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Getting Your College Degree Online - Where to Start

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Thinking of an online degree but don't know where to start? Use these tips to find the right program and resources and get your education on your terms.

Get Started on Your Online Degree in a Few Easy Steps

According to a recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group, there are more than 6.7 million students enrolled in online courses, a number they expect to increase in coming years. If you plan on joining the ranks of these students, but aren't sure where to begin, take heart. We've scoured the internet for resources to help you get started, organize your schedule, and make the most of your online learning time so that you can finally get that degree you've been dreaming of.

Decide on a Degree

The first obvious step in getting your online degree is deciding what to study. If your plan is to further your career, your course of study may have already been chosen for you. If not, Globe University offers some helpful suggestions for questions to ask:

  • Does this degree suit my future needs?
  • How long will I need to work until I can use this degree?
  • Can I expand on this degree?
  • Will this course make me more employable?
  • What is the job outlook for this profession?

These and other questions can help students decide what they want from a college degree. That way, when it's time to enroll, they can be confident they've made the right choice for their future.

The College Board also has a handy tool on their site to help prospective students choose the right career based on their personality. Students can browse programs by interest, combine their interests to see what comes up, and even learn how other students chose their degrees.

Set a Schedule

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Your timeline for completion is almost as important as choosing the degree itself. Consider your current schedule, evaluate the demands on your time, and decide how much of your day or week can realistically be devoted to coursework. Even when taking online classes without set meetings, students will need to budget for reading, study, homework, and labs.

Rasmussen College offers some tips to help college students balance work and life:

  • Build a Support System. Tell the people you count on what you're planning to do and enlist their help when needed.
  • Form Clear Objectives. Decide on the time you're willing to devote to your degree and stick with it.
  • Stay Focused. As you work toward your goal, you're bound to have bad days — don't let those define you as a student.
  • Be Flexible. One of the greatest benefits of online learning is that it's portable. Take advantage of that to listen to lectures in the car, work on homework on the train, and complete essays on your lunch hour.
  • Breathe. Online or in person, working on a degree can be stressful. Don't forget to take the time to rest now and again, or risk burn-out.

Once your schedule is set, you can choose the school or program that offers the classes and support you need in the time you have allotted.

Choose a Program

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While it would be nice to assume that a web search would magically produce the perfect accredited school, that's not likely. Searching for a degree program should be a thoughtful process, one that will take time. If you want a degree with some prestige attached, many big universities promote online programs now, such as those offered by Arizona State University. For budget-minded students, there are many accredited smaller institutions as well. These schools have the benefit of specializing in online learning, offering students a good experience at a significantly lower cost.

Sadly, there are many that will take your money and leave you with nothing more than a worthless piece of paper for your troubles. Before you hand over a dime, verify that any school you consider is accredited with the U.S. Department of Education. If the school checks out, and you like their program, you can use an online site such as TheBestSchools.org to see how it rates before signing on.

Once satisfied, you can then connect with a counselor to discuss the course's requirements and see how flexible the schedule is. While some schools offer classes only on a very strict schedule, others allow students to complete their courses on their own time. For busy working adults, this can mean the convenience and flexibility they need to get the work done.

Get Funding

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College is expensive — even smaller online courses can cost thousands of dollars. If your program is accredited, however, there are programs to help pay for it, including:

  • College-specific Financial Aid Programs
  • Employer-Sponsored College Programs
  • Local and National Scholarships
  • Student Loans
  • College Payment Programs
  • Government-Backed Financial Aid Programs

Many students make the mistake of believing that, just because they have a job, they won't qualify for help. That may not be true. According to the Center for Education Statistics, in the 2011-2012 school year alone, 71.4 percent of full-time college students received federal aid. If you're an adult with dependents making a middle-class or lower living, the chances are good you could qualify too.

Dive In

Research carefully and take advantage of online resources to help you plan your path. And, while it should be obvious, as Judith Levinton mentions in her post, make sure your computer is compatible with the software you'll need to view and interact with the course before you make the investment. If you're determined to get your degree, self-motivated, and are willing to do the hard work necessary to complete the program, an online degree can offer you the flexibility to succeed in spite of the busy life you lead.

By Patricia Willis
December 2016
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