Online Colleges and Online degrees

Online Degrees: A Brief History

In its infancy, the world of online colleges and online degree programs was like the old U.S. wild west. Initially, only a few, mostly highly suspicious, “online colleges” popped up. Most had no campus; some operated out of a single office, and others were nothing more than degree mills with P.O. boxes where scammers exchanged worthless degrees and fraudulent transcripts in exchange for hefty sums. Their “catalogues” generally contained little or no academic information. Instead, they were packed with essentially dishonest, self-promoting advertising copy and a short list of “professors”, many of whom had degrees from the institution itself or similarly fraudulent entities. Often, operators of these degree mills owned and promoted several, and the cleverest among them created their own bogus accrediting agencies. In some states, particularly those in which there was limited consumer protection legislation and equally little regulatory interest in institutions which claimed to be schools or colleges, these fraudsters raked in millions of dollars and remained untouched by the authorities. In worst case scenarios, degree mills could claim “licensure” in a few states after going through the same process, and paying the same fees, as any other business entity.

After years of ignoring the fraudsters, the more progressive states tightened up their regulatory legislation and enforcement, but in some conservative states there remained strong resistance against any regulation, especially regulation against the institutions which claimed religious affiliation. Not surprisingly, some of the bogus institutions incorporated to protect their owners against personal liability. A few established themselves as (usually religious-affiliated) non-profits and claimed exemption from taxes. Not surprisingly, many online college degree mills popped up in the states with the least regulation, and established degree mills “moved” to them.

Eventually, the FBI stepped in, there were inquiries and hearings, and some of the most egregious degree mill operators were fined and/or imprisoned. At the same time, and for many subsequent years, holders of the bogus degrees they bought were exposed, with many losing their jobs and a few suffering relatively small criminal penalties.      Soon, most of the bad guys were sidelined and legitimate educators and institutions established control of the industry. While a few predatory, for-profit institutions remained, (and a few still do) they became the exception, and online education gained the acceptance it merited.

The Growth of Online Education

With that greater acceptance, and genuine accreditation, came growth.

Then, several years before the COVID pandemic, when online student growth exploded, online college programs experienced dramatic increases in enrollment, and a university offering mostly online degrees (University of Phoenix) became the largest private university in the United States. Just twenty years ago, many organizations were reluctant to seriously consider hiring men and women who had earned online degrees or certificate programs. Now, it is extremely hard to find an organization of significant size, a business, government agency, school, or college which does not include employees who have earned at least one educational or professional credential online. In fact, many such people are in positions of leadership.

It is the success of so many people who studied online that initially elevated the worth of online degrees and professional credentials. And, as perceptions of online and other distance education delivery systems improved, the major accreditation agencies…those approved by the United States Department of Education…began to accredit many more institutions and degree programs. With full accreditation, students studying online became eligible for veteran’s benefits and federal financial aid programs. Obviously, the ability to obtain grants and loans greatly increased the number of people…especially working adults…who could access higher education while meeting their professional and family responsibilities.

At that point, the for-profit institutions that had dominated online education could not adequately serve the entire market, and many well-established public and private institutions, including many that had questioned the rigor and value of online education, realized that their resources could allow them to serve many more students, and generate tremendous revenue via online programs. At the other end of the higher education pecking order, several relatively anonymous small colleges, especially those located in rural areas, literally saved themselves from extinction by adding online career-oriented programs in business, computer science and other high demand areas.

Today, almost every college and university in the United States, from community colleges to Ivy League schools, offer online degree programs of some kind, making it possible for students to earn degrees up to and including PhD’s, EdD’s, and JD’s with little or no time in a traditional classroom.

Online Colleges Today

Here is where we are today; online courses and degree programs are widely (though not universally) respected, nearly every major program of study can be completed online (or with very-limited time on campus), and financial aid…grants and loans…are available to most students. Yes, students may have to take out loans, but flexible online scheduling allows them to work and earn while they learn.

In fact, many employers will finance the educations of those they employ, especially if they select coursework that will create or enhance a skillset valued by the employer. In some instances, companies will fully pay an employee’s tuition, fees, and textbooks for as long as he or she is employed by them. There are many happy stories about workers who influenced their organizations to create tuition assistance programs which became a win-win for all.

Equally encouraging are the tales of people who received raises and/or promotions immediately upon beginning online educational programs. And, happily, it is extremely common to hear of people who are awarded significant promotions and increases in income soon after their degree is conferred. Others, even older workers, have been able to enter entirely new professions after completion of their online studies.

Now that we have delved into a bit of the history and evolution of online colleges/universities and taken a quick look at what an online degree can do for someone, let us consider finances. As noted earlier, students in pursuit of an online degree at any level may qualify for federal financial aid including grants and loans, some of which may be subsidized by the government to ensure lower than normal interest rates. In addition to those offerings are scholarships, sometimes referred to as gift aid because they need not ever be repaid. To get more details about Online Colleges visit:

Scholarships and Financial Aid for Online Study

Although online colleges and universities, for obvious reasons, do not award athletic scholarships, dance team scholarships, band scholarships, journalism scholarships, etc. to their students, many do offer a variety of scholarships, like those at residential colleges, that are designed at least in part to try to be competitively priced in what is a highly competitive market. A competitive higher education market, by the way, can be a student’s best friend. First, competition forces colleges and universities of every kind to invest in their programs, from academic offerings and student support services to faculty compensation packages and job placement services (an increasingly high focus area for both prospective students and accreditors). Competition may also help hold down tuition and make admissions requirements less stringent. We will talk about admissions in a moment, but first let us further explore scholarships.

In this discussion, the word “scholarship” will mean only funds awarded to a student by the institution in which he/she is enrolled or an organization other than state or federal government. In several surveys over the years, it has been determined that most people overestimate the cost of college and underestimate the availability of scholarships and financial aid. Before ruling out an online degree program, confirm the cost of tuition, fees, books, and other necessities, and determine what scholarships (and need-based aid) might be available to you. A quick and easy way to do that is to use the “Quick Degree Finder” tool at the top right of virtually every page on this website.

Our Quick Degree Finder Can be a Big Help

In fewer than 5 minutes the “Quick Degree Finder” will match you to colleges and programs meeting your needs and enable you to request information from them in a single click of your mouse. There is no upper limit on the number of colleges from which you can request information, but we recommend you contact three to five initially.

Learning More: Finding the Information you Need

Once you hear from the colleges from which you requested information, it is likely that costs and scholarship/financial aid will be presented to you clearly. If not, or if you have further questions, respond to your admissions counselor…by email, telephone, or messenger…with your questions. Do not be shy; it is the job of your admissions adviser to answer questions, help you navigate the admissions and financial aid processes, and make certain you overcome any obstacles to enrolling in the online degree program of your choice. Your admissions advisor, however, is far from your only source of scholarship and financial aid information. If you look at the index in the right margin of this page, you will find a link to approximately 70 free scholarship search websites. Once there you can choose to visit as many of the sites as you wish. Although a few sites share data bases, most build and maintain their own, so try searching at least a few different sites if you want to maximize your chances to come away with a list of scholarships for which you can be competitive (or even some for which you automatically qualify). If you are asked to write and submit an essay or a “brag sheet”, be sure to save it. For the most part, submitting something you have used to compete for a scholarship elsewhere is allowed, and it is often faster and easier to adapt something you have already created than to start from scratch. Be aware that many scholarship search engines support themselves by selling your information, so if you do not want to be contacted by military recruiters, folks who sell class rings, agencies which offer college tours, stores which rent or sell clothing for formal events, agencies which provide student health insurance packages, or those who offer SAT prep courses or textbook rentals, you might want to create and use a new email address.

Even if you have not been in a high school for years, it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that your local school counselors, especially those who specialize in college and financial assistance, might help you track down scholarships you would be unlikely to discover on your own. In fact, many school guidance offices maintain a list of so-called “local” scholarships…scholarships awarded by local businesses and organizations to local students. Remember, it takes almost no time to find the phone numbers and/or email addresses of counselors on the websites of their high schools, so you can quickly and easily reach out to counselors…much like earning an online degree… without leaving home.

Finally, make sure you spend time looking for “affinity” scholarships, scholarships for which you may qualify as a function of you or someone in your (mostly) immediate family being affiliated with a company or group of some kind. In some cases, scholarships are available to everyone in the group, in others you would compete only with those in the group, greatly increasing your chances of winning. Probably the best approach is to make a list of the groups to which you, your immediate family members or your grandparents belong and visit their websites looking for scholarships. Finally, try a few searches, like “scholarships for accounting majors”, “scholarships for children of veterans killed in action”, or other groups which include you.

Admissions: Easier and Quicker than you Think

Now, as promised, let us talk about admissions. Much as there is a lot of erroneous information out there about the cost of online degree programs and the difficulty of college-level work online, there is a good deal of misinformation about admission. Many colleges and universities welcome every applicant with a high school diploma or GED with open arms, without regard to their secondary level academic achievement, grades, coursework, or standardized test scores. In fact, even at the graduate degree level, standardized test scores are almost never required. Bottom line: you can pretty much totally forget about standardized testing unless you choose to sit for (as you should) CLEP (College Life Experience Program) exams to “test out” of courses for which your experience may earn you equivalent college credit. Generally, colleges will limit the number of courses for which you can earn CLEP credit to a maximum of five or six, but there is some variability in that number, so consider that in selecting your college and your major field of study. Although most colleges will charge a fee of some kind to accept CLEP credits, that fee is generally far lower than tuition costs. In other words, your life experience can save you both substantial time and money. The same is true of prior undergraduate college coursework. Not all colleges and universities have the same transfer acceptance policy, but most will accept the equivalent of up to three years of fulltime study in which a student has earned a grade of at least a “C”.  In addition, many colleges require no additional general education courses from undergraduate degree seekers who have earned a two-year degree. In general, graduate programs will accept up to twelve graduate credits.

Earlier, we recommended that you use our “Quick Degree Finder” to request information from 3-5 online schools. However, once you receive that information, review it carefully (taking notes as you go), and speak with admissions counselors, you need apply only to your first-choice college, as there is little chance you will be denied admission. If you are not admitted, or if you are unhappy with the financial aid, CLEP hours, or transfer credit you are awarded, you can always move on and apply to your next choice. However, if you want to compare multiple offers before making a final college selection, you can apply to several institutions. There is no reason not to do so except for the time and effort required to fill out multiple applications and send in supporting documents. Many online programs, by the way, will gladly waive application fees, so money should never be a deterrent to you applying to a degree program of possible interest to you.

After you Get Admitted: What Comes Next?

The day you receive your letter or email of acceptance, you will get the answer to the question most prospective students have asked themselves, often more than once: Am I really prepared to do this?

In fact, that sometimes nagging, often-difficult question will be answered easily and definitively. By then, you will know exactly what will be expected of you to successfully complete your program and how badly you want your degree. If you are jumping with joy, just go for it.

Conversely, if your feet feel cemented to the floor…if you have serious reservations about your preparation or commitment, it is probably not a good time for you to begin a new degree program online or otherwise. You can always revisit your decision.