College Preparation Guide

2How to Find and Apply to the Right Online Schools

On average, workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 60% more than their peers with high school diplomas, and today many are getting ahead of the pack by earning a college degree online. But with so many web-based programs available, you’ll have to sort through many different options before finding one that best fits your academic and professional needs. This guide is designed to help you during these important early stages.

What to Look For In an Online College

Any reputable online college will have a proven track record of successfully preparing students for meaningful careers. Successful institutions are measured by different factors, including graduation rates, job placement rates, and rankings on independent assessments.

However, statistics won’t tell the whole story. Before committing to an online program, carefully consider its accreditation status, cost, the availability of financial aid, and the school’s reputation (especially within the professional field you hope to enter).


Before you spend too much time researching a program, first make sure it is accredited. Essentially a seal of approval, accreditation demonstrates that the school or program meets the highest standards for a quality education.

The U.S. Department of Education maintains the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. You can use criteria like geographical location or the accrediting body to narrow down your search, or you can download the entire database as a Microsoft Excel file; the easiest way to navigate the latter is simply to do a search with the program’s find function.

Second, the DOE publishes a list of legitimate national and regional accrediting bodies. These organizations verify that an entire school meets certain standards for ensuring high-quality education, a fiscally responsible administration, successful execution of its academic mission, and a sufficient number of faculty members and resources.

In addition to institutional accreditation, certain academic departments and programs (such as those awarding advanced degrees in business, nursing, and law) receive accreditation from professional associations. These specialized accreditors tend to look more closely at the particular curriculum of each program to see if it teaches the skills and competencies valued by professionals in that field. Other topics of interest to accrediting agencies include faculty research productivity, student services, and an effective, ongoing continuous improvement plan.

For more information on how online colleges and programs are accredited, check out our overview of online college accreditation.

Cost and Financial Aid Availability

In recent years, student debt has risen 300%. In fact, total student loan debt in the U.S. exceeds $1 trillion, and the average student owes more than $30,000. To manage these high costs, most students must not only borrow enough to cover the cost of their education, but also begin paying back the balance soon after they graduate.

To participate in federal financial aid programs, schools must meet certain standards for financial responsibility and other criteria. Only those who enroll in accredited schools will be eligible for Direct or Perkins LoansPell Grants, and other forms of federal aid.

After graduation, you will soon have to begin repaying the loan. Students are encouraged to map out their post-graduation earnings potential before they enroll in a degree program. A recent study published by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce found that experienced college graduates with degrees in engineering earned an average annual salary of $83,000 in 2010-2011, while those in the arts typically earned $48,000 during the same period. With interest rates set to rise as high as 8.25%, it may not pay to get a liberal arts degree in today’s world if you require student loans.

Check out out the third part of this guide, Finding and Applying for the Right Financial Aid, for more information about loans, scholarships, grants, and other sources of funding for prospective students.

Student Outcomes

There are several student-oriented metrics you should examine closely before committing to an online program: retention, graduation, satisfaction, and placement.

Retention rates measure how well a school is able to help incoming freshmen manage the transition to college and return for their sophomore year. While some students easily adapt to the pressures of school, others struggle; many suffer from financial difficulties, while others are homesick, and some simply lack academic discipline. If the school you are considering has a low retention rate, you can assume they will not be very good at providing you with additional support, even if you really need it.

You should also review graduation rates very carefully. Some schools and rankings provide the four-year rate (that is, the percentage of students graduating after completing four years of college), while others provide a six-year rate. If you are taking out loans or quitting your job to earn your degree, an additional two years can mean a big hit to your pocketbook.

Student satisfaction surveys are inherently subjective and anecdotal, but there is something to be said for this metric. Sites like Rate My Professors might be helpful for prospective online students, but you should remember that individual comments may not reflect the collective view of all students (or even the majority at a given campus), and could simply be the result of a college crush or a personal grudge. If, however, dozens of people favorably rate several professors from a particular department, then this may be a good indication that the program is effective.

Finally, don’t forget to review job placement rates. These not only indicate how well a program is able to prepare their graduates for the workforce, but how well the earned education trains students in the skills employers want.


There are three excellent online sites that rank schools in a variety of fields, using a number of different metrics.

Arguably the best known option is U.S. News & World Report. This comprehensive resource ranks schools by colleges, graduate programs, national universities, liberal arts schools, regional colleges, and best values. In addition, for undergraduate programs, the best business and engineering programs are also assessed. Depending on the ranking, different metrics may be used, including acceptance rates, graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, and tuition cost.

Another great resource for ranking online schools is the Online Education Database (OEDb). The site lets you tailor your search by degree level or field. Data considered on this site include full-time and part-time faculty, financial aid rate, acceptance, retention and graduation rates, years accredited, and default rates.

A third useful ranking was produced by the joint effort of Forbes and the Center for College Affordability & Productivity (CCAP). Considering retention rates, debt loads, default rates, alumni salaries, national awards, graduation rates, and Rate My Professor scores, this comprehensive ranking provides further insight into the schools on your shortlist.


Having a top-notch reputation helps, but it isn’t everything. For example, in their 2011 ranking, CCAP placed Williams College (a small liberal arts school from Williamstown, Mass.) at the top of its list, over more prominent institutions like Harvard and Yale. Other small schools you’ve probably never heard of in CCAP’s top 50 include Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Centre College in Danville, Ky.; and Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

You should keep something else in mind: many programs that are highly respected in their fields are relatively unknown to the public at large. For example, few schools are more highly regarded in the specialty of entrepreneurship than Babson College. With only 2,000 undergraduates, this small school outside of Boston, Mass., casts a big shadow. For the past 20 years running, it has been included in U.S. News top business schools for entrepreneurship; this year, it was ranked no. 1.

Comparing College Costs

College costs vary dramatically between schools. Annual tuition and fees at the most expensive schools in the U.S. may cost more than $45,000; at this rate, those who graduate in four years will incur $180,000 in debt. Moreover, the average student who graduated from a bachelor’s degree program in 2013 also owed friends, family, and credit card companies at least $16,000.

On the other hand, inexpensive colleges will cost $2,500 or less on a yearly basis. These schools often sacrifice amenities in order to provide a lower price-tag. At West Virginia University at Parkersburg during the 2011-12 academic year, for example, tuition was only $2,268 and the average graduation rate was 35%. Nonetheless, the program is accredited and offers dozens of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs at affordable prices.

The following table, compiled from data provided by OEDb, should give you a better idea of the range of full-time tuition costs.

Institution Inexpensive Average Expensive
Bellevue University $15,540
Champlain College $69,000
Judson College $56,064
Misericordia University $93,750
Missouri State University $24,750
Northern State University $14,904
Oregon State University $27,000
Regis University $49,920
Rogers State University $14,797
St. Joseph’s College of Maine $36,480
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities $46,292
University of Nebraska at Kearney $12,006
University of South Dakota $10,404
Waldorf College $27,000
Washington State University $25,986

Find and Compare Specialty Colleges

Choosing a specialty school — such as those tailored to veterans, the arts, women, a particular religious affiliation, or even culinary training — presents distinct challenges. For example, many institutions offer classes in women’s studies, but if you want to develop an expertise in gender studies, you need to attend a school that offers a high-quality program such as Smith College’s Study of Women and Gender. Similarly, religious-affiliated colleges often offer the best programs for studying the history, scripture, and ministry related to their particular faiths. Academic institutions geared toward a specific group can also provide a more welcoming or focused environment for many students. Be sure to visit our guides to specialty schools for women and Christian students.

Similarly, veterans, particularly those returning from overseas deployment, tend to fare best in programs that work with their individual situations and meet their educational needs. Schools like Eastern Kentucky University have adapted their procedures to accommodate vets; measures include waiving late fees when education benefits are delayed, accepting American Council on Education credits, and offering online degree programs.

For some fields, the only real option is to go to a college where the entire focus is limited to a small group of subjects, such as The Savannah College of Art and Design for the fine arts. Offering courses in a variety of design specialties, as well as historic preservation and architecture, colleges like SCAD may be the best fit for aspiring artists, photographers, authors, and fashion designers.

Regardless of the specialty school you are considering, this directory of online schools will help you find it. Comprehensive and customizable, you can set the filters to produce search results that fit your criteria. With the data produced by these results, you can compile a short list of schools that meet your specific requirements.

Prepare Your Application

Once you’ve settled on the online programs that best fit your goals, it’s time to submit an application. Unfortunately, this is no walk in the park; here are some key tips to making the whole process easier and improving your chances of acceptance.

  • Apply to four or five colleges. Choose a couple schools that you’re sure will offer you admission. These are called your “safe schools.” Then choose a few schools that really appeal to you, but you’re not sure will accept you. These are called your “reach schools.” Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You want to attend the best possible program, but the last thing you want is to not get accepted anywhere.
  • Be honest. Most colleges take a holistic look at your entire application when deciding if you’re a good fit. So be honest about who you are and what your motivations are. It’s tempting to embellish your application to appear as the “ideal candidate,” but little fibs or exaggerations will show up in your essay, references, and academic record — and admissions offices know how to spot them. Present a cohesive story of who you are and why you believe you’ll succeed, and this can only be done well by telling the truth.
  • Write an excellent essay. Although the personal statement might seem irrelevant compared to your grades, test scores, and recommendations, it can make or break an application — especially if your grades and scores characterize you as a “typical applicant.” Set yourself apart and spend extra time on the essay question. Write and rewrite. Have your friends review it and provide feedback. And whatever you do, check and recheck your draft to make sure there aren’t any typos or grammatical errors. Lastly, look over the essay prompts for each college you’re applying to and see if you can reuse sentences — or even entire paragraphs — on more than one application. Rewriting an excellent and completely original personal statement five times is probably not realistic.
  • Get those recommendations in advance. For many people, eliciting references from former teachers, employers, and other people who can speak to your professional and academic abilities is the toughest part of the admissions process. In order to get the recommendations you need, you’ll have to bug other people who are presumably busy — and if you’re applying to more than one program, you’ll need multiple letters for each school. The best way to handle this hassle is to plan ahead. Approach potential references with the names of each school you’re applying to, a resume, and a list of points you’d like them to emphasize in their letters. Be sure to provide any recommendation forms that need to be filled out, as well. This way the people you choose will know exactly what to write and be able to modify their language to fit each school; it makes the process easier for everyone and will result in better recommendations.
  • Use the Common Application if possible. Look at every school you’re applying to and see if they accept the Common Application. Rather than filling out five separate sets of forms for five different schools, you can submit one application – and one recommendation form – for all the schools. Even if just two or three of your intended schools accept the Common App, you’ll still save a lot of time.
  • Do it all early. It’s incredibly common for students to scramble at the last minute trying to get an application together. Don’t do this! Your personal statement and letters of recommendation will indicate you were rushed, and you may miss your deadline for all of the materials. Set your own personal deadline a few weeks ahead to be sure everything reaches the admissions office on time, including your test scores. There will always be procrastinators in the college application process, so taking the time to do things correctly will give you an edge. Many schools even offer “early admissions” deadlines that give you even more of a leg up on the competition.

Most importantly, make sure your entire application presents a clear and honest picture of who you are and why you wish to attend a particular program. Don’t leave the admissions officers guessing; each part of your application should present a message that is both sincere and succinct. Completing your application early on will greatly improve your chances of admission to a top online program.


Before jumping right into an online program, definitely do your research. Make sure the accredited program you are considering has a good track record of producing successful professionals in your field. After you’ve decided on the best programs and prepared a stellar application, move onto part three of this series, Finding and Applying for the Right Financial Aid, because a quality online education doesn’t come cheap.