Doing Your Homework: Evaluating Schools
In This Chapter ▶ Determining whether a program or course meets your needs ▶ Finding an accredited school ▶ Asking the right questions when interviewing schools ▶ Selecting schools to apply to One of the hardest decisions you have to make when deciding to go back to school is which institution to attend, especially when considering online education. Unlike the early days of online education, you’re no longer constrained to only the one or two colleges and universities in your surrounding area. Nowadays, you can choose one of many throughout the United States, not to mention those that are available to you internationally.
No matter what school you choose to attend, a few universal guidelines apply that can help you in the decision-making process. This chapter provides important information on what to look for and questions to ask as you evaluate various schools.
Focusing on What You Need in a School When considering the financial investment of going to school, you should view yourself as a consumer. Approaching education in this manner helps you organize your thoughts and prioritize your wants and needs.
Consider the process of buying a car. When money is tight, what you really need is a reliable vehicle that will get you from point A to point B. Though you may want power doors and windows, keyless entry, heated seats, a navigation system, and a sunroof, you don’t really need them. Therefore, you’re forced to prioritize features according to what you must have, what you’d
like to have, and what you can do without. You also have to decide how much you can afford to spend. By making these decisions before heading to the dealership, you ensure a smoother interaction with the salesperson and protect yourself from being swindled into buying more than you really need or can afford. You also help the salesperson better match your needs with the right car.
Preparing to go to school, especially online, is very much like purchasing a vehicle. You need to prioritize your needs and determine how much you’re able to pay, whether it be now or by making loan payments later. For example, if you’re a working parent with limited resources for child care, fully online courses with no face-to-face obligations may be your top priority.
In the next section, we help you develop a checklist of elements to consider when looking to participate in online programs or courses. These considerations include evaluating the program/course offerings, types and sizes of classes, how much time they take, and whether your previously earned credits will transfer.
Considering the program you’re interested in The first thing you must decide is what you want out of your education. If you want to advance professionally, check with career professionals about the kind of degree you need. For example, if you’re a registered nurse (RN) who wants to teach, you may be required by your state board of health to have a Masters of Nursing. You can’t get that at a two-year college. Similarly, if you want to be a paralegal, you don’t need a law degree. Knowing specifically what you want can help you choose an institution with the right degree and concentration that meets your needs. The concentration is the specific area within the field you want to focus on. For example, within education, concentrations include curriculum and instruction, organization and leadership, and instructional technology and distance education, to name a few.
For those of you who aren’t sure yet what you want to do professionally and want to explore multiple options, consider an institution where you can get diverse experience. One suggestion is to enroll in the general education courses that are required by almost every major and take elective courses in a variety of fields that you may be interested in.
Secondly, decide whether you want to attend any of your courses on a traditional campus. If so, research the schools in your surrounding area to see whether they offer a program that meets your academic goals. Otherwise, you need to look for programs that are offered fully online.
When researching a school (for pointers on this, see the later section “Talking to the Right People to Find the Answers You Need”), remember to find out whether the institution requires students to be on campus during any part of the program. Many institutions require a face-to-face orientation program at the student’s expense. This can be a very helpful experience for the student, but attendance incurs travel and other expenses.
Determining whether or not a program is affordable Education isn’t cheap. Therefore, cost may be a big determining factor as to whether you’re able to attend a specific institution. Even though different institutions offer similar degrees and courses, they may vary in cost by a large margin, especially among community colleges, public universities, and private institutions. Not only is it important to know whether you can afford to pay for tuition, but you must also find out whether the program you want to enroll in has additional fees for supplies and services. If you choose to take advantage of financial aid (see Chapter 6), you need to know the estimated cost of your program and what the monthly payments will be upon graduation. We provide some questions specific to cost later in this chapter and detail financial aid options in Chapter 6.
Checking out class size (and the student-to-instructor ratio) Once you narrow your search to a few selective institutions that meet your academic needs, you can start focusing on other important details, including class size. You want to consider schools that offer classes that aren’t too big or too small, but are just right. In the online environment, class size really matters. If the class is too big, the instructor may have a difficult time providing enough adequate feedback and managing course discussions, leaving you with little or no guidance. If the class is too small, you may struggle to keep the dialogue going and the course may seem dull and monotonous. From the instructor’s perspective, we like class sizes between 18 and 25 students.
If you’re looking for a more independent program with less interaction, a smaller class size may fit your learning style better. However, most research indicates that interaction, communication, and collaboration are all important pieces to successful online programs. Independent models tend to be more common in the corporate education setting, though some do exist in the academic setting. If a high level of independence is important to you, be sure to discuss this with your academic advisor up front.
When online education first hit the scene in the mid 1990s, many institutions saw it as an opportunity to make a lot of money by putting several hundred students in one class because they weren’t restricted by physical space. This was disastrous. Instructors were so overwhelmed by the numbers that they were unable to provide any kind of personal attention or quality feedback in a timely manner. Courses became self-paced, and the instructor was simply used as a contact person for answering questions.
A lot has been learned since then, but some institutions still have unrealistic class sizes that prevent instructors from providing quality instruction. Therefore, find out how many students will be in your class before enrolling.
In an academic setting, we recommend classes have one instructor for every 18 to 25 students.
Knowing how much time you can commit and how it may be spent One of the most underestimated aspects regarding online education is the amount of time needed to complete a course. The exact amount of time it takes to successfully participate in an online course is different for each person.
A common calculation for determining how much time you should expect to focus on coursework is to take the number of credits the course is worth and triple it. For example, a three-credit course should require a minimum of 9 to 12 hours of your time per week. This calculation is assuming the course runs 16 weeks. Therefore, if you’re considering an accelerated program (see Chapter 4 for more information), think about how much more time this adds and determine whether your schedule allows for that level of commitment.
Several factors can affect how much time you spend on your online education. We outline those aspects in the following sections.
The technology learning curve Most institutions have some kind of formula for determining how much time students will need to spend on assignments in order to earn the respective number of credits for a course. However, they don’t consider an individual’s computer proficiencies, which can have a dramatic impact on the time it takes to complete assignments. Students who take longer to navigate the Web or learn new technologies need more time to complete assignments.
When investigating programs and courses, ask about what technologies are used and how consistent those technologies are from week to week and class to class. This helps you understand what kind of learning curve you may need to account
for when scheduling your time. Newer technologies take more time to become familiar with on top of your workload.
At first, learning the technology of online education takes time. However, over time and with repeated use, it gets easier and faster. Even learning newer technologies becomes easier and begins to take less time.
Real-time meetings Even though synchronous meetings have some great advantages, they’re time consuming and can frustrate students if they are unaware of them ahead of time. Therefore, it’s important to know up front whether or not the program or course you’re considering requires live meetings, and if so, what day and time those meetings are held. Then you can determine whether your schedule would allow you to take the class, as well as what kind of work and/ or child-care arrangements you’d need to make.
Be sure to confirm the time zone as well. Most synchronous sessions are in the evening, but 7 p.m. Eastern Time is only 4 p.m. Pacific Time, and that may pose a challenge with work and commuting schedules.
Coursework requirements Finally, and most importantly, you must be sure you have enough time in your schedule to complete the coursework. This includes reading text, reading and posting to peer discussions, and managing other important documents such as the syllabus, assignment details, and so forth. It also includes the time it takes to actually complete assignments, quizzes, and group projects.
In the face-to-face environment, the rule of thumb is for students to spend two or three hours working on schoolwork for every hour they are in class. For a class that meets for three hours a week, the total time spent in class and studying would be nine to twelve hours a week. In an online class, students should expect to spend approximately the same amount of total time. Time not spent in a physical classroom is spent participating in online discussions and completing other assignments.
The preceding calculation assumes the class is a standard 16-week course. In an accelerated program, the same amount of information is presented in half the time, dramatically increasing the amount of time required. Depending on the course, the workload could double, although that’s not always the case. You might need to set aside 15 to 20 hours a week for a three-credit course in an accelerated program. Now you know why we recommend taking only one course at a time when participating in an accelerated program!
Planning ahead: Figuring out whether your credits will transfer It pays to think about the future when deciding to enroll in a college or university. Maybe you’re going to start your degree online and finish it at a traditional school, or maybe you plan to do the opposite — start at a traditional school and later transfer to an online program. Consider future possibilities and make sure the institution you choose supports those possibilities. For example, if you’re a freshman and want to take your general education courses through a community college’s online program, make sure your course credits will transfer to a four-year institution when the time comes.
Bringing in credits from a traditional institution Many online programs accept credits from other accredited institutions. However, several variables are used to decide whether credits are transferrable. For example, some graduate programs simply require an undergraduate degree from an accredited school and individual course credit isn’t a concern. However, other graduate programs require specific prerequisite courses that may or may not have been a part of your undergraduate curriculum.
Another variable is time. Coursework completed recently is more likely to be accepted for transfer. If several years have passed, the institution may ask that you retake certain courses.
Whether you have taken classes recently or long ago, be sure to have your transcripts audited before making your final decision about which school to enroll in. You may have to pay a nonrefundable application fee, but it’s worth it to know up front whether your credits are going to transfer.
Once you are told that credit is transferrable, be sure to get an official transcript of exactly which credits will transfer. This should be a formal document on the institution’s letterhead with an official seal, signed by an administrator. This provides you with protection in case you need proof of transfer due to administrative staff changes within the organization.
Switching from one online school to another If you want to switch from one online school to another, the process should be exactly the same as that described in the preceding section. Again, the fact that your credits were earned from an accredited institution doesn’t guarantee that they’ll fully transfer, but accreditation will definitely be a minimum qualification.
Down the road: Will a traditional institution accept the online school’s credits? After taking courses or finishing a degree online, you may want to continue your education. Depending on what institution you decided to attend, many people reviewing your transcripts won’t even know the program or course you were last enrolled in was online. This is especially the case for institutions that have both on-campus and online course offerings. Therefore, transferring courses from an online institution to a traditional, campus-based institution should be no problem. However, the same concept of preparing early applies here.
If you’re transferring credits from an entirely online program and you fear your credits won’t be as transferable, don’t worry. As long as you do your homework when choosing an online institution, you should have no problems transferring credits — assuming the credits are aligned with the program you want to transfer into.
If you know when you enroll in an online program that you plan to transfer to another institution in a couple years, research both the online institution and the traditional school or schools you have your sights set on, and find out whether the credits you earn will transfer from one to the other. Doing a little more research and legwork up front may save you several headaches down the road.
Finding an Accredited School Going back to school often means investing in your future. That investment isn’t cheap, so you want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
First and foremost, you should look for a school that’s accredited. Accreditation is a process by which a school is determined to have met predetermined quality standards. These accreditation standards are determined and monitored by nongovernmental agencies that have been authorized by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
In this section, we discuss ways of determining an institution’s credibility and quality.
Recognizing the two types of accreditation Schools themselves can be accredited, and programs within schools can be accredited. (And yes, an accredited school can have accredited programs!)
The first type of accreditation is institutional accreditation, which means that all the parts of the institution work well together to meet its overall mission. There are both national and regional accreditation-granting organizations. Though national accreditation may sound like a higher level of accreditation, regional accreditation tends to be more credible. There are six regional accrediting agencies in the United States that serve institutions within their respective regions. (See the nearby sidebar, “Regional institutional accrediting agencies” to find out which agencies cover which states.)
The second type of accreditation is called specialized or programmatic accreditation. This means that a specific program within the school has successfully completed the accreditation process relevant to its field. For example, if you look at Eastern Illinois University’s education program, you will find that it is accredited through the specialist level by the Commission on Institutions of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education for the preparation of elementary and secondary teachers and school service personnel. This means that this college meets general academic quality standards, plus standards specific to the education of future teachers. Most specialized accreditors only confer the accreditation status to programs within a regionally accredited institution. However, this isn’t always the case. A few will accredit institutions that are not regionally accredited.
Regional institutional accrediting agencies Here is a list of the six regional accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as being qualified to confer accreditation status on institutions that meet their predetermined quality standards. Different agencies provide accreditation to different types of institutions. For example, one agency may accredit vocational institutions, whereas another agency may accredit postsecondary degree-granting institutions. For a complete list of regional and national agencies, and their scope of recognition, as recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, you can visit the department’s Web site at http://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/ accred/accreditation_pg7.html. ✓ Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE): Servicing Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the
U.S. Virgin Islands. Web site: www. msche.org. ✓ New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE): Servicing Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Web site: cihe.neasc.org. New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Technical and Career Institutions (NEASC-CTCI): Servicing secondary institutions with
vocational-technical programs at the 13th and 14th grade levels, postsecondary institutions, and institutions of higher education that provide primarily vocational/technical education at the certificate, associate, and baccalaureate degree levels in Connecticut,
Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Web site: ctci.neasc.org. ✓ North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC): Servicing Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, including schools of the Navajo Nation. Web site: http://www.nca higherlearningcommission.org. ✓ Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU): Servicing Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Web site: http://www.nwccu.org. ✓ Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACS): Servicing Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Web site: www. sacscoc.org.
✓ Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (WASCACCJC): Servicing community and junior colleges located in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Web site: http://www.accjc.org. ✓ Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASCACSCU): Servicing senior colleges and universities in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Web site: http://www.wascsenior.org.
When looking at colleges and universities, investigate whether the institution is accredited and, if so, at what level. Don’t be surprised if you find that community colleges are accredited at the institution level but not at the program level. It simply depends on the programs the institution offers and the level of program completion they provide. For example, most community colleges provide enough math courses to fulfill general studies prerequisites, but do not offer a degree in mathematics. Therefore, they’re not likely to have an accredited math program.
In order to earn and maintain accreditation status, an institution must participate in an ongoing process that reviews its resources, programs, assessments, and self-evaluation. The bottom line is that an accredited school has to document how it is meeting quality standards. The initial accreditation process can take upwards of two years to complete. After that, the cycle repeats approximately every ten years, depending on the guidelines set forth by the accrediting agency.
Seeing the benefits of accreditation Accreditation status is important for both you and the institution. From the institution’s perspective, it provides credibility and status within the academic community, and becomes an important marketing tool. Accredited schools also have the ability to attract more higher-qualified students, like you.
The benefits from your perspective as a student include the following:
✓ You know that quality standards have been reviewed and met. ✓ You can market yourself to prospective employers who look for applicants from accredited schools and programs. ✓ You enhance your chances for graduate school. Having an existing undergraduate degree from an accredited institution is often a minimum requirement when applying for graduate school. Although it doesn’t guarantee that your credits will transfer, it definitely helps. ✓ You have an increased likelihood of receiving financial aid. Students attending nonaccredited institutions may be ineligible for student assistance such as federal/state aid and tuition reimbursement programs.
Determining whether an online program is accredited Most institutions are proud of their accreditation status and want to show it off. Therefore, determining whether an institution is accredited usually isn’t difficult. In most cases, you can find out by visiting the institution’s Web site and clicking on the About Us or Academics link. If you can’t find it on the Web site, your academic advisor will definitely be able to share this information with you.
The demand for alternative education delivery methods to meet the needs of busy adults has increased dramatically over the last decade. Unfortunately, as a result, several institutions have tried to quickly capitalize on this by creating diploma mills, which are nonaccredited institutions offering quick, online degrees without quality standards or properly trained faculty. Here are few things to look for that may identify an organization as a diploma mill:
✓ The institution has a name very similar to a more well-known university. ✓ The institution is not accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. ✓ Students can earn degrees in very little time compared to other institutions. No one can get a degree in 30 days. Trust us!
✓ There are no admissions criteria. For example, if you’re researching a Bachelor of Nursing program that doesn’t require a RN degree or any clinical experience, be careful. ✓ The cost to attend the institution is much less than any other college or university offering the same program.
In response, an equally aggressive movement has arisen to establish quality standards for online courses. Organizations such as Quality Matters (www. qualitymatters.org) provide schools with benchmarks and a process they can use to assure quality in the way they offer online courses. Schools may conduct other internal reviews. Because accreditation by one of the six regional agencies is institutional and includes traditional classroom education as well as online classes, be sure to ask every school you’re interested in about how they monitor the quality of their online programs.
Other factors that contribute to an institution’s credibility As you conduct your research regarding an institution’s accreditation status, you should also look for other signs that the institution is a credible one. In this section, we provide you with some additional criteria for evaluating online programs and courses. These include the awards and recognition they’ve received, as well as the research conducted at the school. In most cases, institutions highlight this information on their Web sites as a way of enhancing their marketing efforts.
National awards and recognition One of the best indicators of quality is recognition from nationally recognized professional organizations. Two types of awards are bestowed specifically to online academic programs or individual courses. The first type of award focuses on academic integrity and a program’s overall curriculum, graduation rate, and/or contributions to the field. These awards are sponsored by leading professional organizations within the field of the program’s subject matter.
Several awards may also be earned specific to the development and implementation of individual online courses. For example, Capella University’s SPC1000–Public Speaking course received the 2007 Blackboard Greenhouse Exemplary Course Award, an award that’s well-recognized in the field of online education. To earn this award, an organization must demonstrate that their online course has met specific quality standards based on research and best practices within the field of online education.
Other awards that you may keep an eye out for are those bestowed on faculty. Faculty awards for work within the field or excellence in teaching are both indicators of quality.
Leading research efforts in the field of distance education Another indicator of quality is whether the faculty study the impact of online education. For example, The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, and Indiana University in Bloomington are all well-known for their research in online education. Although this research is usually conducted locally and within the College of Education, the results can be used to train faculty from other departments and institutions around the world! It can tell you a great deal about the school’s attitude towards distance education: Those who research online education tend to support online education!
Consortium membership One final consideration is membership in a consortium, or group of likeminded institutions. Membership doesn’t guarantee quality or accreditation, but those who join are more likely to offer legitimate programs and services. By joining a consortium, schools have access to training, research in the field, and cutting edge practices that help ensure quality.
Nationally, the best-known consortium is the Sloan Consortium (www.sloan-c. org), a group of institutions committed to enhancing their own understanding and practices related to quality online education.
Several institutions have pooled resources regionally, as well. For example, Connecticut and Florida both have statewide consortia.
Talking to the Right People to Get the Answers You Need Now that we’ve given you some things to think about in choosing an academic institution, it’s time to introduce you to some important people to talk to: your academic advisor, the faculty, and other students. In this section, we provide you with a list questions you can pose to each of these people.
Communicating with a variety of people who have both an internal connection (faculty and staff paid by the institution) and an external connection (students) can help you get multiple perspectives regarding the prospective program or course. These discussions may happen over the phone or via e-mail. Either way, it always helps to be prepared and have your questions written ahead of time.
When discussing topics that impact your academic standing or financial status, request that any decisions made be documented in writing or document the conversation yourself. For example, after an advisor tells you that previous coursework will transfer, send an e-mail summarizing your discussion and request a confirmation reply. This covers you in case your advisor changes and you need to justify your actions to someone else.
Talking to an academic advisor about the school The first contact person you will have with any institution is an academic advisor. This person’s role is twofold. His first task is to serve as a liaison between the public and the institution. Recruitment of new students is usually a primary task of this person, although some institutions separate this role and have dedicated recruiters who point you to an academic advisor when you express further interest in attending the institution.
The second and more important task an academic advisor undertakes is helping you plan your academic adventures. The academic advisor will answer questions, collect your application, and step you through the enrollment process. The academic advisor should be available to help you not only during your initial application and enrollment process, but throughout your academic career when needed. Take advantage of this person and try to get as much information out of him as possible before deciding to enroll. Again, the more prepared you are before meeting your advisor, the better. So, here are some questions you should be ready to ask:
✓ What courses are available? This may seem like a simple question, but it’s an important one. Knowing what courses are available and when helps you determine when you can start taking classes and in what order. For example, if you are required to take an introductory course as a prerequisite to all the other courses in a program, you must know when that course is offered next. ✓ What prerequisites do I need? Here comes that planning ahead theme again. Determining each course’s prerequisites tells you the order in which you need to take courses. Paying attention to these details helps you avoid missing a term because you have to wait for one of the prerequisite courses to be offered. If you need additional prerequisites because some of your previous credits didn’t transfer, you’ll need to know whether they provide those courses. If not, you may have to take the courses somewhere else first.
✓ What is your student retention rate? This question is very telling. Having a small number of students drop out for one reason or another is fairly common for all academic programs. However, programs that have a retention rate of less than 85 percent should raise a red flag. A good follow-up question to ask is whether the program documents why students drop out. If so, ask about the most common reasons for dropping out. This can tell you whether students are dropping out due to personal reasons or the program itself. If a large number of students drop out because the program is too difficult, it requires more time than expected, or the technology used is too difficult for students to learn on top of coursework, be cautious about enrolling in the program. ✓ What kinds of student services are available? This question is extremely important for students taking online courses. You want to be sure the institution can provide you with a variety of resources at a distance. For example, you should ask whether the institution provides access to services such as the library, academic tutoring, and career development upon graduation. Be sure to ask how these services are provided. Some institutions provide online students with the same services as their on-campus students only if they come to campus. Find out whether the institution is prepared to provide these services from a distance using a variety of technologies. ✓ What kind of placement rate do graduates report? Asking this question is a great way to find out how reputable the program is. It can also help you evaluate the job market in the field you’re considering studying. ✓ What are the faculty’s qualifications? Whether the courses are taught by full-time, tenured faculty or by adjunct is less important than the minimum qualifications for teaching in the program. (See Chapter 2 for an explanation of the differences in faculty personnel.) Getting a feel for the faculty’s qualifications helps you understand the skills and knowledge of those who will be providing instruction. ✓ When do I have to decide and register? When asking this question, be sure to get an idea of multiple deadlines so that you don’t feel pressured into making a decision immediately. Note that some institutions may offer a discount for starting earlier if their current enrollment is not as high as they would like it to be. Even so, be sure to take as much time as you need to make the right decision for you. ✓ How long is each term? Students commonly ask this question because they want to know whether school will interfere with an already-scheduled vacation, family wedding, and so forth. The nice thing about online education is that as long as you have a computer with Internet access, you can still go to school. However, if you’re planning a vacation where you won’t have access to the Internet (or you really don’t want to interrupt your honeymoon to study), don’t be surprised if the institution or
individual instructor asks you to take the class another time. Participation is such a large part of online education that if you’re unable to participate, taking the class may not be worth it. ✓ When do classes begin? Some institutions provide only three startdates per year: one each for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Other institutions, especially those offering accelerated programs, allow students to start classes more frequently. If you need to take advantage of financial aid, make sure the aid is available when you want to start. Timing can affect whether or not you can receive aid. (Flip to Chapter 6 for more about the financial facts of online education.) ✓ Are there any additional fees? It’s important to know whether you’ll be expected to pay additional fees beyond the application and tuition fees. These additional charges may include fees for hardware, software, or campus services. Campus services may include items such as a campus e-mail address, server space for storing files, an ePortfolio subscription, or other similar services. They should not include standard fees for services only provided to campus students, such as health care or gym access — things you obviously won’t be able to participate in. ✓ What is the cost for books or other required materials? Books are not cheap, and some people are surprised at how much a single textbook can cost. You’ll be better able to budget if you know what the average cost of books and supplies will be per term. Textbooks and supplies are updated often, so you may not get an exact number, but you should be able to get a good estimate. ✓ How many students can be admitted per course? Remember our earlier discussion about the benefits and challenges of courses that are too small or too large? This question can help you determine whether your instructor may be inhibited from providing quality feedback due to the sheer number of students in the class. ✓ How long does it take to graduate? The answer to this question will depend on how many classes you take at a time and whether the institution requires you to follow a prescribed sequence of courses. You may also want to find out whether there’s a maximum time frame for getting your degree. Some programs require students to complete their degree within six years. ✓ What if I need to take a break? Life happens, and sometimes students need to temporarily drop out of school due to other commitments. You should know what the institution’s policy about this is and how it will affect your graduation date, financial aid disbursement, and so on. You’ll also want to know how long you can stop taking classes and when you can reenter. Understand that stopping and restarting your education may delay your graduation for several months, depending on how frequently the classes you need are offered.
Asking a faculty member about the program When you talk to your academic advisor, ask to speak to a faculty member about the program you want to enroll in. Someone teaching within the program can give you a different perspective specific to the curriculum, assignment types, and time commitment necessary to successfully participate in the program.
If the institution doesn’t want to let you talk to an instructor, consider researching other institutions. The availability of the instructional staff before you register can be indicative of their availability once you’re enrolled. However, on the other hand, be patient and give your advisor enough time to locate an instructor who is available to speak to you.
✓ What kind of training is required of faculty members who teach for this school? This is a great question because it allows you to find out whether instructors are required to take classes specific to online education. Most programs require instructors to have subject matter expertise. However, not all of them require instructors to have any experience with teaching online. Institutions that require or provide additional training specific to this topic tend to have more well-rounded instructors that are better prepared to teach online. ✓ What can I expect in terms of workload? This question may seem repetitive, but asking a faculty member within the program gives you an idea of the instructors’ expectations regarding how much time you should plan to spend on classwork. ✓ What are the standards for faculty response time? By asking a faculty member this question, you’re kind of putting them on the spot to see how committed they are to responding quickly to questions via e-mail or phone. You should get an answer something like this: “The faculty at this institution are required to respond to student inquiries within 48 hours. However, many faculty, including myself, are committed to student success and check our e-mails and log in to the course a couple times a day. This ensures a speedy response so that students can move forward with their studies.” You may not get quite that level of commitment, but you definitely don’t want to hear that the faculty only check their e-mails a couple times a week, either. ✓ How do I get help when I need it? This question is a great follow-up to the preceding question. It lets you see whether the program you want to enroll in has an established process for getting help. When asking this question, you want to hear something like this: “Within every course, students will find the necessary contact information for the instructor,
technical support, and academic advising, including e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and other important information needed to contact us for help. There’s also a public discussion forum in the course where you can ask your peers questions, as well as your instructor. This way students can participate in answering each other’s questions, and they may be able to respond faster than the instructor simply because there are more of them.”
Chatting with other students about their experiences To get a true understanding of what you may experience in the program, ask your advisor whether you can have the contact information of an existing student or a recent graduate of the program. This person will be able to answer your questions in a manner that no one else will, and the information you get will most likely be the most valuable to you in your search. However, don’t be surprised if some institutions are hesitant to do this. It’s not necessarily because they don’t want to share the information; they simply want to protect the privacy of their students. You’ll want them to do the same for you if you enroll.
You’ll notice that the following questions are more open-ended than those we’ve had you ask previously. This is so that you can have a more informal conversation.
✓ What has your experience been like? Asking this question provides the student you are interviewing a wide range of options and allows him to think about what his most important experiences have been. By asking this question, you may find out about academics, time commitment, or even about the overall support network provided by the institution. ✓ What has been the best part? You really want to listen to the answer to this question and how enthusiastic the interviewee is about answering it. Someone who’s excited to tell you all about the wonderful things the program has to offer can be very encouraging. ✓ What has frustrated you? In order to get a holistic picture of the program, you must ask what an individual sees as both the positive and negative aspects of the program. However, be careful with this question. Even though it’s an important one, you don’t want the interview to focus too much on the negative. You want open, honest answers that are direct and to the point. As human beings, we all have the capacity to find the negative in anything. Try to stay focused on the big picture and not the micro details, because every student’s experiences are different.
✓ How would you rate the quality? Getting a student’s perspective on the quality of a program is priceless. It lets you know whether that person would recommend the program to others, and why. Asking this question to a graduate who has recently entered the work field can also help you determine whether the information and skills learned in the program were transferrable to the workplace. ✓ What is the faculty like? By asking this question, you get one person’s perception of the qualifications and teaching abilities of the faculty. Again, remember to stay focused on the big picture. Try to steer clear of finding out every negative or positive aspect of every instructor (though it doesn’t hurt to find out which instructor you should look forward to having).
Narrowing Your Options Okay, so you’ve been introduced to a variety of people, asked your questions, and documented your answers. Now what? It’s time to decide which institution you’re going to attend. Following is a list of items to consider when making your final decision. Consider making a chart that helps you evaluate the pros and cons of each institution based on these items:
✓ Academics: Does the program meet my academic goals? ✓ Cost: Can I afford to attend the institution or is financial aid available? If financial aid is required, what will my payments be when I have to start paying my loans back? Will I be able to afford them? ✓ Workload: Is the workload feasible based on my current work/life situation, or can my schedule be rearranged to accommodate the program’s anticipated workload? ✓ Time: Is the length of the course or program something I’m able to sustain based on the anticipated workload? Can I graduate in a reasonable amount of time? ✓ Resources available: What kind of resources are available if I need help (library, technical support, academic help, advising, and so on)? Are these resources adequate based on my anticipated needs? ✓ Independence: How independent will I be within the program? Will there be group work? How involved are the instructors? Will I be able to work at my own pace? ✓ Overall match: Overall, does this program match my personality and learning preferences?