4 Online Education Program Considerations for International Students

Earning a U.S. university degree online can be inexpensive, but it's not right for everyone.

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Online education is a booming part of the higher education sector. More than 6.7 million students took an online course at a U.S. institution in fall 2011—an all-time high

[Explore the U.S. News rankings of Best Online Education Programs.] 

For international students like Slovenia resident Mateja Klaric, online education could be a particularly attractive option: a chance to earn a top-notch U.S. education without having to physically be in the country. 

"For someone like me, who doesn't live in the U.S. (not to mention having a full-time job), online [education] is the only option," the 45-year-old Klaric, who's currently enrolled at Arizona State University Online, wrote in an E-mail to U.S. News. "Tuition is still extremely expensive, but I can work and the costs of living are considerably lower here." 

[Find out if an online program is right for you.] 

But before you commit to an online degree, make these considerations to ensure it's the right move for you. 

1. Check that it's reputable: Finding the right online education program for you will take research. "Just because an institution has 'University' in the title does not mean it is a fully accredited U.S. institution of higher education," notes Angela Stopper, global portfolio director for Pennsylvania State University—World Campus

Checking that a school is regionally or nationally accredited is important for any student, to ensure that an eventual degree earned will be recognized by employers or other institutions—whether in the United States or abroad. For Ranin Soliman, who completed an online master's program at Walden University while living in Giza, Egypt, accreditation checks were a crucial first step in her evaluations. 

"I found this very important because I wanted to guarantee that the degree I receive would be trusted and accredited to help me pursue a doctorate or post-doctorate studies," she notes. 

[Read more about screening online ed programs for accreditation.] 

2. Examine the support systems: Since you won't be living on (or anywhere near) campus, check to make sure you'll get the virtual support you'll need to complete your degree. Among the resources Stopper of Penn State recommends: a 24-7 technology help desk to account for different time zones, tutoring services, and one-on-one career advising. 

At Arizona State University, school officials aim to provide the same resources and opportunities for online students and on-campus students alike, says Russ Knocke, chief of staff and director of communications for ASU Online. Online students can join virtual student groups, engage with one another on social media networks, and have access to advising as they would on campus, he says. 

"All the same services and opportunities and happenings that are available for students on-campus, we try to make available for our students online, wherever they might call home," he says. 

3. Make sure your work can transfer: Some international students may consider online education courses as stepping stones to a degree program in the United States—a way to amass credits before going abroad to complete a degree. If you're taking online education courses with the hope of ultimately completing your degree elsewhere, check to make sure those credits will be accepted at other distance education or traditional campus programs. 

Some online institutions in the United States even allow students to test out of credits through examinations. If you're considering this option, check with school advisers to verify that any exams you complete for credit will be accepted at other institutions before spending time and money on the tests. 

[Read more about earning online credits for what you already know.] 

4. Evaluate your own academic needs: While the coursework and materials for online courses are similar—if not identical—to traditional, on-campus classes, that's not to say distance education is a learning method that's right for everyone. 

"Not all learners are equipped to learn in this way," Penn State's Stopper notes. "Does the university provide an assessment of your learning style to make sure online education is right for you? If not, seriously consider the following: Are you self-directed enough to be successful; do you have the discipline to work through classes without a set schedule; do you have access to the technology needed to be successful; do you have a good support network at home to help you stay focused and dedicated?"