Are online colleges really that awful?
April 12, 2013 10:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking into going back to, but online colleges seem to have a bad reputation. Are there any GOOD ones out there?

I'm looking into going back to school i only went for one semester in '06 after i graduated high school. I do a lot better when i can go at my own pace and i'm not running a marathon to keep up with everyone else.

I have a job, and my hours are always different so i can't go to school at normal hours really. I can't really afford to take off or quit while i go to school, so i'm not going to do that.

I want to go back so i won't be living paycheck to paycheck and can possibly get out of working in a crumby job, etc...I'm not exactly sure what i'd want to do, but i've always been really into world history and graphic design.

Have any of you gone through college online? Are there any GOOD online colleges/universities you'd reccomend?
posted by earthquakeglue to Education (25 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

I also came to say Thomas Edison.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:41 PM on April 12, 2013

Western Governors University
posted by javelina at 10:43 PM on April 12, 2013

I've seen lots of online ads for Western Governors University and such, but no evidence that they provide credible, rigorous education that helps their graduates get jobs.

Unfortunately the honest answer to your question is, "No, there is no online university that will grant you a degree that hiring managers will view as a credible qualification".
posted by SakuraK at 11:59 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Distance learning isn't exactly new, and there are programs, often through established institutions, that "hiring managers will view as a credible qualification," some of them now have online components. It would probably help if you were more specific about what you were looking for.
posted by Good Brain at 12:22 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

It is entirely possible that your state university has an online option.
posted by k8t at 12:27 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

My suggestion is not to look for an online university, but rather a university that offers online degrees. The University of Wisconsin offers many degrees through online programs, as does Oregon State University, SUNY, California State University...

The difference is that those are established, known state schools, and when you get an online degree from them, it's identical to a degree earned on site. So when you're applying for jobs, you say, quite honestly, that you have a degree in [whatever] from [Whatever University]. No one's going to interrogate you as to how you got the degree.

Hundreds of schools have programs like this, mostly state schools and community colleges. Some of them have different requirements--you must take class [x] in person, or whatever, so you'll need to do your research, but there are many that will never require you to show up in person--and some even offer discounted tuition for people who do online-only classes. The amount of self-pacing will vary, but is definitely something that you can ask about.
posted by MeghanC at 12:27 AM on April 13, 2013 [49 favorites]

Harvard Extension School. Yes, THAT Harvard.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:37 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's a link from the Washington Monthly discussing Western Governors University.
posted by TorontoSandy at 4:04 AM on April 13, 2013

Athabasca University
posted by meringue at 4:35 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Many schools have programs for non-traditional students with really, really good financial aid benefits. Just because you're older, it doesn't mean you won't be able to get a full ride! When I went back, I decided to go full time because I want to be done before I'm 30. I started out at an in-state school because the tuition is so low, worked my ass off for a year to get a 3.9 GPA, and applied to UPenn's LPS program. The program has several hundred undergrads; some work full-time and take night classes, some are full-time students. Many people I know personally have at least their tuition covered, and in some cases also housing and food. I went back to school with bills to pay every month, and I've worked during some semesters to be able to keep up on those, but not all.

Do be careful about different programs though; I'm most familiar with the programs the Ivies have for returning students, and only at Yale, Brown, and UPenn do the students get the same degree as normal undergrads. At Harvard and Columbia they get a different degree. It's still accredited, of course. Just pointing out that you need to be careful about any non-traditional or online program from an accredited university, because the degree may not be acceptable for a future employer (this is a big part of why I went back to in-person classes after giving a go at online -- and those credits didn't even transfer).

Finally, do look into your state schools and local community colleges to see if they offer online classes that are part of their regular course offering. It's becoming increasingly common for schools to offer some classes online. You might not be able to get your entire degree this way, but if you go with a local college you could do a lot of the classes online and still be able to get there for the in-person classes you need to attend.

And please look into scholarships for non-traditional students. Especially if you go through a state school or community college, you may be able to get all of your school expenses covered.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:04 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're still in Tennessee as your profile indicates, start here. In-state tuition discount = your tax dollars at work.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:15 AM on April 13, 2013

I second community colleges and in-state universities. I was able to graduate with less than $5k in debt doing it this way, and about half my classes were online, and the business programs I majored in could have been taken 100% online. I was close to going to UMass Amhersts' business school entirely online, but at that point I realized I also liked in-school classes as well - especially a night class now and again, and summer classes. I graduated from a school that had one-week M-F 9-5 intensive classes - a great way to bang out 3 credits and most people can at least get a week off if they know pretty far in advance.

Don't forget to try to use CLEP and life experience to get some college credit. I didn't take advantage of this, and it's the one thing I wished I'd looked into more, would have saved me a ton of time and money.
posted by kpht at 6:19 AM on April 13, 2013

The sources of this bad rep that you'll want to look into for any candidate university or program you're thinking of are:

1. There have been a number of (especially for-profit) purely online universities that aren't accredited. Some shady schools might be accredited for some programs but not others. The US Department of Education maintains a list. Look for a university that has a history of maintaining accreditation for all it's programs through multiple accreditation reviews (over, say, at least the past ten years).

2. There seems to be a large overlap between purely online universities and for-profit universities, and the things that a school needs to do in order to turn a profit are maybe more the source of the bad rep than the fact that they are online, but because of the overlap, there's that association in people's minds. Some bad things that for-profit universities are known for:
(i) Not caring about student attrition - of students who start programs, how many actually end up graduating? This can manifest as misleading information, lack of academic student supports, and other stuff.
(ii) Not paying instructors well; hiring instructors with full academic qualifications who could get higher paying jobs elsewhere
(iii) Not paying instructors well; instructors end up teaching way too many courses and don't have time for individual attention
(iv) Packing in the students per instructor; instructors end up teaching way too many students and don't have time for individual attention

2a. Not-for-profit universities have many of the same issues, particularly with online programs and courses, which (in my experience) tend to be taught by adjunct faculty (hired per-course rather than on a full-time, ongoing appointment with salary and benefits and job security). A not purely online university will have a reputation based on it's brick-and-mortar programs that it will want to protect, and so may be more likely to put the effort into ensuring that it's online programs and courses are of reasonable quality, however.

One of the positive things about online programs is that, for more professionally-oriented programs at least, sometimes you get instructors who are working in the profession in question, with a lot of experience, and just want to teach a course on the side, and are a really great resource! Some programs lend themselves more to this than others, though. So even from the same university, there may be noticeable variation between quality of online instruction in different programs/subject areas.

Aside from the basics of making sure that you find a not-disreputable program to take classes from initially, starting somewhere cheap and convenient and then transferring is definitely an option to deal with the worry about prestige of your degree. Name recognition of the program and university that you graduate from does, sadly, matter. But once you know what subject you're interested in and want to major in, then you can do some more targeted research into good programs in that particular field, especially either ones that offer distance courses, or ones that offer good financial aid for non-traditional students, and then (provided you've been taking courses through an accredited, reasonable online program) you can apply to transfer. Expect transferring to add half a year to your time-to-degree if you do go this route. But if you're not in a hurry, that may take some of the pressure of for finding the absolute best option now, and may help you ease into things.
posted by eviemath at 6:43 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I do a lot better when I can go at my own pace and I'm not running a marathon to keep up with everyone else."

That's an important aspect of your learning style and something to keep in mind as you make your decision. Most of the online courses I'm familiar with are conducted in real time, with other students, and with the usual deadlines for completing readings, assignments, and exams. The pace would not necessarily be much different than in-person classes (although of course you could set your own schedule.)

That said, there are a lot of good online resources - some put out by universities, some not - that provide all the information you need to take yourself through classes - and they're almost all free. Sites like MIT's Open Courseware, or Khan Academy (though I hear mixed things about the quality there.) Seriously, though, if you do the research, there are dozens of sites like this, and I think at least a few Reddit or MeFi threads that gather them all in one place, covering all the major fields of study.

If you're serious about getting some practical experience with something like graphic design or coding, you might start by working your way through one of these classes. You won't be able to point to it on a resume, but you will have acquired the skill for free (not a bad deal!) Even if you eventually decide that what matters the most is getting the diploma, you can try out the different subjects you're interested in so that when it comes time to choose a major, you can say with 100% confidence, "I want to do a degree in X," because you'll have gotten a taste of all the major disciplines without dropping several hundred dollars to try out a course that isn't right for you.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:03 AM on April 13, 2013

I work in a field (law) where credentials are very important. I join in the recommendations that if you do an online program, it be from a real university that happens to have an online program rather than an "online college". Since you are in Tennessee, I second Sweetie Darling's recommendation of what options the University of Tennessee system offers. If you are going to stay in Tennessee, the regional credential makes sense. As someone who in involved in the hiring process, I can tell you that things have to smell right and we don't respect online education. If you go online at U. Tenn. and are in Tennessee, that topic is probably not going to come up so long as it is the same degree that normal students get. However, if it is from some online school we've never heard of (or worse, have heard of), you will not have much luck. I had never heard of the Thomas Edison school, for example. On the flip side, if you come to me with Harvard on your resume and you are applying for some entry level position in Smalltown, Tennessee, red flags are also going to fly up because something doesn't pass the smell test. I think your only realistic option is through U. of Tenn.

I do a lot better when I can go at my own pace and I'm not running a marathon to keep up with everyone else

That's fine, but please bear in mind that since you want to improve your education so that you can get a better job, it is the rare job where you can work at whatever pace you wish without worrying about anyone else. In most jobs, people will depend on your work and you will depend on theirs. Also, even for online education, you will have deadlines for assignments and tests and you will not be the only person in the class. It is not self-study.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:30 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Online learning is controversial—not only outside universities, but also inside them as well. In many schools there is conflict between the administration who wants the revenue from online offerings, and the faculty who believes it will devalue the school's brand. This is one reason why, if you look closely, you will often see that Big University offers its online programs under a subheading like, "College of Professional Studies." This is a common compromise.

It is not necessarily true that you won't be asked how you got your degree from Big University. Moreover, if you misrepresent your degree—for instance, by omitting "College of Professional Studies," or pretending that Harvard Extension School means you can put "Harvard University" on your resume (it really doesn't)—then you can end up in some hot water.

In my experience and opinion, there are currently some good options for online learning. Learning and obtaining a credential are two entirely different things. For most people, the goal of education is to accomplish both. I would say that if you care about learning much more than earning a credential, there are some good options available. Just make sure you're not paying too much, because you're only accomplishing half the goal.
posted by cribcage at 9:06 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is my online degree program that I never finished because life got in the way:

CSU Bakersfield Environmental Resource Management I was living in California when I was pursuing but I began taking classes prior to establishing residency. I was going to put off enrollment but when I wrote a email inquiring about a few things, I was told that out of state rates did not apply to their online programs.

I was planning on getting my master's in Urban Land Development through a mostly online program in Sacramento: Linky. I went there in person and saw a talk of some sort introducing me to their program. At the time, I only lived 45 miles away. From what I understand, it was a well respected program.

Here are two other programs I seriously considered at one time:
Penn State (multiple programs here, though I was looking at GIS)

Caliornia has a statewide searchable online database of classes at all California colleges and transfer agreements: Assist. CSU-Bakersfield was offering the classes for the junior and senior years online. I had an associate of arts. It is a bachelor of science. I had to dig up a few extra science classes that would readily transfer and fulfill some of my missing requirements. If you can afford the out of state tuition (or if they don't charge that for their online classes) you can take online classes from anywhere.

You may need to find a place to take your examines. I want to say the term is "proctor." I was a military wife, so I was able to go to the education center on base and get proctored. It just means that there is a paper exam instead of everything being online, you need a trusted person from a trusted institution to receive the exam and watch you so you aren't cheating. But, over time, online classes have become more able to do it all online and I saw less of that in later classes.

I found online classes more rigorous than in person classes. They try to determine if you actually learned the material and do not assume that warming a seat with your butt magically confers knowledge. I liked taking classes online. Another option you could look at: A lot of colleges are marketing to working adults and offer a class that meets once a week for three hours instead of three times a week for one hour or courses that meet every other week and fill in with video tapes for the other half of the classes. I have done some of all of that. (I am a former military wife. At last count, I had taken classes from nine different colleges. It is pfobably higher now.)

Also, if you are bright and well read, you can look into testing out of some classes. There is a fee and I did study for such tests, but it took less time and money than taking a class. One such test is called a CLEP. I think there is another but I can't recall the name of the other type of test. I CLEPed three classes and took two online to wrap up my associate's and preserve my old credits so I wouldn't have to start over from scratch if I ever got back to college. I then promptly enrolled in my bachelor's program.
posted by Michele in California at 10:36 AM on April 13, 2013

I agree that your best bet would be to take online classes at an established state university or community college, and would suggest maybe thinking about finding a way to stabilize your work schedule down the road, so you can attend on-site classes (which will be important for graphic design especially).

I do a lot better when I can go at my own pace and I'm not running a marathon to keep up with everyone else

That's fine, but please bear in mind that since you want to improve your education so that you can get a better job, it is the rare job where you can work at whatever pace you wish without worrying about anyone else. In most jobs, people will depend on your work and you will depend on theirs. Also, even for online education, you will have deadlines for assignments and tests and you will not be the only person in the class. It is not self-study.

This is true, you will have to adjust to managing your time, etc. Luckily, most universities offer study skills and essay writing workshops, and some are seriously committed to nontraditional students, and offer bridging programs, or evening or weekend classes for degree credit, peer mentor services, lots of good stuff. (On uni websites, look for 'information for mature/non-traditional students' or similar, as well as student associations representing people like us :) )

If the idea of learning in a traditional classroom setting is unsettling, maybe a community college would suit you better. Classes are often smaller, instructors may be more used to mature students than a university geared to kids straight out of high school would be, if that's your main alternative. (Plus if you're going to go the graphic design route, they're more likely to emphasize practical knowledge.) But do your research on placements, reputation, etc. Good luck!
posted by nelljie at 10:44 AM on April 13, 2013

The California State University system is now offering a substantial selection of online degrees. These are from accredited universities, though I don't know all the intricacies of testing, etc. The main problem with the open access learning, like the MIT courses or Coursera is that there is no official way to prove that the person who says they are taking the course is actually the person doing it. I believe in order for an online class to officially count towards a recognized degree, you'd have to do a few proctored exams for each class. That does give you the wiggle room to do the coursework at your own pace, though.

I've been taking courses through Coursera, which has been fun, but if you want to take classes in order to check off the "Yes, I have a degree" box on job applications, I think sticking with something accredited is probably your best bet.
posted by chatongriffes at 12:24 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do a lot better when i can go at my own pace and i'm not running a marathon to keep up with everyone else.

I do not teach online, but a lot of my colleagues do, and it's worth keeping in mind that most brick and mortar universities that run online programs run them within their semester system. That means that, while you have much more flexibility within each week, assignments are going to come at a pretty standard pace. So you will have a proposal due in week 3, a short draft due in week 6, and the final paper due at the end of the semester. If your idea of "working at your own pace" means "work is busy this month, so I'm going to put the class on the back burner for a while," you may have problems.

One aspect of approving online courses at my institution is making sure that the students get roughly the same experience as they would face to face. So a lecture can't just be replaced with a video (students should get more contact time than that), for example, or the amount of work required (roughly 9 hours/week for a 3 credit course, counting the 3 hours of class time) isn't reduced. I've seen proposals for classes that clearly are aiming to reduce that work load, and, in my opinion, that is cheating the student -- you should learn the same things.

Some classes may require online meetings, others are entirely asynchronous. So, while online courses are usually more flexible, I would take extreme flexibility as something of a warning sign, no matter how appealing it appears at first glance. There is a reason why correspondence courses (the Moocs of the mid-20th C) never replaced real universities....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:39 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this question. I got my AAS at Davenport University Online and generally had a good experience. I'm presently a senior at Arizona State (also online) and haven't been particularly impressed. You add that to ASU's party reputation and I am really afraid that my degree will be a joke.
posted by getawaysticks at 4:31 PM on April 13, 2013

I'm a current student at Western Governors University.

I've been very impressed, so far. It's accredited and non-profit (thus avoiding the two biggest red flags I was concerned about with online programs), and tuition is insanely affordable. I am in an IT-related BS program at WGU, and the curriculum is solid. I've been working in IT for a few years now; I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what a curriculum ought to look like, and I don't think I'm wasting my time.

WGU offers a lot of student resources that I was not anticipating: a dedicated single-point-of-contact mentor for the duration of my enrollment, a decent e-library, psych and legal counseling services, etc. The dedicated mentor is more than I ever got in my experience at a traditional university.

Each course has domain-experienced mentors you can consult, and there are web meeting sessions, forums and other tools for communicating with other students working on the same material you're working on.

Whether a WGU degree helps land jobs, I don't know. That's not what I'm doing it for, but I am unusual in that respect. You come out the other side with a pile of certifications, so there's that. WGU claims that their curriculum was developed with input from big name employers. The software development program I'm enrolled in is definitely more vocational than academic, but that might actually be an employment asset in this field.

I'm not expecting to make any connections that will lead to gigs down the road, but I think that's a pitfall common to a lot of online programs. At least WGU is priced accordingly.

The range of degree programs that WGU offers is extremely narrow, and so it may not be your best fit for that reason. But it's looking pretty good to me so far, and I'm able to pay for it out of pocket, which is a huge deal these days.
posted by zjacreman at 6:39 PM on April 13, 2013

Response by poster: @ getawaysticks I had heard Arizona State wasn't one of the best.

@GenjiandProust I just mean i want to go at my own pace but, i'll have things done by the time it's due. I don't mean well i just forget about this for now and come back to it later (hope that made sense).

Does it matter what school i pick? I mean do they frown on taking online courses from a college far away?

Thanks everyone for the advice so far!
posted by earthquakeglue at 7:48 PM on April 13, 2013

I'm taking a course in Training and Personnel Development through a Master's program at Colorado State University. I'm satisfied. According to some of our recent readings:

In a meta-analysis of web based instruction vs. classroom instruction the WBI demonstrated a 6% increased in learned declarative knowledge, that is knowledge of facts and procedural knowledge, or skills showed an insignificant difference in learning. Bear in mind, this is a study based on organizational training not university study, but the message is clear that online learning can be as effective as in the classroom.

Also, online learning can offer other benefits. An unintuitive benefit is that class participation by students, actual contact with other students and teachers can be increased through technology such as email, skype, forums, at any time of the day. I personally prefer face-to-face contact but there are advantages to online communications.

As other have said though, make sure the university is accredited.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:47 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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