It’s now easier than ever to attend college, as technology and the Internet broke down barriers of distance and time that can come between students and their educational goals. If these factors have kept you from furthering your education, perhaps online learning is right for you.

There are many different online learning options available. Even if the concept is right for you, some programs will be a much better fit for you than others, just like with any educational choices you make. Here are some things to consider in your search for an online education.

Accreditation
Depending on your area of study and career goals, accreditation ranges from important to critical. If you’re pursuing something like a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you’ll want to make sure your school of choice has accreditation from a reputable source. Not all accreditation agencies are equal, and some agencies’ accreditation is essentially worthless, available to any institution that will pay for it.

The Department of Education doesn’t accredit schools, but it does recognize legitimate accreditation agencies. It also maintains a database of accredited schools, and it’s easy to search for schools’ accreditation by name or geographic area. In general, if you stick to well-known private or major public colleges and universities, you’ll be fine.

Combining Online and Offline Learning
At first, you might assume that it doesn’t really matter where a school offering online courses is located. You might be attracted to a school in another state because it has a better reputation in your field of study than local schools. But even if you’re taking classes online, it makes a lot of sense to choose a school that’s close to you if at all possible. Some schools have resisted the idea of entirely online programs, and you should expect that at some point you’ll have to actually set foot in a classroom in order to earn a degree.

This approach, called blended or hybrid learning, offers a lot more flexibility than purely online learning. Sometimes, one class offers both elements of online and classroom studies. In other cases, a class you want or need to take might not be offered online. If you don’t live close enough to attend in person, you may find your studies in limbo. You may eventually be able to transfer credits from a far-away school to a local one, but be aware that many schools won’t accept transfer credits in the area of your major.

Financial Aid
Offline or online, college is still expensive. Some online programs, but not all, are eligible for federal student aid. Before you apply to a school, contact its financial aid office and discuss the program you’re interested in. They’ll be able to tell you whether you’ll be eligible for financial aid from the federal government, or from the school itself.

Try It On First
Again, college is expensive. If you’re not sure whether online learning is right for you, you should try it out before you spend any money. There are many colleges and universities, even Harvard, that offer free online courses. You don’t have to aim for the Ivy League if you don’t want to. Many schools have embraced the massive open online course (MOOC) concept, making it possible to learn from world-class professors and institutions. In many cases, online courses are completely free, while other courses do cost a small fee. Find one that interests you, sign up, and see if you’re ready to commit to a full online program.

Is Your Connection as Ready to Learn as You Are?

Your online program should provide information about technical requirements. While a faster Internet connection might not be necessary, there are definitely times when it will be helpful — streaming lecture videos, for example. If you think your current plan might not be fast enough for your needs, now’s the time to find something better. Even if you decide not to pursue an online education, you’ll be glad for the upgrade.

Or view all providers