For homeschool families: A primer on distance education for college

If there’s one thing America is known for, it’s options. Whether it’s toothpaste, ice cream, craft beers, mortgages, or cars, the vast array of choices can be overwhelming.

Of course, the same can be said for education options beyond high school. There are vocational and industry-specific schools that train people for specialized jobs. And there are cost-effective community colleges offering two-year degrees that lay the foundation for further study. More traditionally, there are private and public four-year colleges and universities offering a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields like law, business, and medicine.

Into this mix, however, is a new kid on the block—online distance learning. And while each of the above platforms offers education in a specific niche, each is jumping into online learning—fueled by the explosive growth of Internet and mobile technology.

While in the past distance learning was dominated by older, married working professionals enrolled at for-profit institutions or taking correspondence courses to achieve career-focused credentials, today’s distance learner is younger, more diverse, and motivated by a wide range of college and career goals that can be met by full-fledged undergraduate and graduate degree programs.   

And whereas only 10 years ago two million Americans were online students, today this number has nearly quadrupled to more than seven million. In fact, one-third of U.S college students now take at least one course entirely online—a paradigm shift in education.  

With so many distance-learning options now available, finding the best online college can be tough. In this blog post, we’ll focus on four-year online programs and share information to help you decide which option is best for you and your family.

Benefits of distance ed

There are many benefits to online learning offered by four-year colleges and universities, including program breadth, faculty support, and lower costs. Here, public four-year institutions have an edge because they tend to have large student populations and usually offer the widest range of academic options—including extensive human and technological resources to facilitate learning on multiple levels and in various learning modes.

Given this, many public universities have more online learning options—from introductory 100-level courses to those at the graduate level. And near-24/7 tech support and other resources make it easier for online students to get help when needed, enabling students to finish a degree program and graduate with little more than a laptop and Internet connection.

The bottom line is that online education offers students with strong self-discipline and study skills unmatched flexibility in pursuing a degree program.

Is distance ed right for you?

According to Affordable College Online, there are eight important questions that must be answered—with “yes” to at least six—before enrolling in an online program:

  1. Do you have access to a computer and Internet connection?
  2. Can you work independently with little direction?
  3. Are you comfortable with simple technologies, including email and word processing?
  4. Are you motivated to succeed?
  5. Do you have solid communication skills, especially in writing?
  6. Do you have a high school diploma or GED?
  7. Are you comfortable participating in online discussion?
  8. Can you work on a computer multiple hours per day?

10 of the best distance ed programs

In deciding which colleges are best, a number of factors come into play depending on your priorities—including academic excellence, faculty strength, student-teacher ratio, financial aid, and tuition costs. For some, additional considerations such as religious affiliation, online instruction methods, reputation, and awards are important—as are specialized programs for veterans, nursing, information technology, criminal justice, education, engineering, and MBAs.

Although several groups offer annual rankings, we think Affordable College Online’s 100-point scorecard of the Best Online Colleges is particularly helpful. Here’s its Top 10 list for 2016:

1. University of Illinois—Springfield (98.79)

With a student-teacher ratio of 13:1, University of Illinois—Springfield consistently ranks high for small class size and personalized attention for students. 96% of students at this low-to moderately priced school receive financial aid and popular undergraduate majors are computer science, business administration, mathematics, and liberal studies.

2. Fayetteville State University (98.21)

While students may be concurrently enrolled in lower-level community college courses at partnering institutions, FSU specializes in upper-level courses for students who have already completed core graduation requirements. With a 17:1 student/faculty ratio, this low-priced schools offers eight- and 16-week formats requiring students to follow strict schedules—rather than at their own pace. With 96% of students receiving financial aid, popular majors include criminal justice, sociology, psychology, business administration, nursing (RN to BSN), fire and emergency services, and elementary education.

3. Liberty University (97.50)

One of the world’s largest universities—thanks in no small part to its 100% online program offering—Christian-based Liberty has an 18:1 student/faculty ratio and boasts highly ranked at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Beyond this, it offers credit-transfers from other institutions to accelerate time to graduation, and 95% of students receive financial aid. Although slightly above mid-range in terms of price, Liberty also accepts professional experience in major fields.

4. Marylhurst University (97.31)

Marylhurst’s very low student/faculty ratio of 6:1 is one of the lowest in the nation. Although relatively more expensive than average, 100% of its students receive financial aid. And its undergraduate and graduate degree programs allow students flexibility to take courses entirely online, on campus, or through a hybrid of both formats. Up to 45 credits for previous work can be applied toward online degrees, and areas of specialty include business management, real estate, interdisciplinary studies, English literature, new media and various MBA programs.

5. Washington University – St. Louis (97.30)

Although at the high end in terms of affordability, 55% of Washington University’s students receive financial aid.  Its award-winning professional and continuing education programs can be completed entirely online or through a hybrid of distance and on-campus activities. And with a low 8:1 student/teacher ratio, WU’s top-ranked undergraduate programs include communications, English, global leadership, history, international studies, math, and psychology. In addition, it offers a specialized MS in biology designed for science teachers.

6. Hodges University (97.05)

Priced in the low-moderate range, Hodges University offers a 14:1 student/faculty ratio and “Upower” programs allowing students to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees entirely online at their own pace. Focusing on technology, programs include computer information technology, computer networking, cybersecurity and forensics, digital design and graphics, and software development. Also offered are BS degrees in management, marketing and branding, legal studies, health services administration and business administration—as well as graduate-level MBA, MIS, and MPA degrees. 99% of its students receive financing.

7. Missouri Valley College (96.85)

Out of the many online undergraduate programs offered by MVC, two in particular are highly recognized—their BA degrees in business administration and psychology. Missouri Valley College also offers a program leading to as Associate of Applied Science in health information systems. With a 14:1 student/teacher ratio, MVC falls in the upper-moderate price range. However, 100% of students receive financial aid.

8. Northeastern University (96.79)

Although at the top end of the price range, 77% of Northeastern online students receive financial aid, and its 13:1 student/faculty ratio is competitive. With more than 75 online degree programs to choose from, NU is highly acclaimed for flexibility with its bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and graduate certificate programs—with special expertise in interdisciplinary bachelor’s programs in environmental studies, urban ecology, wetlands and coastal ecology, physical anthropology, health issues, and environmental disasters.

9. Belhaven University (96.78)

As the second Christian-based school in the Top 10, Belhaven offers nine online bachelor’s degrees and 20 master’s degrees and advanced certificates. With a 12:1 student/teacher ratio, its online business education programs have received national recognition—with an emphasis in operations management, marketing, finance, business law, computer applications, business communications, organizational behavior, and international business. While Belhaven falls in the upper-moderate price range, 100% of its students receive financial aid.

10. University of Louisville (96.61)

With prices in the low-moderate range, University of Louisville online students have the benefit of an 11:1 student/teacher ratio—with the same high-quality faculty that lecture on-campus. Another benefit is that 97% of online students receive financial aid. Beyond this, UL offers a wide range of programs, including bachelor’s degrees in nursing, communication, criminal justice, and organizational leadership and learning. At the graduate level, master’s degrees are available in criminal justice, social work, special education, higher education administration, computer science, civil engineering, engineering management, and human resources and organizational development.

Conclusion

No longer on the fringes of formal education, online learning is now front and center in the digitally driven 21st century. As such, it offers students of all ages a wide range of opportunities to acquire the necessary skills for success in your chosen field. Use this list and the links included here to do your homework and find an online learning option that works best for you.

Content marketer, researcher, and public policy wonk by day. Away from the office, he's a polyglot geography nerd with a thing for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So far, all 50 U.S. states and 44 countries have been checked off the list—and counting.

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