In the past, conventional wisdom held that if a college didn’t have a national reputation, large lecture halls, and huge sports arenas, the education provided wouldn’t be very good. Those days are over.
Students in the 21st century now realize that the 20th century ideal for higher education just doesn’t cut it. Expensive and inflexible, a traditional on-campus experience can be costly and inconvenient for archetypical college students (aged 18-22) and simply impossible for anyone else. For this and other reasons, virtual education has become very popular; in fact, by 2010, three of the top five colleges by enrollment were the online schools University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Ashford University.
In addition to convenience and affordability, today’s top online colleges provide an education that’s on par with the offerings at brick-and-mortar schools. Read on to learn why you should consider earning your degree from an online university — even if you don’t recognize the school’s name.
Investing in an Online Degree
Old attitudes about online degrees have changed dramatically in recent years. According to a 2012 report, students who took online courses passed their classes and performed just as well on final exams and standardized tests as their on-campus peers.
This research demonstrates what many academics have known for years: students in online schools can achieve just as much as those in brick-and-mortar schools. Consider the following:
Though retention rates for online programs are generally lower for online academic programs than traditional ones, many colleges are working hard to turn the tide — and succeeding. As reported by Education Selector, an independent think tank, many online programs are seeing more and more students successfully complete their courses. For example, at the University of West Georgia, the retention rate for online students in 2012 was an impressive 92% – a percentage point higher than brick-and-mortar students attending the same institution.
It’s also easy to forget that graduation rates are influenced by acceptance rates. For example, the University of Pennsylvania’s top-rated accounting program had a 96% graduation rate, in large part because it only accepts 12.4% of all applicants. Remember this when evaluating different programs. After all, what does it matter if Harvard University has a 97% six-year graduation rate if you can’t get in (for fall 2011, it had a 6.3% acceptance rate)?
Compare this with a program like Penn State World Campus. The online arm of this well-respected institution has one of the best acceptance-graduation rate relationships. With an acceptance rate of 52.4%, Penn State had a 2010 graduation rate of 85.3%, only 13% less than exclusive Harvard. Not too shabby.
In today’s tough economy, you want to be sure your degree will lead to a good job. So it’s important a program teaches the skills employers want and helps graduates connect with companies and organizations willing to hire them.
The conventional wisdom about online education is quickly being overturned. A growing number of polls and testimonials reveal that employers are quickly warming to degrees earned over the Internet. A recent survey by Excelsior College and Zogby International found 83% of CEOs and small business owners believe an online degree is just as credible as one earned through a campus-based program. And according to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, students who opt for online schools have little trouble finding jobs.
In some cases, online and for-profit institutions are showing themselves to be more adaptable than their traditional counterparts. As explained in this recent TIME magazine article, several colleges are partnering with large corporations to develop curricula tailored specifically to training graduates with the skills that companies critically need.
Trusting Your Online Degree
We’ve shown how an online degree earned from a quality school can be a good investment. The trick to finding a top virtual school is to do a little research and not be afraid to think out of the box.
Accreditation proves that a college or program meets the highest standards for academic quality and responsibility. Metrics like graduation, placement, and retention rates are all considered, but so are student-to-faculty ratios, diversity, and the institution’s fiscal responsibility. National and regional agencies provide accreditation to entire universities as well as individual programs.
Sometimes, specialized accrediting agencies are asked to approve particular programs. Examples of these include the American Bar Association (ABA) for law schools and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) for nursing colleges.
Be sure your online college is accredited before enrolling. This is critical, so don’t forget to check.
Caliber of Degree
Even if nobody in your social circle has heard of a particular school, it may be recognized in the professional field you’re hoping to enter.
Consider Harvey Mudd College and its computer science program. It’s likely you’ve never heard of it, yet Mudd is routinely included in top 10 lists for computer science schools in the country. In fact, Mudd’s students recently defeated teams from Penn State, Purdue, and Georgia Tech in the Windward Code War competition; more importantly, its graduates find great jobs at places like Twitter and Google, or go on to pursue Ph.D. credentials at top schools like MIT and U.C. Berkeley.
So be sure to ask an admissions counselor at your prospective school about the their reputation among employers in your field of study.
Quality and Affordability Sliding Scale
In their 2011 rankings, Forbes and the Center for College Affordability & Productivity (CCAP) used a set of criteria that included Rate My Professors scores, alumni salaries, graduation rates, and national awards. And guess who came out on top… Williams College, of course! Situated in the foothills of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Williams and its 2,000 undergraduates beat out Harvard and Princeton on the CCAP rankings. Other less prominent schools that ranked among the top 20 include Haverford and Swarthmore colleges, both in Pennsylvania, and Colby College in Maine.
What does this mean? It means you can’t trust some random ranking to be an accurate measure of a school’s ability to meet your academic needs. When you change the ranking criteria, the “top” schools change too. So do your own research and talk to admissions counselors about the factors that matter to you.
A college degree is an investment in your future. Clearly, if a school is accredited and provides a high quality education, who cares if it’s relatively unknown? Don’t be afraid to check out some of these obscure colleges; you just might find that one of them is tailored for your career success.