How to Pick the Best Distance Learning Program for Your Needs

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Once you decide to pursue a degree from an online distance education institution, there are a few steps you should follow. First, get on the Web and research the various schools. This is arguably the most important part of the entire process, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Just do a search at a major search engine, like Google or Yahoo, and use the phrase ‘online education’ or ‘distance learning schools.’ You’ll want to weed out the non-accredited schools first.

What does accredited mean? Good question! For standard higher education institutions and colleges, there are six regional accrediting associations in the United States. They review an institution’s standards, curriculum, and degree requirements, and issue accreditations for schools in their geographical areas that meet their criteria.

This process takes place for a wide variety of colleges and universities, ranging from a small community and junior colleges to the giants of academia, like Harvard and Yale. The six accrediting associations are:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

If you’re pursuing a degree in a specialized field from a school that focuses exclusively or mainly on just that field – religion, health, technical, computer-related – look for one of the following accreditations:

  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
  • Accrediting Commission for Career Schools/Colleges of Technology
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
  • The Association of Theological Schools
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Distance Education and Training Council

Accreditation does not guarantee a superior (or even adequate) educational experience. Be sure to look into each school’s history to discover any complaints or legal troubles they’ve had or are having currently.

Next, when you have culled your list of potential schools based on accreditation and a clean track record, visit each institution’s website or call them to learn if they offer the exact program you’re interested in. If you’re not sure of the degree you need or want, set up a phone or face-to-face meeting with an advisor, which most of these colleges will provide at no charge. The key is to keep looking until you’ve found the program that most closely matches your goals. Go through your entire list before you jump into any admissions process at a particular school.

For most students, tuition differences will also be a pivotal deciding factor. The costs vary considerably from school to school but are generally about one-half of the fees you would pay at traditional colleges. That’s good news! Here’s more: the vast majority of these distance learning institutions will accept the same tuition assistance, grants, and government loan payments that other colleges always have.

Moreover, if you’re already working in a career and are seeking a degree to advance, more and more employers will reimburse part or all of the tuition, as long as you get satisfactory grades. Here are a couple of examples of tuition fees at two of the bigger, accredited distance learning schools:

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