7 Things to Know About Online-Only Universities

Experts say these institutions are generally designed for working professionals – but they aren’t right for everybody. (Westend61/Getty Images)

To transition her career into business and human resources, Melanie Hoobler believed earning a master’s degree was important.

The Colorado resident and current student turned to online education in part because she may relocate to another state. She chose a human resource management master’s degree program at Colorado State University—Global Campus, an online-only institution.

But before she enrolled, she says she recognized there’s still a stigma about online-only universities. The lack of on-campus resources, for instance, may prompt some to believe that this form of learning is lower quality or that employers don’t view these degrees as legitimate.

[Discover three reasons why online degrees aren’t always easier.]

The 25-year-old, a director of operations for a local painting company, says that after working with many HR professionals, she realizes that online degrees don’t really raise concerns among employers anymore.

There are many different types of online programs, and universities that are primarily or fully online – with little to no access to a campus – are one option. Here are seven things prospective students should know about these online-only institutions.

1. Accreditation is particularly important. Accreditation is verification from an outside authority that a college or university – and in some cases, a specific program – meets certain standards of quality, whether it’s on campus, online or a combination. Though a voluntary process, accreditation increases the likelihood that employers will accept a job candidate’s degree and that credits will transfer, among other benefits.

While it’s important to ensure that an online program is accredited before enrolling, it’s particularly important with online-only universities, given the large number of fake programs out there and because employers may be less likely to immediately recognize the school’s name. Ensure that the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes the accrediting agency.

2. These institutions cater mainly to working professionals. Online programs are often designed to be flexible because they mainly attract working adults.

But online-only universities may more likely be structured in a way that satisfies working students’ other needs, perhaps with multiple starting points throughout the year and accelerated options, says Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships for the Online Learning Consortium, an organization aiming to improve online higher education.

[Consider online programs designed for working adults.]

“They recognize that waiting four months to start your degree can seem like a lifetime for a student, so they try to offer more entry points to help the students get in faster so they can also graduate faster,” she says.

Still, there can be drawbacks. In accelerated programs with multiple start dates, a student may be less likely to develop strong relationships with classmates, Mathes says.

3. Online-only doesn’t automatically mean lower quality. Students should weigh many factors – faculty, reputation, availability of student services, cost and course structure, to name a few – when choosing a program rather than jumping to conclusions, experts say.

Despite not having access to in-person resources, online students may find other advantages to choosing a school that only focuses on them.

“They’re not trying to please everybody,” says Derit Watson, a current online bachelor’s student at the online-only Western Governors University. “They’re just really devoted to that genre.”

4. Access to faculty and student services may still be available. Just because students at online-only schools don’t have access to a campus doesn’t mean support staff aren’t available virtually.

Phil Molling, an enrollment counselor at the online, for-profit Capella University, says students often communicate with faculty via email and phone. Students may also use videoconferencing, experts say.

Many online-only schools also offer services including career guidance, tutors and a writing center. J.R. Toledo, an online MBA student at the for-profit, primarily online University of Phoenix, says he’s constantly in touch with an academic adviser, for instance.

5. Many are for-profit schools. Online-only universities are more likely to be for-profit than nonprofit, says Mathes. Experts say some employers may be more hesitant to accept for-profit online degrees, though they note quality varies widely within the sector.

[Learn how to decide between a for-profit and nonprofit online program.]

6. Courses may still have clinical requirements. While Western Governors classifies itself as a completely online university, some programs – including those where students can attain a nursing licensure – still require students to complete some work in person, says Daren Upham, vice president of academic operations at the school.

Referring to online nursing students, Upham says, “It’s critical for them to get experience in those programs because they are dealing with life-and-death situations. The only way to do that is to attend a face-to-face clinical setting,” such as a hospital.

7. These programs aren’t right for everyone. If you want face-to-face access to professors and support services or lack self-discipline and time-management skills, rethink whether online-only is the best choice.

If individuals learn best with an instructor teaching in front of them, Upham says, “then that’s probably the best option.”