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College Planning Guide for Online Students

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Colleges have certainly changed. While the traditional image of vine-covered buildings sitting on a lush campus with students walking to classes on the same days at certain hours still exists, more students are opting for online degree programs. It’s been estimated that over 20 million Americans are enrolled in a college or university. Of that number, it’s estimated that 11.8 million students are taking online classes or enrolled in online degree programs. Online degrees are offered, from associate degrees to bachelor’s, master’s, and PhDs.

Since the late 1990s, colleges and universities have developed online degree programs to appeal to the more nontraditional student (typically aged 24 and up). Nontraditional students are working professionals, students with family obligations that prevent them from attending in-person, or students who want to finish degree programs they started but didn’t complete.

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In 2020, due to the global Covid pandemic, we saw colleges and universities move their campus courses online so students wouldn’t fall behind in their classes. For many, learning online has become a convenient alternative. Schools recognized that they could reach more students with online courses and degree offerings, and, as a result, more online programs exist.

Whichever description fits you, the process for choosing a college program remains the same, beginning with planning. College Consensushas some suggestions to help you plan for your college experience with online studies.

Is An Online Degree Right for You?

Whether you’re a high school student, a student who just earned your GED, or an adult learner or are pursuing your graduate degree, a college degree is more accessible than ever with online degree programs.

People enter online degree programs for various reasons; you want to complete your degree, transfer from a community college, or earn a degree while continuing to work or meet family obligations. Whatever the case, you’ll want to spend time thinking about why you’re pursuing an online bachelor’s or advanced degree and searching for the best programs.

Begin Planning Early

As with most things, the sooner you can make your decision and choices, the better. Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll want to consider several things. Most high school students begin seriously considering their future college career while they’re in the 9th grade. This is when, with the help of teachers and guidance counselors, students start planning their studies to give them the best foundation for college.

If you’re a high school student, you’ll want to take two to three years of:

  • English
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Math
  • Foreign Language

You’ll also want to give consideration to extracurricular activities. These can include such things as sports, leadership groups, debate, drama, or glee clubs, and others. Community volunteer work is also a good idea (i.e., work in a hospital, your local animal shelter, a daycare or long-term care facility, etc.)

What Are Your Goals?

If you enter college from high school, you’ll want to talk with your guidance counselor or other trusted adult about your options. With the counselor’s help, you’ll be able to focus on your academic strengths and career options.

Often, online students are adult learners who weren’t able to complete their degrees because of family or work obligations. You may want to advance your career, and an undergraduate will help you make that step.

  • What’s your end game?

Are you wanting to enter a field that requires an undergraduate degree, such as healthcare, science, research, engineering, education, technology, etc.?

What academic areas excite you, and you’re interested in learning more?

  • Do you need to work while earning your degree?

Online degree programs are ideal for students and working professionals who need to work while earning a degree.

  • Are there online programs that meet your goals?

Degree programs offered online typically mirror images of in-person courses, covering the same material taught by the same faculty.

Technology has made it possible for students to study in-demand fields such as nursing, engineering, computer science, or education, with coursework being completed online and practical experiences conducted in students’ home communities.

A great advantage to online degrees is the opportunity to earn a degree that may be out of state at in-state student rates. This substantially opens your degree program options.

Consider what you want from the degree:

  • Complete an unfinished degree
  • Earn an advanced degree
  • Career and professional advancement
  • Earn a degree while continuing to work

What Are Your Academic Options?

Online vs. Hybrid vs. On Campus Degrees

You’ll want to understand your academic program options as you decide your preferences. The traditional degree requires you to attend in-person classes on specific days and times.

Online – Courses are offered 100% online that you can take on your timeline. Online programs may sometimes require internships or practicum experiences conducted in your home community, but for the most part, you’ll not have to attend in person.

Hybrid – Hybrid programs are a mix of online studies that will also require periodic on-campus attendance to demonstrate technical skills or two-three day residencies

On Campus– On-campus degree programs require you to attend classes in-person at specified times

Are online degrees as good as traditional degrees? Absolutely. Online students study the same courses and are taught by the same faculty as students sitting in class. Online courses are typically presented in accelerated formats which allow you to move through a program at a slightly faster pace (for instance, 8-9 weeks rather than the usual 10).

Public 4-Year Schools

All 50 states offer state-supported colleges and universities. These schools frequently will offer far lower tuition and fees than private schools. State schools usually have lower tuition and fees for in-state residents than out-of-state students.

Private 4-Year Schools

You’ll probably pay more in tuition and fees at a private school, but you may also benefit from the prestige of a private school. Private schools may attract renowned faculty members, advanced research opportunities, and nationally and internationally known academic degree programs. Frequently, colleges and universities with religious affiliations are private institutions.

Two-Year Community Colleges

These are usually state-supported schools that offer two-year Associate Degrees and professional certificates. There are several advantages to a community college Associate Degree:

  • Tuition and fees at community colleges are significantly lower than at four-year schools. Many states don’t charge tuition and fees for their residents
  • An Associate Degree will help you earn the general education courses required for a 4-year program
  • Most 4-year institutions will accept transfer credits from community colleges, allowing you to enter a 4-year program as a junior and save money.

Technical and Trade Schools

If you’re looking for a specific skill, these schools can help you earn a diploma or certificate to qualify you to enter the workforce faster and for less money and provide real-world experience.

For-Profit Schools

These schools are usually part of more giant corporations that answer to shareholders who invested in making money. While it doesn’t mean the education offered is inferior, for-profit schools charge considerably more tuition and fees as they prioritize profits, marketing, and recruitment. Depending on the bottom line, charges for these programs can increase without notice. These institutions frequently feature more technical or career-oriented programs.

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How Do You Apply?

Once you’ve chosen your college(s), you’ll want to review the information the school requires for admission consideration. There are some key factors to keep in mind:

Deadlines Deadlines Deadlines

Even for online programs, admission is competitive, and schools have specific deadlines you’ll need to meet.


As you do your school search, you may notice there are different applications required at different schools. Some schools will use institutional applications, while others may accept one of the universal applications that allow you to complete one application and have it sent to several schools.

Here are some of the more popular centralized applications:

  • Common App

Each year, over one million students applying for college complete the Common App. This application was developed about 40 years ago and provides school information and allows you to keep track of your applications and deadlines. More than 1,000 colleges and universities use the Common App. One of the helpful features of this application is its mobile app. (The Common App is free, but schools may charge an application fee which may range from $25-$75.)

  • Coalition App

The Coalition App is a competitor of the Common App and is accepted by fewer colleges and universities. It, too, is free to use and is flexible in its approach. This app allows for more creativity and is user-friendly. One feature of this application is that you can begin work on your college applications as early as the ninth grade. The Coalition App is committed to advising students of schools that offer financial aid to low-income students.

You’ll need to meet specific deadlines for application materials such as academic transcripts, letters of reference, ACT/SAT scores, essays, or purpose statements. It’s critical that you meet the school’s deadlines.

  • Universal App

This application, unlike the Common and Coalition apps, is a for-profit service and has fallen out of favor, with fewer colleges and universities using it.

  • University Systems

Some university systems use one application for several schools within their systems. Most prominent are:

  • ApplyTexas
  • Cal State Apply
  • applySuny
  • University of California Application


Schools will have different admission deadlines. You may run across these terms:

Rolling – Schools evaluate applications as received. This is frequently seen in online programs with various deadlines and decisions in 4-6 weeks

Regular – Regular decision is most common and usually is in January or February, with decision in March or April

Early Decision – You can submit your application before the regular deadline. Typically falls in November, with admission decision in December.

Open Admission – Schools will accept any student regardless of grades or GED until all its admission slots are filled (every day in community colleges)

Financial Assistance

One of the most critical deadlines is the one for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) since financial aid is pretty much a first come, first served situation. Usually, applications are available on October 1st, and schools typically will have deadlines for materials to be filed to be considered for financial aid. You’ll want to check the College Consensus Online Student’s Guide to Understanding Financial Aid and the FAFSAguide on financial assistance.

How Much Will It Cost?

How much you’ll pay in tuition will depend on a variety of factors, such as location and whether the school is public, private, two-year, or for-profit. Another influence on tuition costs is choosing a school in another state. Some schools will charge online students in-state tuition regardless of residency status, but not all.

As an online student, you won’t incur expenses such as housing, travel, food, materials, etc. However, you may be charged online fees, which vary from school to school.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Frequently, online tuition and fees are slightly less than for in-person students. According to U.S. News and World Report, the average cost for an online bachelor’s degree can be between $38,496 and $60,593, or an average of $282 per credit hour or $3,400 for a 12-hour semester (full-time). Fees may run $25-$100 per semester.

The U.S. News and World Report and Education Data Initiative published the following average tuition and fees costs for the academic year 2021-22:

Private: $38,185

Public Non-Resident: $22,698

Public Resident: $10,338

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average tuition cost for a community college associate degree is approximately $3,900 per academic year in 2020-21.

Community College: $7,800

Of course, the cost of your education is an essential factor in your school choice. There’s good news. However, that online students are eligible for federal student aid, scholarships, and loans when enrolled in an accredited degree program.

Tuition and fees are fluid and are subject to change each academic year.


Online Student’s Guide to Understanding Financial Aid and the FAFSA

An Online Student’s Guide to the Common Application

Online Student’s Guide to Tuition Reimbursement and Assistance

How To Write A College Essay.

Ready to start your journey?

Ready to start your journey?