By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Before you take online classes, do your homework
Online classes, certificates, and programs are all over the web today. If you are considering taking a class online, you need to be a smart shopper and a smart student. There are some things that you should consider first, before signing up. Don’t believe what you read or what any marketing materials tell you—do your own homework and think for yourself before signing up for anything you find on the internet. Remember, if it’s easy to get or easy to do, it probably isn’t that valuable in the real world. Here are some steps you can take to make sure that you are getting an education, not getting fleeced.
1. Know your goal
The first thing you should determine is what your objective is. Are you going to use this class or program to get credit at a high school or college? To find a new job? To get a promotion? To change careers altogether? The first thing that you need to know clearly before you spend any money on online learning, is what exactly you are hoping to gain.
2. Ask the people you are trying to impress if they will, in fact, be impressed
Once you know your goal for the schooling, then, before registering for any online coursework, go to that place where you hope to get credit or get hired or get a promotion. Ask the people in charge there if they will give you credit for a course or certificate or degree from the specific online program you are considering. If they do not recognize or esteem the place that you have chosen to do your coursework, then you should go elsewhere for your training. It doesn’t matter if you take a course and do any amount of work—if the powers that be don’t like the place you did the “work”, they will not give you credit and you will have wasted your time and money.
3. Check the name of the school
If the college or university offering your online course is a college or university that has dormitories and sports programs, and a traditional undergraduate program as well, then you are typically safe. The more well known the school is, the more doors your course or certificate or degree will open for you. Most state universities offer online courses these days, and you can always trust these big, established names. Even smaller liberal arts colleges may offer some online courses that could get you credit. For technical colleges, again, ask your intended employer if they will hire or promote you if you do a certain program. Your boss will know his or her own industry.
4. Check the accreditation of the program
If the program is not actually accredited in your industry (higher education, trades, tech, etc) then any money you spend it is meaningless. What is accreditation? Accreditation is when a school has an outside agency (usually a national agency) come in and evaluate their program to make sure the teaching and learning occurring there is up to the standard it should be. This is an expensive, time-consuming process that schools and colleges go through every few years. You need to be sure that your intended place of study is a real institution of higher learning, because there are many “programs” out there that are not accredited, or they are accredited by a company that no one respects, so the “accreditation” means nothing.
You can’t read the website and trust people who tell you they are accredited. You need to call the accreditation agency and ask if they are. And, make sure you are checking with the accreditation agency that is the authority in your field. Not just any accreditation agency will do.
For high school students, the authority you need to check with is the school registrar, who is in charge of issuing your final transcript and diploma. For college students, you need to check with the college registrar of the college you currently attend AND the college you intend to graduate from. For working people, you should check with the premier accreditation agency in your industry. When a program is accredited by the best agency in your industry, it is a program you can trust. Ask future intended employers which agency they respect. In most industries, there is one or maybe two.
5. Consider the cost
Just because you go to school “somewhere” does not mean that you will be a more attractive applicant or that you will make more money. You need to go to school at a place that your target university or boss respects, and then you still have to do well in that program. What will the class or certificate or program cost you? Can you get federal student aid to attend there? Will you future salary allow you to pay off the cost of this education? It should, in order for this to be a wise decision.
Is the school where you intend to study a for-profit “institution”? Then think hard before signing up or you could be wasting lots of money and time. Going back to school is a great goal, so make sure you are going to a real school so that when you graduate from your program you can get a job and be proud.
You can typically trust non-profit colleges and universities—just make sure it’s a reputable named place and that it is accredited by a state or government agency. Big state schools with televised sports teams are always safe bets; for a school to be that public, it has to be a real, legitimate school that you can trust. Community colleges are also totally fantastic options and they offer many online courses. These are state-run programs, so you know they are safe.
Question programs that you find online, and avoid any program that is based purely online. There is a huge risk that you will be drawn in by a “diploma mill”, and you could end up wasting your money entirely if the paper you get at the end is meaningless. Remember, the easier it is, the less it is worth. Some online diploma mills go so far as to call themselves by a name that is very similar to a well-known school—be careful!
Again, the more well-known the college or university or trade school, the safer you are. Sticking to colleges and universities that have actual, physical campuses is your best bet because these schools are respected in academia and in the working world. If you are surfing the net and click on an ad and you find a super easy, convenient, and cheap program for your schooling, then it probably isn’t worth as much in the end. In education, you really get what you pay for, so be a smart student and a smart shopper. Do your homework first before doing any online coursework.