The flexibility, portability, and convenience of online degree programs make universities that offer them an excellent option for many military personnel and their families. But as with traditional universities, the quality of online universities varies greatly.
Before choosing an online university, it’s important to do your homework: Call enrollment offices, ask for the experiences of students and alumni on schools’ Facebook pages, and read objective news coverage about the universities you’re looking into. Here are some things to consider as you do your research.
Rigorous, accredited curriculum
You’re choosing a school to help you advance in your career and realize your greatest professional potential. The first thing to ask about an online college is whether its degree programs are recognized for teaching you what you need to know to succeed in your field. When it comes to college, easy isn’t a good thing!
First and foremost, ask if the school is an accredited online university. Does the university have the stamp of approval of respected accrediting bodies? Not all do. Without accreditation, a degree may not be recognized or valued by potential employers. This can be especially important when looking at online degree options. If the university does not have a respected regional accreditation, look elsewhere.
Look into universities like Western Governors University (WGU), which has earned the same accreditations as many of the nation’s most-respected traditional schools. Also, check into industry-specific accreditations: Many programs like teaching degrees, nursing degrees, and health informatics degrees have additional accreditations from within their industries. Also at WGU, information technology degree programs include industry certifications that students earn as they work toward their degree, adding another layer of assurance that what is being taught is important to current and future employers.
You should also consider asking the enrollment staff to share feedback such as surveys, placement statistics, and other information from employers who have hired their graduates, to help you understand how well employers respect degrees from that university. If they can’t provide this kind of information, it could be a red flag.
How does the program work?
Online education offers a lot of potential to make use of technology to deliver learning in new, more efficient, more effective ways. But it doesn’t always live up to that potential. Often, online colleges offer courses that are just like traditional ones, led by instructors in a lecture format, simply delivered over your computer. These types of courses still require students to attend at prescribed times, with terms and semesters set to a standard academic calendar and credit earned based on time you spend in class. This traditional approach to education can squander some of the potential for flexibility in online education.
WGU offers competency-based programs, which measure what you’ve learned, not how long you’ve sat in a classroom. For each course, a council of industry and academic leaders defines what you need to learn and be able to demonstrate to be successful in the subject matter. The university then provides learning resources to help you master those competencies in the ways you learn best at the pace that works for you. As soon as you’re able to prove what you’ve learned through tests and other assessments, you pass the course and move on. In addition to ensuring that students are learning exactly what they need to know, this approach also prevents time being wasted on things students have already learned in their previous work and college experience.
Prospective students with military ties should also be careful to ask their enrollment advisors about flexibility should they be re-assigned or deployed elsewhere. Does your program enable you to take your education with you wherever you move, even overseas?
Don’t go it alone
Without a physical campus and classrooms full of fellow students and professors, an online program can sound like an isolating, lonely experience. But a good online college provides students with the support and resources they need to succeed, so that learning independently doesn’t mean going it along.
Is each student assigned an advisor or mentor? How often will the student be able to communicate with that person, and who else is available for extra support if needed? Is there an online student community where you can share and receive advice, words of encouragement, and other help? What about online learning communities and study groups? Be sure to ask your enrollment representative these questions when doing your research.
Cost, tuition assistance, scholarships, and financial aid
For members and veterans of the military and their families, it’s important to know whether a university’s degree programs are approved for Veterans Administration education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill, federal tuition assistance for military personnel, and veterans’ housing stipends. Are there scholarships available for active-duty personnel, veterans, and military spouses?
WGU, which has been named among the "Top Military-Friendly Colleges and Universities" for five consecutive years by Military Advanced Education Magazine, fits these criteria. Tuition at WGU is very low—around $6,000 a year for most programs—and is charged at a flat rate per term, regardless of how many courses you finish. This affordability means that veterans will generally be eligible for benefits that more than cover the full cost of tuition and fees. More information is available at www.wgu.edu/military.