Evaluating online degrees

We’ve addressed issues surrounding for-profit college scams in the past. There’s also the issue of rising college costs in general, and also the opportunities for self-education for free.

Here’s an excellent article that gives great advice on how to evaluate online courses and degrees. It’s important to use objective resources and guides.

You don’t mention whether you’ve already tried Googling, say, “online degree programs,” but, if so, you’ve no doubt been bombarded with advertising from for-profit schools. The University of Phoenix alone spends over $200 million a year on television and Internet pitches, according to an estimate from Madison Avenue trade paper Ad Age. Nothing wrong with advertising, of course, but in some respects it does make the process of choosing the right online school more difficult.

Here’s why: more than 7,000 U.S. colleges and universities now offer long-distance degree programs — and about 85% of those are traditional brick-and-mortar schools that have expanded into cyberspace over the past few years. Yet traditional colleges don’t have the marketing budgets that the huge for-profit schools have. So unless you actively seek out brick-and-mortar schools’ online offerings, you may never know they exist.

“Prospective students should be wary of Internet ‘guides’ to online education that get paid to promote for-profit schools,” says Vicky Phillips. “It’s called pay-per-lead advertising, and it means the ‘guide’ gets X dollars for each person it steers to a for-profit university.” Traditional colleges don’t have such deep pockets, so thousands of them are unlikely to turn up in such directories at all.

“Not only that, but the for-profit schools have tens of thousands of students, while the online bachelor’s-in-business program at a traditional university can only accept, say, 30 at a time,” she adds. “So even if traditional colleges could afford to pay for online leads, it wouldn’t make sense for them to do so. They’re operating on an entirely different scale.”

Phillips has been researching and comparing online degree programs for 20 years, which is about as long as they’ve existed. She runs a consumer-information web site called GetEducated.com that you might want to check out. The site includes a comparison tool that lets you evaluate and rank schools using 12 different filters. These include type of specialization in your major (business with a minor in finance, for instance); non-profit versus for-profit; secular versus religious (many Christian colleges now offer long-distance learning); and whether the school’s programs are 100% online or “hybrids,” meaning you’ll have to show up in person several times per semester.

There are tons of great options for online education, both free and those that require payments. You just have to do your research and find the solution that’s best for you. Just be careful of any program where you will end up with loads of college debt.

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