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(Editor’s note: This is a post written by Maria Rainier, sharing EXCELLENT advice for anyone considering online college degrees. Please read and comment!)

Counseling your children on choosing an online degree

College can be an exciting time for first-time students and parents alike: The applications, the expectation and thrill of getting news of acceptance, packing up for the dorm and the first time living away from home.

Or not. Many more students are opting for non-traditional degree routes, including online programs.

But how do you know if an online degree is right for your son or daughter? And how do you offer guidance in selecting the right program?

Here are a few things to consider:

Advantages of an online degree

Online programs are increasing in popularity, largely due to their flexibility. Students have the option to study anywhere and at any time. The only necessity is a computer and an Internet connection — and they can both be found at a public library for students who don’t have those.

This adaptability often appeals to nontraditional students who are already in the workforce or who have other obligations such as families. But every student can benefit from the ability to schedule their education at their own pace and to work in their studies around other life experiences. When classes can be taken at any time from the convenience of your own home, it allows students to free up more time to complete internships or other job-training programs that can start giving them much needed experience earlier in their careers.

Online programs also offer students greater efficiency — with the ability to not only take courses online, but also to register for classes, access learning materials, engage in discussions, receive feedback and evaluations, receive extra tutoring and more. All the materials needed by the student are available in one place and are easily accessible.

Finally, online programs offer potential for savings over traditional programs. Tuition may often be the same — or higher — but many of the books and materials are available online at a lower cost, and other expenses such as room and board or travel are reduced.

The disadvantages

Since online programming is still in its early days relatively, it is still working out some weak spots. Though many of the issues can be overcome with planning and careful consideration.

Not surprisingly, many of the problems involve technology issues. These can include bandwidth or Internet access issues, out of date software or hardware, speed of software or hardware, lack of online support where needed, or problems accessing the site.

Depending on program and learning styles, some students may also find the lack of face-to-face interaction or support frustrating for learning.

One of the major advantages of online programs — the speed of the programs through condensing the curriculum — is also one of the disadvantages. For some students, the pace may be too quick and the curriculum may not be designed to be thorough enough.

Conversations to have with your children

Considering the advantages and disadvantages is not enough. There are many issues to consider when deciding on whether to pursue a degree online and then in choosing which program is the right one.

Because the learning environment is so different in an online program, the first thing that students should consider is their learning style. Most people learn best one of three ways: seeing, hearing or doing. While online learning tends to combine all three of these learning styles, students are more likely to receive mostly visual and auditory learning cues in these programs. There will be far fewer opportunities for hands-on training than there are at traditional programs.

Next, help your son or daughter consider if an online program is the right choice. In order to be successful with online programs, students must be self-motivated and self-directed, have good time management skills, and be able to read and understand texts in an electronic format.

If an online program is the right fit, keep in mind a few things when picking a quality program.

With the rise in popularity of online programs — more than 3.9 million were enrolled in the fall 2007 –they are gaining credibility. But with the continued presence of so many “diploma mills,” online programs may not always have a strong reputation with employers.

To ensure that you are choosing a quality program, look for those offered through established schools with traditional programs that have their regular faculty also offering online courses. Next, make sure to choose schools that are regionally accredited, or have specific accreditation for the degree offered.

Next, consider what degree programs are offered by the school. The three primary undergraduate degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). Talk with your son or daughter to determine career goals to decide on what degree will be the most marketable. Then study the curriculum and determine if it is rigorous enough or offers the right emphasis to meet career goals.

As with any school, research the logistics of the program offered, from tuition and fees (check for any hidden costs) to financial aid. Note that some online programs do carry “residency” requirements, which means that students must take some classes on a physical campus.

Finally, consider whether the program has enough student support, including a personal adviser, and whether courses taken through Advanced Placement or at other colleges will carry credit.

No matter the program — whether online or traditional — the same criteria apply: Finding a program that suits career goals and that will provide a reputable and marketable degree.

This guest post is contributed by Maria Rainier, she writes on the topic of online degrees.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who are considering online degrees.