Online Colleges -
Are They Worth It?
Are online colleges trustworthy?
Online colleges like WGU (and online classes in general) have been around 25+ years, yet often prospective students aren’t completely sure how they work, or how viable they are as an option. These FAQs will answer your burning questions about online colleges, and help you determine once and for all if earning a degree online is something that will help you achieve the professional success you’ve been working towards.
Let’s start with the big question: Can I trust an online college? It’s often inaccurately assumed that because you’re not attending a college in person that the organization is either a front for a degree mill, or a scam.
Degree mills can be find as online and traditional universities, and are colleges in name only; they offer degrees, but their curricula don’t meet the standards of an actual university, and their diplomas are little more than wasted printer paper as a result. Credits don’t transfer from these institutions, and employers don’t give their degrees any weight. Online college scams (sometimes called degree mills) don’t offer anything. They offer no training, no education, and certainly nothing you can use on a résumé. They promise a quick and easy education, but don’t actually do anything other than lighten your wallet.
As for legitimate online colleges, they’re not just accepted, they’re respected. In fact, many traditional universities offer online courses, and some even offer online degree programs. Online colleges are just a natural extension of this trend.
These days, a school being online doesn’t indicate anything about its credibility. So rather than “Can I trust online colleges?” the question should be “Which online colleges can I trust?” Answering that question is a matter of running down a “red flag” checklist.
"Red Flag" Checklist
- Name association - Scam colleges will sometimes try to borrow prestige from a traditional university by inserting famous names like “Stanford” or “Yale” into their own. Avoid these.
- No physical address - If you're struggling to find the information necessary to call, visit in person, or send them an old-fashioned letter, that's a red flag.
- Missing services - Legitimate colleges will have student services such as counseling, library services, technology support, and more. If there's no sign of these, be wary.
- Too simple - Stay clear of an institution that advertises degrees that can be obtained too quickly or too easily. Many legitimate online school—especially those that use innovative learning models like competency-based education—do offer highly rigorous, respectable programs that can be completed faster than normal. But be wary of any promise of speed and ease of completion that doesn't include an emphasis on learning and assessment.
- Pay upfront - While legitimate schools will insist you pay upfront for the current semester, no respectable institution will demand a whole degree worth, especially not before you know whether or not you've been accepted.
- General admission - Online colleges, like traditional universities, have admission requirements, and while they may be a little more forgiving than Harvard or Yale, they still have standards, so avoid colleges where the requirements seem just too simple.
What is “accreditation,” and what does it mean?
It’s important to know that there are two types of legitimate accreditation for universities in the U.S.: regional and national. Traditional universities are usually accredited by regional institutions, while technical schools and online colleges are frequently accredited by national organizations.
Regional accreditation is more widely accepted in transfers and results in more respected degrees (i.e. it’s easier to get a job, or get proper licenses). National accreditation, meanwhile, usually results in lower costs and more forgiving admission standards. Western Governors University is regionally accredited.
New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA)
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA)
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Schools (NWCCU)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
For national accreditation, the two most reputable organizations are the Distance Education & Training Council (DETC) and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). Overseeing these organizations are the U.S. Department of Education, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). That’s important to know because they keep lists of who is actually accredited by the reputable organizations. Enter a school’s name and the database will tell you who accredits the school as a whole and many of its individual programs.
You can’t always be sure at first glance that a school has the credentials it says it does, so don’t be afraid to call the accrediting institution or check the lists to see if the school is there. If it’s not, it’s not legit.
Can I transfer my college credits?
The courses you can successfully transfer depends on where you’re transferring from, and what school you’re transferring to.
We can’t speak for other online or traditional universities; the best we can do is tell you how WGU handles transfer credits as an example of what you’re likely to find. Here’s how transfer credits work at WGU.
When transferring TO WGU
If you’re coming into WGU from another institution, it’s very likely you will have some undergraduate credits that will transfer. From AP credits, concurrent-enrollment courses, junior college credit, and more, there are many options for how to get credit to transfer. Because there are so many options, it’s valuable to talk to an enrollment counselor to get it all squared away.
While graduate students will also need to submit transcripts as proof of earning their bachelor’s degree, actual graduate course credit does not transfer to WGU.
When transferring FROM WGU
WGU is regionally accredited with the NWCCU, which is good news for anyone who wants to earn some credits with us then transfer them to another school with relative ease. That said, each college or university sets their own criteria, so they have the final say on what transfers and what doesn’t. Be sure to check their transfer policies for specifics, but very likely the process will be similar to transferring in to WGU.
A final note: be aware that if your chosen online college is nationally (rather than regionally) accredited, you will probably have a harder time transferring credits, and may even have a problem pursuing a higher degree after you’ve completed a lesser one online. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the college (or the degree you earn through them) won’t serve you well, just that it may make certain things more complicated.
Can I get credit for my work experience?
It can be difficult to determine how your actual working experience equates to classroom learning. The most common method is “testing out,” where you take an exam (which you pay for) to determine whether or not you already possess knowledge and expertise in content covered in a course.
Usually this method only excuses you from having to take a course, rather than giving you credit for it.
You can also sometimes get credit for things like corporate training programs, military training, professional credentials or licenses, or your academic portfolio. While these are all helpful, there’s a severe limitation that most of these options have: colleges and universities, in almost all cases, will only grant you up to 30 credits this way. That means, at best, your experience can only earn you a year, and often won’t count for higher level courses.
There’s an alternative to these options, one that enables you to move through coursework and subject matter as quickly as you can master it. It’s called Competency-Based Education (CBE), and it gives you the freedom to put your expertise to use.
In CBE, you move forward once you can prove you’ve mastered the material, instead of at the end of a term or semester. If you already know some of the material, are better prepared to learn it faster, or have the capacity to finish more work in less time than your peers, arbitrary class schedules don’t hold you back.
WGU is the pioneer of competency-based education, and we still are one of few institutions offering competency-based degrees. It’s an education for those wanting to make the most of their previous life experiences.
How much does an online college cost?
Post-secondary education has developed a reputation for being crushingly expensive. From tuition and fees, to room and board, to textbooks that cost nearly as much as the classes themselves, there’s a lot of money to be spent on higher education.
Tuition costs for online universities vary like they do with traditional colleges, but affordable online degree programs range anywhere from about $5,000 to $10k per school year. The big determining factor here is whether or not the school is nonprofit, with for-profit schools costing more.
As for WGU, our tuition costs vary by program, but we still tend to come in under the radar, ranking amongst the most affordable for online bachelor’s degree programs. Our lowest tuition costs are just over $3,000 for a six month term. Taken over a four year span, that’s just $24k in tuition, while saving you many of the additional costs like on-campus room and board.
This is fair less expensive than traditional universities tend to be. As recently as the 2014-2015 school year, the average student shelled out around $25k per year for the whole package—from tuition to room and board.
The most expensive colleges in the nation approach $60,000 a year, just for tuition. That means, for a four year degree, students could end up paying around a quarter million. For most of us, that’s money we’d rather like to hold onto.
Can I get financial aid for an online college?
Getting financial aid is first a matter of finding out if your chosen online school is approved by the U.S. Department of Education to offer federal student aid. It’s a fairly simple yes/no question. We can’t really speak to other online colleges, but WGU is approved to offer financial aid, in large measure because of its regional accreditation.
Many students qualify for financial aid
To receive consideration for any federal student aid program, you must first file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When you fill out the FAFSA, you are applying for aid for a specific year; therefore, you will need to renew your FAFSA application each award year.
Most WGU students qualify for at least one type of federal aid. To be eligible for federal student aid (grants, loans, and work-study funds), you have to meet certain requirements. Click here for the basic eligibility criteria
Most financial aid comes in the form of loans and grants, with loans requiring repayment after school attendance has ended.
3 Common Types of Financial Aid
The primary two loan types are direct subsidized loans, and direct unsubsidized loans.
Subsidized loans have their interest paid by the government (rather than adding it back into the loan) during periods of enrollment or periods of deferment. That means the amount you have to pay back isn’t getting bigger while you’re using the loan or when it is under deferment.
Unsubsidized loans accrue interest as normal, meaning the longer it takes to repay, the more you have to pay on it. Neither type of loan requires repayment until six months after school attendance has ended. There are also direct plus loans, which function similarly but are offered either to graduate and professional students or to parents of undergrads who demonstrate financial need.
Grants are allotments of financial aid that don’t have to be repaid, the most famous being the federal Pell Grant. Additionally, there are a few others types of grants that are tailored to specific situations:
- Federal Pell Grant Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant (IASG)
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH)
- Federal work-study program
Each has a different purpose and may be useful to those who meet the qualifications. The majority of financial aid recipients, however, receive only direct loans and the basic Pell Grant. An institution needs to be approved by the Department of Education to be able to offer aid, as the government won’t foot the bill unless the school is reputable.
Scholarships function similarly to grants, but they’re funded by schools and private organizations, rather than government bodies.
Some are based on financial need, while some are based on merit, and others look at both. These can be a set amount, cover a portion of tuition, or may cover tuition in full, depending on the scholarship that’s awarded. Scholarships can be given through a specific school, or found through other organizations and applied to any college you wish to attend. Often, scholarships have contingencies attached, such as certain grades, number of credit hours, and thank-you notes that need to be completed before the money can be disbursed.
WGU Financial Aid
Many WGU students receive scholarships and grants that make earning their degrees even more affordable. WGU provides a number of scholarship opportunities, thanks to the university's own funds as well as third-party contributions.
What is attendance like at an online college?
Attending an online college is very different than attending a traditional university. You can expect no physical campuses and no real regulations on how you need to pace yourself. At WGU we have a very specific model that may even be different from other online colleges.
At WGU, because of competency-based education, you can move through your degree as quickly as you can master the material. Assessments determine your competency before you begin classes, and again at the end of each course.
While you don’t have lectures to attend or teachers to specifically work with, getting an online degree doesn’t mean you’re alone. WGU has an expert team of faculty who are all involved in helping you succeed.
The three types of faculty you’ll find yourself working with are program mentors, course instructors, and evaluators. Mentors and instructors interface with students by phone or online to provide specific instruction and support in their areas of experience, while evaluators provide feedback and perspective on student assessments.
Your student assessments are also not an experience you tackle alone. While you take tests, you will have a proctor making sure that no cheating is going on.
For healthcare and teaching degrees, licensing and hands-on learning are crucial elements. WGU works with school districts and healthcare operations to get you the hands-on experience required of teachers and nurses. As you get further into your program, you’ll learn how to set up these experiences with the help of your program mentor.
At WGU, terms are 6 months long, meaning you pay tuition every 6 months. What you complete in that 6 month timeframe is totally up to you! Competency-based education lets you go as quickly as you're able. Some students go extremely quickly through their courses and are done in a few months. Others need more time, but are still able to get their degree done in a few years. WGU helps support whatever is best for you.
Can I get the job I want with a degree from an online college?
The answer to this question is related to that first one—it depends largely on accreditation. What’s more, many employers won’t know at first glance that a degree was earned online, and they often don’t realize that fact until the interview (if at all).
In the early days of distance education, degrees obtained via non-traditional means weren’t very well accepted, and for good reason. Most institutions were unaccredited degree mills, and their primary requirement for admission was having the cash to spare. A lot has changed since then, both in accreditation and in the improvement of methodologies.
Acceptance of online degrees has been steadily rising in recent years, and these days most employers recognize that education is migrating to the internet (just like everything else).
So as far as “will employers respect my degree?”—it’s a quickly vanishing concern.
Prepared for Success
on the Job
*From a 2022 Harris Poll of 300 employers of WGU graduates.
97% of employers said that WGU graduates were prepared for their jobs.*
95% of employers said that they would hire another WGU grad.*
99% of employers said WGU graduates met or exceeded expectations.*
In the professional world, some degrees—and their associated jobs—require a level of hands-on learning. For example, you can’t really become a nurse without working with patients or a teacher without stepping into a classroom (go figure).
Good online schools require hands-on experience like student teaching or clinicals at some point in the program. This means that the student obtains the necessary real world experience prior to receiving their degree (and license, where applicable). If this feature is absent, it’s likely that employers may doubt the credibility of your degree.
WGU follows this pattern, enabling our students (even those who don’t need a license in their field) to go to interviews prepared with the tools and talents they need.
Who is Hiring
Ultimately, your degree is only as good as your job prospects, and some industries aren’t hiring as fast as others. That’s a large part of the reason that you won’t see a bachelor’s program in VCR repair at WGU. What we do offer are degrees in the four most common online degree fields:
We offer degrees in these areas because they lend themselves well to online degrees when coupled with the right methodology, and because they’re some of the most hireable fields to work in.
Should I attend an online college?
With accredited degrees rapidly earning the respect they deserve, online tuition proving less expensive, and the core online degree disciplines promising ample job opportunities, the question really becomes “Is the online college experience right for me?”
In choosing an online college over a traditional one, you’re trading the stereotypical college lifestyle for the flexibility and versatility of distance learning. For the average inbound freshman recently graduated from high school and unburdened by the responsibilities that come with a career, a family, and so forth, this can be a deal breaker. But that demographic has never really been the focus of online colleges.
Instead, at WGU we try our best to cater to non-traditional students. These include:
- “Older” students, including students with decades of real-world experience.
- Working adults who are at full-time jobs.
- Students who already know what they want to study.
- Students who have bills to pay, families, and a job.
- Students who have unique demands on their time, or demands that keep them from staying in one place long.
- Students for whom crowds and large groups cause stress or anxiety, making classrooms and testing centers a nightmare.
- Students who need the freedom to work on their schedule—be it faster or slower than their peers.
- Students who don’t want to pay a lot for their degree.
If any of these sound like you, we can help you get the degree you’ve been wanting, and we can help you get the job you’ve always dreamed of.
Four Colleges, One University
All of our degree programs are carefully chosen with employment and success in mind. Our special model of online-learning is designed for the working adult, and our commitment to keep costs down means better ROI for our graduates.