Earlier this week, for the first time since I signed up for my online personal finance class, I came across a problem in a homework assignment that left me completely stumped.
The question, like so many others in our textbook, involved a hypothetical, 20-something couple named Vikki and Tim. In previous case studies, I'd helped Vikki and Tim get their debt under control and monitor their spending.
Now I was being asked to calculate their maximum mortgage rate – and feeling like a totally inept financial advisor.
[Learn how to tell the good online programs from the bad.]
My professor had requested that we post our questions to the online discussion board so that other students could weigh in, but I didn't feel like I had time to wait for an answer. So I went rogue, flipping through my syllabus in search of the contact number for the business department's campus-based tutor.
I was cutting it close. It was 11:30 a.m., and she was working that day until 1 p.m. I left her a voice mail and followed up with a quick email, but figured I probably wouldn't hear from her that day.
[See 10 tips for deciding whether an online degree is for you.]
Students who take advantage of online tutoring report higher academic gains, a better attitude about seeking help and improved class retention rates, according to a white paper commissioned by Tutor.com, a web-based tutoring service.
Fortunately, online students in need of tutoring help typically have access to a variety of free resources through their institution. Depending on the college or university, students can interact with tutors through Blackboard or another learning management system, chat through Skype or talk on the phone.
In some cases, schools will have their own employees work with students, while in others, schools partner with companies such as Tutor.com or Smarthinking to provide tutoring services.
If students can't reach a school tutor, or aren't interested, they can also turn to online video tutorials.
YouTube can be a helpful, free resource for students. I searched the video-sharing site for "mortgage rate calculators," for example, and came up with a variety of brief videos that cleared up some of my confusion. Khan Academy is another great place to turn for free video tutorials on a variety of subjects, says Shari McCurdy Smith, a senior consultant for the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting online learning.
Education experts are divided on what it takes to provide quality online tutoring and when it's best to provide it.
Ideally, student services such as tutoring should be available and accessible to students outside of traditional working hours, Susan Aldridge, then a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told U.S. News earlier this year.
I tend to agree with her, and found myself surprised by my tutor's limited availability.
[Finish an online degree by credit by exam.]
But holding tutoring hours during the middle of the day might make sense, according to McCurdy Smith.
"Twenty-four-hour help is really expensive," she says. "They probably thought about how they can best meet everyone's needs and still afford it. Students are most likely to do their work over the noon hour and scheduling from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. hits all time zones."
As it turns out, I never did get in touch with my tutor that day. But I did post a question on our class online discussion board, which led to a quick reply from my online professor.
She referred me to another post she'd written that clarified the formula that had me confused.
After crunching the numbers, I was able to give Vikki and Tim the solid financial advice they deserved.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.