Researching Accreditation and Financial Aid for Online Schools

When you’re looking for an online college or university there are many factors you can examine while making your decision, but one factor that is important across the board is the accreditation status of the school you choose. All legitimate institutions of higher education should be accredited. Attending an unaccredited college is not an option for anyone who wants a serious education.

The Higher Learning Commission is one of the main accrediting bodies in the U.S., and it has affiliate organizations in several regions of the country. Visiting a schools website, or even a quick Google search, can help you find out whether a particular school is accredited, and if so, by which organization. All reputable accrediting bodies are approved by the U.S. Secretary of Education, so, ostensibly, accredited schools have the governmental stamp of approval. You should still do further research though. Accreditation is important, but it isn’t everything. Listed below are a few other ways you can research your potential colleges to get a feel for their quality and reputation.

Rankings and Lists of “Best Colleges”

If you search for rankings online, you may discover that many rankings pertain to brick-and-mortar college experiences. Lists of colleges with the best frat parties or dormitories won’t affect online students at all. However, there are some rankings that apply to online schools as well, though, and if you want to see how your choice of university stacks up against others, checking out a few trusted lists is one way to do it. One fairly well known set of college rankings, published annually, is the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges List Another resource to use while doing in-depth research and seeking solid information about individual universities is The U.S. Department of Education College Navigator. This government resource will give you unbiased data about schools, which you can use to form your own judgment.

What to Look for in Online School Rankings

Looking at someone else’s list of best colleges is one thing. But if you know what goes into those lists, you can make a much sounder judgment about whether a school is top caliber. Factors such as graduation rate, retention rate, and financial aid eligibility are often used as metrics of a college’s overall performance. Many schools also publish stats about how many of their graduates are employed within six months or a year of finishing school, as a way of demonstrating that the college prepares students for the job market.

Another piece of data to look for is the school’s student-professor ratio. Online learning is a solitary experience for some, so the more support you receive, the better your experience. A low student-teacher ratio may mean the instructor has more time to address the needs of individual students. Additionally, smaller classes also may mean that you can more easily form tight study groups and get the amount of peer support you want.

Student Reviews of Online Universities

One surefire way to get info about the student experience at a particular online university is to talk to some actual students. Seeking out graduates of the schools you apply to, and asking them how it was, and what they’ve done since finishing school, can give you a window into the online college experience that you won’t get from official rankings or lists. Interviewing professors from the college can give you a different angle on the school as well. The data you’ll gather by talking to actual people involved with the institution will be much richer than almost anything you’ll find online.

The Personal Factors

There are some factors about any given school that may be very meaningful to you as a student, but that won’t be incorporated into any official rankings. No matter how great a school seems, if its course schedules or admissions timeline don’t fit your needs, it may not be the right college for you. Other factors to consider are:

  • Pricing: Some colleges cost significantly more per-credit-hour. If you’re on a tight budget, choosing a low-cost school might not be negotiable.
  • Campus Visit Requirement: Many online colleges require you to make a visit to the campus at least once, at the beginning or end of your education, and if that’s not something you’re prepared to do, it’s best to figure that out before you apply.
  • Synchronous vs Asynchronous: Most online courses have both synchronous elements, where students and professors are signed on simultaneously and interacting in real time, and asynchronous elements, where participants contribute to class discussions and turn in assignments at their own convenience. Synchronous events offer less scheduling flexibility, so if you’re trying to fit college into an already packed schedule, choosing a degree program with mostly asynchronous course content is probably better for you.

Financial Aid Options at Top Online Universities

One factor that can heavily influence your choice of university, but that doesn’t depend entirely on the university itself, is the financial aid you can get. Finding and securing financial aid is an important step toward getting a degree. Some of the factors that can influence the amount of financial aid you get are as follows:

  • Your Income: The government tries to give financial aid to students who can demonstrate real financial need, so if you have a high income or net worth, you’re unlikely to get many grants, though you can still get low-interest, unsubsidized loans like the Perkins and Stafford.
  • Field of Study: There are far more scholarships available for students in high demand fields like nursing than in the humanities, such as English or sociology. Searching for vocation-specific scholarships can yield serious money if your degree leads into the right profession.
  • Your High School Grades: Most colleges offer merit-based scholarships for students who had high grade point averages or showed leadership potential in high school. If that sounds like you, definitely talk to the financial aid office at your college of choice about merit-based financial aid possibilities.
  • Your Community: Church congregations and other community organizations sometimes offer scholarships to members of the community, so if you have been participating in any such communities, ask the leaders what kind of financial aid opportunities might exist.

Wherever your financial aid comes from, you can take comfort in knowing that a college degree is one of the best investments available for your money. The graph below from The Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank, shows the relative rate of return on getting a degree versus other investments like stocks, bonds, and the housing market.

How to Find Reliable Information

Chances are, since you’re looking at online schools, you’re doing a lot of your research via the internet. It can be hard to sort out the relevant, useful, and trustworthy sources from the other stuff online, so here are a few tips for digging what you need out of the mountains of online info:

  • Where does the data come from?: If a source is presenting you with data about a college, such as its level of popularity, financial aid options, or quality of education, you need to know where that data comes from. Is the site up-front about their sources?
  • Is the data reproduced elsewhere?: Once you find a piece of information, see if you can find it printed on other sites. If you can find the same info on several sites that seem reputable, chances are it is trustable.
  • Get it from a person: Talking on the phone, or even just in a live chat with someone who has experience at the schools you’re looking at, can give you a much less filtered, more personal idea of what the school is like. Getting in touch with a current or former student at a particular school is one of the best ways you can judge whether the school will be a “fit” for you.

Finding a great online school to get your degree from doesn’t have to be a difficult ordeal. Using the tips above, and using a little time each day to further your college search, you can easily find the right school for yourself.

Where to Start

Even if you know the strategies for getting good information and finding an accredited school online, it can be hard to get started, and this site is here to help you! The links below all lead to accredited online universities with degree offerings in a variety of disciplines. You can read more about the schools, or contact them for more information. The schools are listed in order of popularity according to data we at have gathered ourselves, so we know it’s reliable. Happy researching!

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