It's not shocking to say that we live in a different mindset than even 20 years ago. Let's think about this, though. 20 years ago there was no widespread use of the internet, cordless phones were popular, but cellphone usage was at a minimum. Today's world allows us to have amazing access to an abundance of information. The repercussions of this mindset have led to some terrible distance education programs and some truly great ones. For those looking into distance education options it can be difficult to tell the better ones from the not-so-great ones. Here are four tips that help you pick out a good program.
1. Accreditation, Accreditation, Accreditation -If real estate evaluation begins with location, then looking for a good online degree programs needs to begin with a look at the school's accreditation. You want to see a link (usually in their About section of the website) that takes you to their accreditation statement. It should read "Such-and-Such College is accredited by the This-and-That Accrediting Body. The This and That Accrediting Body is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation."
So, it's really a two-part thing. Is the school accredited? If yes, then is the accrediting body one that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation? The reason this last part has become important is that some colleges have created their own accrediting bodies . . . and accredit themselves . . . which is legal, but unethical. That is for institutions in the United States. For non-U.S. institutions you would just make certain that they are authorized by their government's education ministry (or equivalent), since accreditation is a mostly American phenomenon. When in doubt check with an agency like the World Education Services which can provide information about an overseas schools and tell you if their program is equivalent to regional accreditation in the U.S.
2. Delivery Format - Degrees by correspondence never really gained widespread acceptance the way online education has. A good online program is going to take you away from the "complete this at your own pace and mail it back" format to "take this course in this many weeks and complete the weekly assignments" format. The latter format is used by most of the preferred online programs. An online environment generally allows for discussion (by way of discussion forums and chat rooms), timed exams, and access to online lectures or lectures on DVD. This provides the structure that most need to be successful in this type of endeavor. It also allows for interaction with other students, which still isn't as nice as sitting in a classroom with them, but infinitely better than the old correspondence method. Some programs, especially graduate and doctoral programs, may be geared to be hybrids of some sort. By this I mean that you come to class for a week and complete assignments online when you get home. It's kind of the best of both worlds, but I realize that it's not always a possibility.
3. Faculty - Before applying to any program, check out who will be teaching you. I tend to shy away from places that have most of the professors that have ALL of their degrees from the same place. It's common for someone to have a degree or two from the place they're teaching. It is also common to have faculty members at great schools that received all of their degrees from the school they're teaching in. That's not a bad thing. What does make me cautious is when just about everyone has their every one of their degrees from that institution. That is academic inbreeding and a subject for another post.
4. Cost - Sometimes it just comes down to this. "I like this program better, but this other program is cheaper . . . " We can talk about all the rest of the stuff to consider, but without a way to pay for it, then it's not going to do you much good. College or Seminary can be more affordable than you think - and even more affordable than the tuition you see on a school's website. Every school that accepts federal financial aid (which is pretty much all of them) has to have on their website a "cost of attendance calculator." This will allow you to find out what the base cost for you completing your degree will be. This isn't the end of the road, though. Take this figure and talk to the institution's financial aid office. They will be able to tell you what scholarships and grants you apply for. One of the schools that I teach at offers scholarships that take 1/3 off of tuition for several categories. Southern Baptist seminaries offer considerable discounts for members of Southern Baptist churches. Also, many Christian universities and seminaries will offer tuition discounts for those already in ministry. Once your hear back from them about what you are eligible for, this should give you an idea of the real cost of attendance. While some disagree, I also suggest loans for some students. This approach allows you to not have to work full time and go to school (although you still can if you need the money to live on). I find that sometimes using loans for a couple of semester just to "finish up" can relieve a lot of stress for a student. Ideally you would want to not use loans and pay as you go, but it's not the end of the world if you need to take out a loan or two.
Most of this info can apply to any degree program, online or otherwise. However, it's particularly relevant to evaluating online programs. I would love to hear your first-hand accounts of online education and, of course, if you have any questions, feel free to ask those too!
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.