in the past, you might have had to quit your job, and in some circumstances you'd even need to relocate to the site of the college or university where you planned to study. Today, many schools offer graduate programs online. Prospective graduate students should consider several key factors when looking at online graduate schools.

Program Accreditation

Always look for accreditation - regional accreditation is fine in some cases, but some professional degree programs will require additional certification. If you plan to sit for the bar, you'll have to make sure your law degree is accredited by the ABA (American Bar Association). Likewise, a degree in library science will be more likely to land you a job if your program has received accreditation from the American Library Association (ALA).

On-Site Requirements

Some online programs require a certain amount of time spent on site at the college or university; this time can range from a few days per year to a number of weeks or months (usually during the summer). Distance learning students may also have to complete practicums or internships in some cases, which usually require a weekly part-time commitment at a real business, organization or educational facility. Examples of fields of study that often have on-site components include the following:

  • Counseling or psychology
  • Teacher education
  • Speech-language pathology
  • Medical or allied health
  • Biology and other sciences
  • Business administration

In particular, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs can rarely be completed entirely online. Some Ph.D. programs may have online coursework, but short residencies and hybrid classes are common. The completion of a dissertation and defense before a committee is a central component of programs at this level, so even fully online doctoral options would likely require campus visits to fulfill this requirement. Be sure you can commit to the time and travel involved before choosing such a program.

Program Cost

Depending on the school, online graduate programs may cost the same as on-campus programs, or the tuition may be charged at a different rate. At state schools, where on-campus programs typically charge out-of-state students more than in-state students, online tuition may not vary based on a student's location. It is important to find out the particulars for each school you are considering.

Some online graduate programs are also available in part-time formats or self-paced formats, which can enable working professionals to keep their jobs. Even programs that include live video lectures may offer them in the evenings or on weekends in order to accommodate working students' schedules. However, some online graduate programs do require full-time study, so prospective students need to closely examine the curriculum before enrolling.

If you find a program which is much cheaper than all other similar programs, though, beware - and check carefully into the cause of the lower price. Do they save on faculty salaries by having less-qualified instructors to do online teaching? Or is the program in some way subsidized by a grant, in which case the lower price might be entirely legitimate? Just do your homework before (as well as after) you enroll in a graduate degree program.

When considering online graduate schools, you need to consider a variety of factors in order to ensure that you will receive a high-quality education.


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