How to Compare Online Degree Programs
How to Compare Online Degree Programs
Andrey_Popov /

All students need to consider their majors and career paths when choosing a school. As an online student, you have other considerations as well. Identify your preferences, like whether you prefer a nonprofit or for-profit school and whether you prefer an online-only school or an extension school. Then, see how the schools on your short-list stack up.


So much about your dream program has to do with your preferences, but there is one thing that cannot be compromised in your search: Your college needs to be accredited. If a college is accredited, the degrees it confers are legitimate. Accreditation is also important to students who hope to access financial aid. Most grants, loans, and scholarships can only be used at accredited colleges. Additionally, if you want your credential to be viewed positively upon graduation and not hurt your chances of being hired for a job, it must come from an accredited school.

Unfortunately, there are some “schools” that are scams, and many of them prey on online students. They may even lie about being accredited. Luckily, avoiding these scams is as easy as searching for a school on the website for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which maintains a list of all accredited schools. If one of your prospective schools does not appear on this website, it is not accredited. Remove it from your list.

Accessibility (Physical or Virtual)

Students hoping to enroll in online degree programs have two choices when it comes to the types of schools that sponsor online degree programs:

  1. An all-online college is a school at which every program is an online degree program. There is no option to take traditional courses in a classroom. This means that you could very well enroll in an online degree program affiliated with a college that has administrative offices on the opposite coast.
  2. A brick-and-mortar university with an online extension school is your other option. These traditional colleges are developing new online-only degree programs to give their students more flexibility (and yet they may still be able to benefit from the physical campus as well). If you like the idea of attending study groups at coffee shops, meeting your academic advisor in person, or heading to your professor’s office hours, you’ll want to make sure that the campus is nearby.

Profit Structure

All accredited institutions of higher education, including online colleges, fall into one of two categories, and you will need to choose between them:

  1. Nonprofit schools are just as they sound: They reinvest a student’s tuition dollars back into the school. They tend to make costs for a student as low as possible while still maintaining the school’s academic standards.
  2. For-profit schools are private businesses whose investors are looking to make profits. Their tuition rates are often more expensive, and only a small portion of a student’s tuition dollars is reinvested into the school.

Make sure you choose deliberately. You can find out whether a school is not-for-profit or for-profit by checking its website, asking an admissions counselor, or reading more about nonprofit and for-profit schools.

Alumni Networks

When you finish your studies, what kind of springboard does your college set up for you? Are there newsletters, job databases, or career services? How successful have graduates been? Your college might maintain statistics about recent alumni (e.g., the percentage of a recent graduating class that obtained a job in their field within a year after graduating or the average salary of a recent graduate). You will also want to know if the school provides any career services or networking events for alumni. Investigate the offerings at every school on your list and compare. How do your schools stack up? Does one offer a lot of support while another offers zero?


Compare the cost per credit hour per class, per semester, and for the entire degree program at every college on your short list. Every school should make this information available to you (ask for last year’s figures as well so that you can predict tuition increases from year to year). Be sure that the figure includes all fees (e.g., application fees, technology fees, and/or materials) and factor in boarding costs if they would differ depending on the school you choose to attend. Keep this figure in mind when you’re deciding on your school, but do remember that the amount you pay out of pocket will depend on your financial aid package. If you receive financial aid in the forms of grants, scholarships, or loans, the difference between the costs of attendance at each of your schools may be negligible.

Course Resources

In every online degree program, you can open up your class platform on your computer, but are your materials also mobile- or tablet-friendly? Check in with each school. If a program answers affirmatively to that question, you can rest assured that it is committed to keeping up with evolving technology and developing the materials that best fit your lifestyle.

Ease of Credit Transferability

Students with transfer credits or students who are planning to transfer will want to make sure that their earned credits will be accepted by prospective or future institutions. It’s not uncommon for students to enroll in an online-only college so that they can knock out prerequisites or obtain their associate’s degrees before transferring to a brick-and-mortar college to finish their bachelor’s degrees. If you have never taken an online class before now or if there’s a possibility you will transfer schools later, you should do your homework. Check with your local public university to see if it would accept credits from the online colleges on your list. It’s better to know now before you earn credits that you’ll have to retake.

Similarly, if you have already accumulated credits from a different college, check with each of the schools on your list to see if it will accept those credits. You do not want to be stuck retaking a course (it would be a waste of time and money), so lean toward the programs that would accept your credits.


You won’t find an online degree program that’s been around for more than 25 years because the technology simply hadn’t developed, but be cautious of programs that are still in their infancy. There have been instances in which for-profit colleges went out of business before their students could finish their degrees. You’ll find the most security at a large online-only college or in an online degree program at a brick-and-mortar school.

School or Department Reputation

Most people assume that a school’s reputation is on par with its ranking. School rankings, however, are often subjective. News outlets take turns enumerating colleges in listicle form, so before you take any list too seriously, read about its methodology. Does it rank schools highly just because they have easy-to-use websites or a handful of famous alumni? Make sure the rankings are more substantial than that. They should consider financial aid, course offerings, and employment opportunities after graduation. Dig deeper; program rankings are often more important than school rankings, especially if you’re studying a trade. If you know which course of study you plan to pursue, look into schools that offer plenty of electives and support for that major. If the curriculum is underdeveloped in that area, give preference to a different school on your list.

Page last updated: 10/2018