Earning a 4 Year College Degree

4 Year Online Programs Are Gaining Momentum

Whether you are initiating your education or advancing it, attending one of many online colleges or online universities may be the convenient ‘going to school’ alternative. Online college degree programs are available at so many levels today – certificates, associates, bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees, that there should be no hemming and hawing about achieving your academic goals. Online schools and virtual classrooms make it possible to take college courses while balancing other obligations.

DID YOU KNOW? Out of the 18.6 million students enrolled in college in 2015, 5.5 million is the number of them who conducted at least part of their studies online—which is 30% of all enrolled students—meaning that online colleges are definitely growing in popularity!

So you might ask yourself, what else is up with online learning? Well, the student body itself is changing. In fact, it’s getting younger. According to a 2016 study released by The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, the percentage of online students aged 18 to 24 years old has doubled since 2012.

Another interesting fact, despite classes being online, many still choose online colleges close to home. And, the most important thing these folks consider when deciding which university to attend is still money: “How much will all of this cost me?”  

As technology improves to make online education more and more sophisticated, and as employers become more accepting of degrees from an online university, the number of students choosing this route is increasing. One estimate has online enrollment nationwide growing at 1% per year. Online students are increasingly younger, and some may not even consider going to on campus colleges as offerings online deliver sufficient levels of course programming. If you’re looking to join the growing ranks of online college students, then take a look around here on eLearners.com and apply the filters we’ve discussed to find a college program that is perfect for you. The future is now!

What Are Online Colleges?

Some traditional 4 year degree learning institutions have adapted their curriculum to make their degree programs accessible to more students. Others are modern operations with no campus center. You could feasibly take online classes out of state, or even log into online college courses at midnight if you are a night owl. You could even consider trying self paced online courses and learn at your own pace.  An online college degree is one that may be earned without, in some cases, setting foot on campus, though 75% of students select a campus within 100 miles of their home.[i]

DID YOU KNOW? 90% of students feel their online education is “about the same” or “better” than their past classroom experiences. AND more than two-thirds of online students feel their online college program was worth the investment of their time.[iii]

Online Schools use technology to “free learning from the limits of time or space”[iv] to make college education available to more people. Is there one set format for distance-learning? No, but here are some potential features of online schools:

  • Asynchronous Learning: Online courses are pre-recorded (think MP3) or video recorded versions of live lectures. These are posted to a web-based course management system. Students may access them 24/7. Possible benefit: Self-paced study.
  • Synchronous Learning: Online courses are live-streaming at specific time that you join via computer, with the possibility of participating. Possible benefit: Experience the classroom.
  • Technological Tools: Online courses are delivered through the worldwide web which means you need some type of computer device, but not necessarily a table top computer (think laptop, mobile device). You may correspond through emails, standard mail, telephone, IM, special software, video conferencing and online group discussion forums that are available through your school’s e-learning platforms. Possible benefit: Portability and convenience.
  • 100% Online vs. Partially Online: Some online colleges offer ‘fully online’ degree programs where student and instructor are in different places. Partially online college degree programs (hybrid format) require on-campus intensives, meetings or courses. This is often found in human-centered disciplines or ones where you need the in-class demonstration or supervision. Possible benefit: access to laboratory or other campus facilities, face-to-face instruction, interaction, team-building.

Getting Started With Online Colleges

Several factors are important in choosing an online university. You may need to look at things such as how to:

  1. Understand accreditation
  2. Find legitimate online schools
  3. Figure out financing an online education at online colleges
  4. Assess online universities

You may wish to pursue an online education for the convenience of learning via web-based technology, using your computer instead of being a regular commuter. You wouldn’t be alone. Recent reports indicate that today’s student is deliberately choosing distance-learning as their modality of choice.[v] But apart from that you want to make sure that the college education you receive is quality, so make sure you find out the above.

Accredited Online Colleges

If you are wondering whether an online university is legitimate (everyone has heard of "degree mills") you are already on track to researching accredited online colleges. In general, accredited schools may be widely accepted by employers but don’t “give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers”[vi] (per the U.S. Department of Education). In regulated professions (e.g. counseling, psychology, education, accounting) where you might need to sit for state licensure exams, you usually need to show that you earned your degree at an accredited online university (i.e. reputable).

This is certainly the case with accreditation for engineering schools and programs[vii]. ABET accredits engineering and engineering technology degree programs, and most employers say they prefer to hire those who have come out of an accredited degree program. In fact, people pursuing a career as a licensed professional engineer must—in most cases—have earned a degree from an ABET-accredited degree program, according to the U.S. BLS.

What Is Accreditation?

Accreditation is like a stamp of approval that means an institution maintains standards “requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice”[viii]. The goal is quality control. Accreditation in the U.S. is carried out by private, nonprofit organizations. Since an institution needs to upkeep their accredited status, you are always better off doing your due diligence by looking on an official database rather than checking a prospective online universities website.

How Accreditation Works

Essentially, accreditation is at 2 levels: the schools and the programs. Colleges, universities, and specific programs (not people) are accredited. In the United States, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined are reliable authorities in terms of quality of education and training[ix]. The database of accredited institutions and recognized State authorities (accreditors) is available on:

  • The U.S. Department of Education website. The USDE primary purpose is to assure that federal student aid funds are purchasing quality courses and programs.
  • The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website. CHEA’s primary purpose is on quality improvement for courses, programs and degrees.

Different Types of Accreditation for Online Colleges

There are 3 main types of accreditation in the United States:

  1. National Accrediting Organizations operate throughout the U.S. and review entire institutions. Nationally accredited colleges are usually focused around a single area of study and the majority are non-degree granting, for-profit schools.
  2. Regionally Accrediting Organizations operate within specified boundaries in six regions throughout the U.S. accrediting agencies and review entire institutions. About 98% of regionally accredited online colleges are degree-granting and nonprofit.
  3. Specialized Accrediting Organizations also operate throughout the country a review specific programs and some single purpose institutions. Usually this applies to an evaluation of professional programs, department or schools that are parts of an institution. AACSB[xiv] (business), ABET (engineering) CAEP (educator preparation) are some examples.

8 Tips for Financing Your Degree at an Online University

Accreditation also plays role in receiving financial assistance. Only a USDE-recognized accrediting organization is eligible to receive federal financial assistance for their students.[xvii] If you have checked that box and found an online university, there are different options you might consider for covering tuition costs (scholarships, grants, loans). Applying for financial aid may vary between schools so here are 8 tips to help you navigate financing your online education.

  1. Don’t wait, start before you need to because the financial aid process may take time;
  2. Take note of application deadlines on a spreadsheet or put them in your digital diary;
  3. Accumulate info from prospective online colleges or universities by speaking to a counselor at the school who is savvy about all things tuition based;
  4. Check out the USDE for programs that provide financial aid;
  5. Fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid);
  6. Keep a paper trail of everything you do so you have your own records;
  7. Be real both in terms of honesty on applications and the amount you borrow (loan=repayment)
  8. Apply for scholarships early and often. Here are a few easy scholarships for all students.

Assessing Online Universities

Choosing an accredited online universities that meets or exceeds your expectations may take a little virtual legwork. Here are 7 points you may wish to clarify with prospective online schools.

  1. Experience in Online Education
    Some universities offer an online college degree program that mirrors its residential one, meaning same faculty and courses but delivered through current education technology and online instruction methods. There is often a section “about” the institution that will have this information.
  2. Formats and Flexibility
    Review the actual format of the online degree program you are considering. Sometimes a school will offer an online degree but there are on-campus requirements or a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. If you have a busy schedule you want to make sure the program is flexible enough for you, for instance, makes use of virtual lectures, electronic textbooks, adaptive learning systems.
  3. Orientation and Advising
    Earning a degree online is not the same as face-to-face learning where you can stay after class and talk to your professor or teacher’s assistant. Many online universities support students transitioning to distance education by assigning them an enrollment advisor. Some online schools, some online colleges, may also have an orientation for online learners or a trial period where you may try out online learning at a school without committing.
  4. Program Diversity and Availability
    Online schools may offer a broad range of programs which may mean you get to choose from a variety of electives or seamlessly switch majors if your goals change. Some online schools also offer full degree paths (associate-bachelor-master-doctorate) or certificates where the credits might be transferred later. You do want to make sure that you don’t lack access to classes required for graduation so speak with an enrollment advisor to create a roadmap of courses.
  5. Student Support and Resources
    You may want to evaluate online universities based on its student support services. This means technical support teams, academic support, online library tools, and career counseling. Some schools have internship or study abroad features as well, so get a clear sense of what it means to be an online student at a few prospective schools.
  6. Learning Environment
    Earning a degree online does not mean that your education will be easier. Set yourself up for success by checking into the online college's technology to see if using their online learning environment makes sense to you or is well-explained. You may want to look for schools with web platforms where it is intuitive how to interact with classmates and professors, and some online colleges do offer mobile access. While you may have to purchase some software or a digital camera, you want to make sure you aren’t going into it frustrated.
  7. Transfer Credits
    If you plan to transfer credits from another college, make sure prospective online colleges will do so. Sometimes you may need to make up some course requirements so remember to stay prepared and inquire early.


[i] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.9. | [ii] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.10. | [iii] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.14. | [iv] bls.gov/careeroutlook/2001/Summer/art01.pdf | [v] OCS-2016-Report.pdf., p.7. | [vi] pe.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx | [vii] bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm | [viii] ope.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx |[ix] ope.ed.gov/accreditation/

Additional Sources: chea.org, ed.gov, fafsa.ed.gov