The Internet has made higher education accessible for millions of people whose personal circumstances preclude formal attendance at a conventional college or university. Although the online learning environment minimizes some of the inconveniences of travel and scheduling, it's not a shortcut; students in legitimate programs at accredited institutions work hard to earn their credentials, regardless of whether they study online or in person. To succeed as an online student, you should begin with a realistic assessment of the work required and the time and energy you can devote to the task.

Finding a School

Identify exactly why you're seeking a degree. Are you interested in personal growth for its own sake, or is this degree intended for career advancement?

Determine what degree would be best for your purposes. At the undergraduate level, you might pursue an associate's degree (which normally takes full-time students approximately two years to complete) or a bachelor's degree (four years). You also need to figure out what course of study you prefer, i.e., business, communications, liberal arts, etc.

Search for an appropriate online college using College Navigator, an online database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. Be sure to click on "More Search Options" and click the box labelled "Distance Learning."

Examine each of the search results to find the most appropriate school. Factors to consider include the rigor of the program (look especially at the accreditation status), tuition and financial aid, and the retention rates. The "Admissions" tab will offer information on standards for successful applicants to the program.

Apply to the program of your choice. Once you're accepted, you'll be able to proceed with earning your degree at a pace that fits your lifestyle. Some students may only take a course or two at a time, while others are able to handle heavier course loads.

Earning the Degree

Learn the specifics of the degree you're pursuing. Most programs have a requirement of certain core courses (English composition, or basic mathematics, for example), combined with courses required for the major field of study and a small number of required elective courses.

Contact your assigned academic advisor to discuss possible course choices. Don't take on more courses than your personal circumstances will allow, and pay special attention to prerequisite courses. You may be required, for example, to take more than one semester of English composition, and it's best not to put that off. Not only will the skills you develop in that class contribute to your success in other courses, it's important that you take prerequisite courses first so you can continue to other courses.

Set aside time in your weekly schedule to complete coursework. Remember that you'll have deadlines to meet, and you'll have to make sure you meet them. Try to choose times that you can easily defend from outside distractions, especially work and family demands.