6 Rules for Choosing Online Colleges & Universities

Major advances in technology in the last 10 years mean that more online degree programs are available than ever before. Today there is a very crowded online education market vying for students’ education dollars.

How to tell the best online colleges and universities from the rest? We recommend that you read and follow the below rules and guidelines so you can choose the best online education for your future.

Rule #1: Accreditation

Accreditation is similar to a seal of approval from a respected educational body. Accreditation tells the student that an online college or university meets a certain level of academic standards. More importantly, it also informs your potential employers that you have the education and skills to be a good hire.

Most online colleges and universities make it clear on their website what their accreditations are. Look for an accreditation tab or link on the college or university website.

Look for accreditation first from the major regional accreditation bodies recognized by the Department of Education:

  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Accreditation Commission
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Regional accreditation by one of these agencies tells you that the online university itself has met sufficient education quality standards to earn that critical seal of approval.

Next, experts advise that you check if the individual program you are considering has been accredited by a specialized accreditation body.

For example, the most well known and respected accreditation body in business education is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB. In social work, the accreditation body to look for is the Council on Social Work Education or CSWE. In nursing, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or CCNE is the most important program accreditation agency.

Ensuring that your university and program have been properly accredited is a great start to getting an excellent online education.

Rule #2: Transferring Credits

Many students who attend an online university or college may have credits from a previous program to transfer. Students should do the legwork to ensure that the credits they earned in the past can be transferred to the college, if it is in a related or the same field.

You also need to check if credits you earn at the college you are considering can transfer elsewhere.

For example, Southern New Hampshire University allows students to transfer up to 90 credits of earlier coursework for its programs. Your credits will need to be reviewed by the admissions department to determine if they are eligible for credit.

Any reputable online university should have a very clear credit transfer policy – both for transferring credits into their school, and transferring credits earned there to other schools. If you cannot transfer credits, you should probably find another online university to attend.

Rule #3: Curriculum Content

Next, review the curriculum that is covered in the online program you are considering. It should cover courses and materials that are critical for working in the field you want.

For example, the online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program from Chamberlain University is CCNE-accredited. Its curriculum follows standards and practices for nursing education per that respected nursing accreditation body. That accreditation also ensures that students who complete the program will have learned the necessary skills and knowledge to sit for the national nursing certification examination.

Required courses in this program provide students with the skills needed to thrive as an RN in a clinical setting. Covered material includes health assessment, evidenced based practice, collaborative healthcare, statistics, and information systems in healthcare.

Rule #4: Strong Online Support

Just because you are earning your degree in the comfort of your home does not mean you do not need academic and administrative support. In fact, you will probably need more help from the online university than an on-campus student.

It is important to check what the level of online student support will be at the university. Who is going to be available by phone, email and chat if you need help from day one with financing, academics or something else?

When you are getting close to graduating, what will be the level of career services offered? How much will the university help you to turn your education into a paid job?

As you are asking questions of the online university, take note if you are not getting easy, straight answers. That policy will likely continue once you are a student. So perhaps it would be best to consider another college.

Fortunately, it is easy to evaluate the level of student support available with many online universities today. US News and World Report provides an annual list of best colleges and programs. It also has a list of top-rated online universities.

One of the top-ranked online bachelor’s universities is the University of Oklahoma, with a #3 ranking for 2017. It also has a student services and technology score of 97 out of 100. This indicates that there is a very high level of academic, financial and technical support available for online students.

Rule #5: Professor Engagement

It is very important for online students to have professors who are well trained in delivering online education. It also is critical that professors are easy to contact; if you are 500 miles from the campus and cannot reach a professor for three days by telephone or email, this could be a big problem.

Many quality online universities have excellent professor and instructor engagement today.

For 2017, a top ranked online school by US News and World Report is Temple University, based in Philadelphia. US News has this accredited university ranked at an impressive #2 for best online bachelor’s programs, with an overall score of 95 out of 100.

US News goes further, though. It also ranks Temple very highly for its ‘student engagement.’ Student engagement rates how high student satisfaction is with the program and how responsive professors are. Temple ranks 89 out of 100, so online students know that professors are engaged with them.

Rule #6: Vital Statistics

All universities including online should have published statistics about their graduation rates within a reasonable period of time, such as four or five years.

The online university also should have information available that reveals the level of student loan default rates. If the school has a high number of graduates defaulting on loans, this suggests graduates cannot find a job with a high enough salary to service their loan debt. Also, low employment rates one year after graduation could raise a red flag about education quality, as well as the level of career support.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania has a top-rated online university called Penn World Campus. Both it and the Penn State campus in Pennsylvania have a very high four year graduation rate for undergrads of 87%, according to US News.

Freshman retention ratio is also very important. A high number of freshmen coming back for sophomore year shows that student like what they are experiencing. Villanova has a strong online university; its current freshman retention rate according to its website is an outstanding 95%.


Choosing an online university for your education is an incredibly important decision. There are hundreds of schools to choose from in many subjects. You can make a wise choice by carefully following the rules listed above.

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