Going to School Online: What to look for

When I graduated from undergrad, I took classes in a Graduate program that just wasn’t for me at the time. I had the realization that I needed to work full-time. After working full-time for most of my undergrad career, I knew that working full-time and going to school would be hard. After deciding that the program I was in just wasn’t the right fit, I started to aggressively look for a full-time job and get away from my retail management job. Unfortunately, this was right in the thick of our most recent recession. With my degree in two social sciences and my tenacity, I bounced around from temp job to temp job, while still keeping my retail management position part-time. In 2011, I finally settled in a job full time and was able to concentrate on building a career with the public library. I fell in love with libraries; actually, more in love because thanks to my mom, I had been a library superuser since I could walk.

I realized that I would have to work full-time. I put my dream of going to graduate school on hold, but I made myself a promise. I planned my graduate career by deciding the who, what, where, and how of going to graduate school, and doing it all by the time I turned 30. Because of my plan, I was admitted to graduate school 2 months after my thirtieth birthday. I decided on an online program because it was necessary for working full-time and I wanted to stay working with my current employer. The programs I tried to attend were not offered in my city or surrounding areas.

Here are a few suggestions for going to school online:

Research

One of the first and best things you should do is put in some time researching the type of program you want to attend. You already know you want a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), but make sure that the degree is going to help you achieve your ultimate goal (goal setting and the decision to get a degree is another topic, check out this post ).

  • Give priority to programs and institutions that provide a full scholarship or fellowship. Yes, even online programs will cover the cost of your studies if you conduct research or other work while in the program (sometimes, there is no obligation but to thrive!).
  • Make sure the degree is 100% online (look for those exact words). Some programs require you to complete a portion of your studies on-campus by either an orientation before the program begins or at the middle or end of your program. Two of the schools I researched, had that buried in the application that it was mandatory and the travel+expenses (one of the schools provided campus housing for free) was well over $500. Pro tip: Email or call someone in the department to make sure the information on the website is up to date.
  • Look at the concentrations, syllabi and course listings for the program going back at least 2 years. This will give you an overview of the program and how often they teach certain classes or offer opportunities to be certified or take credit toward a dual degree.
  • Seek out and interview current and former students in the same program. Before I made my ultimate decision I asked a friend who was attending the same school but in an adjacent program to ask around. Online network/stalk the school to read reviews and only believe the reviews that are constructive in nature.

Time Management

If you’re taking courses online, the assumption is that you are working while continuing your studies. This can create a number of problems when deciding on schools.

  • Decide whether you want a program that is asynchronous or synchronous. Asynchronous learning allows you to view lectures and complete assignments on your own time (there are still due dates but they are more flexible). If you opt for the synchronous programs, be prepared to have set times for lectures with your professors and class activities with school mates.  Check out this article for a more in-depth examination of the concept. While working, it will be vital to have a flexible school schedule but there are also pitfalls to the freedom and it may cause you to disengage from the program; again think back to the ultimate goal you want to achieve while in the program.
  • Consider if the program limits the number of classes you can take a semester/period and/or whether you can take an accelerated track. Alternatively, think about if you want to take a class at a time, also check to see what the maximum amount of time they want you to complete the degree and if after a certain amount of time, certain courses won’t be able to count toward graduation.
  • Time also refers to the cost of the program. Outline how many credit hours are required to complete the program and match that against the number of classes you plan to take per semester/period to map out your total time and cost in the program. The total TRUE cost a program may depend on the cost per credit hour and also how many you need to complete the program. It can be tricky trying to find the total cost of a program but you can calculate based on those calculations. Example below.
    • School A is $500/credit hour and 20 credit hours to complete. Total cost of school A= $10,000.
    • School B is $300/credit hour and 36 credit hours to complete. The total cost of school B=$10, 800.

*This example is close in range but hopefully you get the idea.

Final Tip: Create a spreadsheet that compares programs based on the criteria above. Insert the application fee (not mentioned earlier) and then rank according to your preferences. After weeding through about 15 schools, I settled on 5 that met my criteria. Ultimately, I chose the school and the program that fit my lifestyle of 2 jobs, volunteering, and community engagement.

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