Going to college means making a lot of decisions. Once you’ve decided to pursue higher education, you are faced with choosing a school and program, as well as financial options. It’s critical to know what to expect from the experience in terms of academic work and career preparation.
No matter which college you choose, there will be both benefits and challenges to your time as a student. Asking questions early in the process will help you make the best decisions possible based on your goals and interests.
What You Need to Know
The latest Learning House survey of online college students asked participants to weigh in on which questions they asked admissions advisors before enrolling in their online programs. The five basic questions used in the survey can help you set realistic expectations for online learning:
1. How much will it cost?
The rising cost of a college education, and the uncertain return on this kind of investment, is not news. But there are steps you can take to be more informed about these issues. The College Board recommends comparing what’s known as “sticker price” (i.e., the advertised tuition rate) with “net price” (i.e., the cost out-of-pocket: sticker price minus financial assistance). Check the net price calculators provided on college websites for estimated costs at each of the institutions you are interested in attending.
Paying tuition is part of going to school, and the sooner you have a handle on what to expect the better you;ll be able to plan. Don’t forget to factor in costs other than tuition, such as textbooks and technology, when calculating your overall expenses. Funding is not an area in which you want to be caught off guard.
2. How long will it take to complete the program?
Your new program will have a beginning and an end, but when can you expect to graduate? Research the number of courses you’ll need to take, and think about how many classes you plan to (or are allowed to) take in any one semester or term. There may also be a specific sequence in which you can enroll in each course, and different times or dates when the courses are offered.
Formal degree plans outline the curriculum you’ll take in any program, and you can sometimes find sample plans online. These often present an ideal scenario in which you don’t take breaks between courses. Life happens, however, so view advertised timelines with flexibility in mind should the need arise adjust the plan at some point after you get started.
3. How much financial aid will I get?
Financial assistance amounts varies by student and can include combinations of funding sources such as grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. You may also be prepared to pay for some of the costs on your own, or to take out student loans that must be repaid with interest. A financial aid advisor can help you estimate the assistance you will receive, determine your eligibility for different programs, and identify all of the options available.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a starting point for many institutions working with students to develop financial plans and education budgets. The FAFSA4caster tool assists you with an estimate online. Your decisions about the different types of aid you will ultimately accept should include careful consideration of debt and a clear understanding of the terms for repayment after you graduate.
4. How much time will I spend studying each week?
A general estimate for study time is 2 to 3 hours, per academic credit. So, if you are enrolled in two four-credit courses, for example, you should plan at least 16 hours for class work each week. Northern Virginia Community College offers this advice for adjusting your estimate based on the length of the academic term: “In general, the shorter the class length (6-, 8-, 12-, or 16 week), the more hours of study time you can expect to spend per week, per credit.”
Study time for on-campus and online learning is similar, keeping in mind that each course will have different requirements and some will be more time-intensive than others. You also need to factor in your own study skills and habits. If you are like many online students, participating in course work around busy work schedules and family commitments, finding the time required for online learning is critical to preparing yourself for success.
5. How much transfer credit is allowed?
The Learning House study found that “about 80% of undergraduate students report[ed] having credits to transfer with the typical number being in the range of 30-60 credits.” When you apply to a school and submit credit for transfer, your transcripts are evaluated to see which earned credits might “count” toward a new degree program. Each online program has it’s own policies about transfer credit. Ask for general information about the process and limits (i.e., maximum number of transfer credits allowed). It is also helpful to request more specific information about how your accepted transfer credit will apply toward program requirements before registering for classes.
The five questions presented above can help you with your college decisions, but what else do you want to know before you get started? There are a few additional items you might want to address.
6. What are the technology requirements?
Do you have your own computer? What about the software you will need to complete course assignments? Don’t forget about Internet access. These costs begin to add up quickly, so you need to be aware of them when estimating expenses and planning your student budget. Ask for guidance related to student technology requirements at the school and program level. You’ll need time to not only make the necessary purchases, but also set everything up well in advance of your first day of online classes.
7. What is the average class size?
Smaller classes (i.e., 10-15 students) are generally preferred. With fewer students, instructors have more time to connect with and respond to each member of the class. There are also strategies (e.g., group assignments, teaching assistants and coaches) in which very large classes (i.e., 50 or more students) increase your access to the instructor. Find out more about typical class size at the institutions you are considering, to help you prepare for the experience of learning in an online classroom.
8. How can I get help with ___________ (e.g., tutoring, employment, research)?
You may have more than one question of this type to ask based on your priorities and concerns. Support services are in place to assist you with academic and non-academic issues while you are an online student, but you’ll have to take the first step to connect with these resources. What are you most worried about before starting an online program? It might be writing that first research paper, succeeding in a required math class, finding a job after graduation, signing in to the course materials, or other concern. Go ahead and get these conversations started before you enroll to find out where you can expect support after you begin your course work.
Do Your Research
After you identify the information you need to make online college decisions, the next step is finding the right sources. Some answers come from careful research and reading – a lot of information is available online. But it’s a good idea to cross check what you find, and directly contact someone at each institution you are considering, to find out more. This may mean talking with multiple people who have different roles at each school, but Admissions Offices are a good place to start.
Online education can help you reach specific goals, such as career advancement, professional development, personal fulfillment, and lifelong learning. Expand your research to include academic advisors, librarians, career counselors, employers, and alumni. The more you know about a program, the more realistic your expectations will be. What are your questions about attending an online program? Share your concerns, and ideas for gaining more insight, with us here.
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog