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College[Guest Post By Bob Hand]

An ever-increasing number of higher education students are looking to further their potential through an online education. While some students may merely take a few online classes over the summer to supplement their brick and mortar courses, many students are opting for an entirely virtual education.

While the convenience of an online education can be an incentive to pursue that route, prospective students should keep in mind that there are still important preparations that they must make prior to enrolling.
In 2017, online classes will play a bigger role in higher education than ever before. If you are one of the many who are considering online courses, there are several important things you should know before submitting any applications.

Seek financial aid for an accredited program.

Seeking financial aid is a fairly straightforward process. Like on-campus students, online students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There are many sites online that will offer to help students apply for a price, but these are shady and unnecessary. For the 2016-2017 award year, the deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30, 2017. There is a limited amount of money to be awarded, however, and it is dispensed on a first-come first-served basis.

Getting financial aid in the world of online education comes with a major caveat: Not every online degree is eligible for federal student aid. Many are not even accredited, for that matter. Some unaccredited institutions attempt to portray themselves as legitimate through the use of “accreditation mills” — fraudulent organizations that award such entities meaningless awards. Prior to enrolling, prospective students must research online programs through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to determine if they are legitimate.

Stay connected with a reliable internet service.

While this may seem obvious, following an online curriculum requires a reliable internet connection. Considering that creating and uploading videos is becoming an increasingly popular trend in education, it is clear that a robust internet plan is needed to support an online education. Streaming videos, uploading content, and collaborating with peers online can be data-intensive activities.

New students sometimes fail to realize that their current internet connection is either unreliable, too slow, or has too low of a data allowance. Failing an assignment due to internet constraints can lead to some real rage-induced property damage; ensure that you can stay connected with an adequate internet service provider.

If you are frequently away from home, a good mobile data plan could also be a great help. Every smartphone user knows that Youtube can wreck havoc on your monthly data allotment. Similarly, streaming video for classes can be prohibitively costly. Increasingly, providers are giving consumers free reign of their internet usage, providing unlimited data plans — such as the T-Mobile ONE plan that will become available in late January.

Consider supplementing your education.

Learning does not start and stop with the beginning and end of each semester. Preparing yourself for a future career means acquiring the skills you need to succeed. Depending on your field of study, it might be worth looking into additional training prior to the start of your first term.

For example, nearly every art major can benefit from training with popular editing software. Photoshop classes can give these students a leg-up, letting them focus more on production than simply learning how to use the software. Most students in STEM majors can seriously benefit from a basic understanding of coding. Likewise, future videographers, musicians, and architects can benefit from extracurricular training in software they need to be proficient with in order to succeed.

Some of these programs can confer college credits or certifications that can improve your education. While not every student may find the time for additional training, it can improve your grades and have a positive impact on your employability.

As more students enroll in online courses, occasional slip-ups are bound to occur. You do not need to be a part of this statistic. From seeking an accredited institution to ensuring that you are financially and technologically prepared to begin an online education, keeping this advice in mind should make the transition much smoother.