Online Schools Guide Book

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Updated November 17, 2020 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Online Schools and Career Training

Career schools and vocational schools are designed to get individuals into the workforce faster through intense, targeted training in the profession of their choice. Career schools, also sometimes known as technical schools, offer training that takes two years or less, requires some classroom time (which can be completed online) and has a hands-on component as well. Though some are for-profit businesses, many career schools are public or private non-profit entities.

Here are some of the similarities and differences between vocational or career schools and four-year universities.

Career or Vocational Schools 4-year Universities

Is financial aid available?

Yes.Financial aid might be available at the federal and state level, as well as through private organizations.

Yes.Financial aid is often available through the federal, state and local levels.

Are scholarships available?

Yes.Scholarship opportunities are wide and varied.

Yes.Scholarship opportunities are numerous.

Type of school?

May be public or private, but some are for-profit businesses.

Usually public or private, but some might be for-profit.

Length of Program

Many programs require less than one year of study; students who want an associate degree can count on at least two years of study.

Most programs require at least four years of study in order to obtain the bachelor's degree; those who want a higher degree can count on at least five years of study.

Accreditation Status

Many career and vocational programs are accredited; however, some short certificate programs might not be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Rather, they will be recognized by a particular professional organization that is devoted to that occupation.

Always look for an accredited school. A college or university that does not earn accreditation might provide a degree that is not worth the paper it is printed on!

Hands-on Requirement?

Most vocational and career opportunities do require hands-on training, though basic classwork can be completed online.

Some programs do have a hands-on component, but many can be completed entirely online.

Degrees/Credentials Earned

These schools provide a certificate, diploma or associate degree.

These schools provide a bachelor's degree, and offer opportunities for master's, professional and graduate degrees as well.

Online Availability?

Vocational and career programs usually have a strong hands-on component, so online opportunities might be limited for some programs.

Since many bachelor's degrees don't require hands-on work, there might be more programs available online.

Extracurricular Activity?

These schools focus strongly on technical education, and often do not have a long list of clubs, athletic groups or student organizations.

These schools offer a wealth of student clubs, organizations, organized and coed athletics, and much more.

Tips for Choosing an Online School

Making the decision to attend online school is one thing; choosing the right one is quite another. Fortunately, we can guide you in the right direction with these helpful tips.

Determine the school's accreditation

Accreditation is one of the first points students should consider. Accreditation means a school has been examined by an independent body and found to meet the requirements of a high-quality education. A school that is not accredited should be approached with caution, as they might be a diploma mill – and the degree won't be worth the paper it is printed on.

Look for helpful financial aid officers

Financial aid officers are there to serve the student. However, officers who are pushy or demanding of students to pay more than they expected might be a significant red flag. This is especially true if a student chooses to explore for-profit options.

Conduct plenty of research and take time to compare programs

Look into the programs available, the graduation rate, the rate of financial aid for students, the average amount of financial aid given per student, and other factors that can mean the difference between a great experience and a not-so-good one. Those looking for the best options can try out College Navigator, which offers side-by-side comparisons of accredited schools.

Consider the hands-on component

Vocational and career programs often require a hands-on component in addition to online learning. How does the hands-on component work? Does the college have plans in place to help students find the experience they need? Look for a school that provides very clear information on completion of this important segment of the program.

Make sure the programs you are considering have workable schedules

One of the key points of online school is the flexibility, which allows working professionals or busy parents to attend school on a timetable that is right for them. Therefore, students should determine whether courses are synchronous – meaning that there are set times of required attendance – or asynchronous, which is more friendly to students who want to work at their own pace and on their own timetable.

Online School Subject Paths

Vocational trades, by their very nature, often require hands-on training. How does that fit in with online education? By creating hybrid programs that include both in-person work and online courses, vocational and trade schools have created helpful options for busy students. These hybrid programs offer numerous courses online while helping students obtain their hands-on experience through local employers or facilities. The result is a well-rounded education.

Here are some of the most popular areas for vocational and trade schools online, as well as some of the most prominent programs found in each.

Medical & Health

Healthcare has been a fast-growing field for years, and that growth shows no signs of slowing down. Among the fastest-growing areas are support workers, which include everything from medical assistants to pharmacy technicians. Vocational programs dedicated to healthcare support allow students to earn their diploma, certificate or degree in two years or less, and include not only online classroom training, but hands-on experience as well.

  • Medical Assistant

    Medical assistants work closely with other healthcare personnel to handle a variety of tasks. These might include anything from answering the office phone and making appointments to obtaining patient vital signs and setting up the examination room for certain procedures. Those who want to jump right into the job will benefit from a diploma or certificate, usually completed in less than one year; those who want to expand their horizons can go for the associate degree, which provides a potential stepping stone to a higher degree in the future.

    Learn About Medical Assistant Careers & Programs
  • Pharmacy Technician

    The pharmacy technician assists the pharmacist by verifying and preparing prescriptions, dispensing prescriptions to patients, handling customer service and more. To that end, students can expect courses that focus on medication safety, pharmacology, and measurements and calculations. Whether seeking a diploma or associate degree, pharmacy tech programs prepare students to sit for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE) or the ExCPT Pharmacy Technician certification.

    Learn About Pharmacy Technician Careers & Programs

Nurses work directly with everyday patient care. They might work anywhere from walk-in clinics to offices of physicians to emergency rooms, trauma centers, schools and nursing homes. Options for qualified nurses are booming, with 16 percent job growth through 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nursing support occupations, such as that of orderly or nursing assistant, are growing just as quickly. The vast majority of these occupations begin with a diploma, certificate or two-year degree.

  • CNA

    Training to become a certified nursing assistant usually takes less than six months of intense study. A strong mix of classroom and hands-on training is a must, and all programs prepare students to hit the ground running upon graduation. Students can expect to learn the fundamentals of caregiving, including taking vital signs, assisting with movement, feeding and dressing, and in some areas, learning how to properly administer basic medications.

    Learn about Certified Nursing Assistant Careers & Programs
  • RN

    Becoming a registered nurse requires a great deal of hands-on experience under the watchful eye of experienced supervisors. However, some classes can be taken online, especially for those who plan to enter a support position before furthering their education to become a registered nurse. Students can expect that some classroom-suitable courses, such as lecture courses, will be available entirely online, but that many courses will require in-person education in a healthcare setting.

    Learn About Registered Nursing Careers & Programs

Since most technology careers have a strong focus on computers, it makes sense that several technology certificates, diplomas or degrees can be earned through strictly online means. In some cases, a student never has to set foot in a classroom or perform hands-on training, which makes technology programs particular appealing to those who have extremely full schedules.

  • IT

    Those who want to jump into the world of information technology can do so through online schools and programs, where they should expect to learn the fundamentals of IT. These include introduction to various programming languages, spreadsheets and databases, security, warehousing, system development and much more. In some cases, an associate degree in IT can be earned entirely online. Potential jobs include support clerk, computer technicians and applications programmers.

    Learn About Information Technology Careers & Programs
  • Web Dev

    Web developers design and develop websites and associated applications. Just as with IT programs, web development programs can often be completed entirely online. Students can opt for a diploma, certificate or associate degree to get the basics down, then go further with specializations that target a particular area of web development and design. The Internet changes by the hour, which means that web developers are always learning – the pursuit of a certificate or diploma in a specialized area will continue on a regular basis throughout the career.

    Learn About Web Development Careers & Programs
Skilled Trades

Those who enter the skilled trades are signing up for a lifetime of rewarding, hands-on work. Though skilled trades require a significant hands-on component in order to fulfill educational requirements, students might be surprised to find just how many courses can be taken entirely online. This often serves students well, because they can take online classes during their downtime while still focusing on working in their chosen profession, thus building up that vital hands-on experience.

  • Contractor

    When it comes to construction, a contractor is often considered a ‘one stop shop.' Contractors are involved in every phase of the process, from design to construction to the final walk-through and inspection. Online courses can teach aspiring contractors about financing, design, cost estimating, green building, leadership skills and more. The hands-on component is very important, and usually consists of work on a construction site. Those who want to specialize in a particular area can seek out a certificate or diploma that enhances their resume.

    Learn About Contractor Careers & Programs
  • Electrician

    Flip a switch and the light comes on? Thank an electrician for that. Electricians might work in homes or businesses, or might work outside on the lines themselves, helping ensure the power is on for millions of people every day. In addition to the obviously heavy hands-on component of the job, electricians must also have an in-depth, working knowledge of electrical codes and safety rules. They must stay up-to-date on materials, designing of systems and more. Electricians can learn what they need to know through both hands-on experience and online classes that focus on rules, codes, design, theory and the like.

    Learn About Electrician Careers & Programs

Online School Tools for Hands-on Learning

Online study has seen a boom in recent years, thanks to ever-growing plans by colleges, vocational schools and other institutions to make online education much more accessible. There are a few tools that make it all possible. From robust management systems to working agreements with local facilities, more online vocational studies are possible than ever before. Here's what makes all that magic happen.

Online Content Management Systems

Online learning platforms, such as Blackboard or WebCampus, are dedicated to a smooth educational experience for all users. The systems include discussion boards, chat rooms, instructions for submitting assignments, video streaming of lectures and more.

Asynchronous Learning

Online education loses its luster if classes must be attended at a certain time, because most students need more flexibility. Asynchronous learning is the solution. Asynchronous courses allow students to explore the coursework, watch lectures, and complete homework at whatever time is most convenient for them, with milestones in place to keep them on track for graduation.

Instructional Materials

Students who opt for online courses might find all their textbooks and other informational materials on the Internet. However, some schools understand that having a physical textbook in the field can be helpful, so they will send books and other information in hard copy as well.


Anyone who has solid internet access and an up-to-date computer can take online classes. Sometimes other technology is required, such as a webcam or chat programs that can be downloaded for free. Each class will provide a list of technology requirements.

Hands-on Training Component

Most vocational careers require a wealth of hands-on experience before a person is considered adequately trained for the job. Online programs facilitate the hands-on experience through arrangements with local employers or facilities, which then allow students to complete their required training and approve the completed work.

Financial Aid for Online Schools

Just as financial aid is available for students who attend traditional schools, online students are eligible for the same – provided that the school they attend is accredited. Federal financial aid, aid on the state level, scholarships and grants are all available for those who seek them out. Here's what students need to know about financial aid for online schools.


Scholarships are offered by a wide array of organizations, companies, civic organizations and even small businesses. Some scholarships require students to meet specific criteria, such as a certain grade point average or extracurricular interest. Applications for scholarships should be submitted well ahead of the school enrollment deadline so students have a better idea of how much of an award, if any, they will receive.

These scholarships are examples of what is available for students who intend to pursue an online program in vocational studies.

ASIST Scholarship

For those facing economic, physical or social challenges.

Who Offers It

Executive Women International


13 scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $13,000.

Application Information

Applications open in January of each year.

College JumpStart Scholarship

Based on merit and available to incoming college students.

Who Offers It

Jump-Start Scholarships



Application Information

Application deadline is in April.

Walmart Associate Scholarship

Available to Walmart workers and their dependents

Who Offers It



Up to $2,000

Application Information

Applications are open during November and December.

Yellow Ribbon Program

For veterans who need help with tuition costs

Who Offers It

United States G.I. Bill®



Application Information

Rolling deadlines

Online Student Scholarship

For those who intend to attend online school.

Who Offers It



Application Information

Application deadline is in February.

Federal Aid and the FAFSA

Federal financial aid is provided on the federal level for students who meet certain criteria for need. To figure out what financial aid might be available, a student must begin with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. Schools look at the FAFSA to help determine how much a student will receive in grants and other aid.

Learn more about the FAFSA.

Students who Benefit from
Online Career Schools

One of the key benefits of online education is the flexibility. Students who are unable to sit in a classroom at appointed times often find that online schools allow them to achieve their educational goals without putting the rest of their lives on hold. Here are a few groups of students that greatly benefit from the online school option.

  • Members of the Military

    Those who have chosen to serve our country have numerous responsibilities, and their work comes first – if someone in the military is deployed in the middle of a semester, for instance, their studies may take a backseat. With online schools, however, those in the military may still be able to complete their studies and stay on track. This helps ensure students don't fall behind, even when they are deployed.

  • Shift Workers

    Those who work rotating shifts, even if they work part-time, might have a great deal of trouble making it to all the classes required by a traditional school. But since online education is designed to suit strange schedules, shift workers don't have to worry about their upcoming schedule – they can simply fit in the classes when they get home from work.

  • Students with Disabilities

    Though colleges and universities are required to provide accommodations for students with disabilities, and many of these students navigate college campuses with no problem, some find that it's tough to get around a campus, or might be difficult to get the things they need to excel. Through online learning, a student can attend school from anywhere, and they can complete their education in a way that makes life much easier for them.

  • Full-time Employees

    Those who hold down a full-time job likely don't have time to sit in a classroom, nor do they have the ability to adjust their schedule to accommodate college credit hours. But by taking courses online, students can fit the educational pursuit in during those hours when they have some down time – thus keeping their job and their education on the right track.

  • Rural Dwellers

    Students who live in remote areas might find that driving to school every day is quite the challenge, and public transportation is probably not available to them. Those who live in remote areas can attend class online as long as they have a good internet connection. Programs that require a hands-on component can be arranged with local facilities, so students can complete their work even if they are in the middle of nowhere.

  • Busy Parents

    Those who have children often turn to online education to pursue their dreams. Online classes allow parents to handle homework while the kids are napping, watch lectures while making dinner or otherwise shoehorn education into their busy day – and ensuring their kids don't suffer in the process.

  • Those Who Travel for Work

    Those who are jetting across the continents on a regular basis can't be expected to handle the strict scheduling of traditional college. But they can log in from their computer, anywhere in the world, and proceed to complete their classwork. Whether they are logging in from Australia, South Korea, the UK or any points in between, online education is there when they are ready.

What are MOOCs & How Do
They Benefit Online Learners?

1 Massive Open Online Courses, usually known as MOOCs, are unique classes that provide online learners with a wide array of educational options.

Though MOOCs do not take the place of vocational or career training, they do provide a great opportunity for a student to learn more about a subject, brush up on their skills or take a peek at other subjects that might interest them.

2 MOOCs are courses provided fully online by a variety of providers.

The courses are massive, which means they allow hundreds and sometimes thousands of students to enroll. Since they are entirely online, most adhere to the at-your-own-pace format. Students take MOOCs just like they would any other class, by logging onto a dedicated portal or website and watching lectures, engaging in discussions and completing coursework.

3 Most MOOCs are free of charge, though some might charge a nominal fee if a student wants a certificate of completion upon finishing the course.

Some schools might integrate a MOOC into their curriculum. For instance, Wake Tech Community College allows students to take a variety of MOOCs to prove their math skills; students who score high on the testing modules qualify for more advanced math courses through the college.

4 Some of the most popular MOOCs available are those that focus on a broad range of interesting subjects.

Examples include “A History of the World Since 1300,” offered by Princeton University, or “Justice,” offered by Harvard. Everything from philosophy to data analysis to cooking is presented via MOOC, and students can expect to see many community colleges and vocational schools pull these interesting courses into their curriculum.

Exciting Online School Trends

There was a time when online education was seen as somehow ‘lesser than' its traditional counterpart. Today, online schools are charging ahead with higher enrollment, more graduates and plenty of satisfied, happy alumni. These trends in online schools are testament to their popularity.

Increased Interest

More students are recognizing the appeal of career or vocational schools, and the fact that many courses can be completed online is cause for a large increase in enrollments. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there are 29 million jobs available that require less than a bachelor's degree – which is one of the reasons why vocational schools are booming.

More MOOCs Offered

U.S. News and World Report surveyed institutions on their view of MOOCs, and found that the use of massive open online courses has risen steadily since 2012. As these courses become more widespread, colleges are figuring out ways to incorporate them into the curriculum and offer credit for completion.

Greater Emphasis on Credentials

Online learners have a variety of completion options to choose from, and that variety will expand in the coming years. Online education platforms are offering more microcredentials, which are often courses that last for only a few weeks yet provide a powerful educational punch.

Fewer For-profit programs

With many employers looking askance at degrees earned from for-profit programs, enrollment in those programs is steadily dropping, and places like career and vocational online colleges are moving to fill the void. Look for opportunities at non-profit colleges to increase steadily in the coming years.

Greater Program Options

Online options have proven to be so advantageous for students that many educational institutions are now planning to make available programs that might not easily lend themselves to online learning. Soon students will be able to pursue a hybrid education in fields like occupational therapy, athletic training and fire science.

Expert Advice on Online Schools


Dr. Janice M. Karlen is a professor of business and technology at City University of New York – LaGuardia Community College. Dr. Karlen is also a coordinator for Credit for Prior Learning and is the former director of business programs at LaGuardia.

What particular traits make a student best-suited for the rigors of online education?

Three characteristics that make a student well suited for an online degree are discipline, determination and the ability to write. Discipline is necessary because there will be opportunities for students to do things in their own environments that are more appealing or more critical than completing their academic work. Determination is important because there will be obstacles to their academic success and lack of a classroom environment can mean lack of personal support from your peers. Online students need strong self-motivation. The ability to write, and write well, is a prerequisite for success in online courses. Grading includes an expectation of proper grammar, construction and citation of sources. Without good writing ability, a student faces an uphill climb.

What would you say to students who believe online programs aren't
as “solid” as traditional in-classroom programs?

Learning occurs in a variety of ways. It can occur through work experience, by doing volunteer activities or in daily life. Few would argue that if something is learned that the way it is learned is better or worse – only different. The same is true for online learning in comparison to traditional in-classroom programs. Online courses generally have the same learning outcomes as their classroom based counterparts. Instructors trained to develop online courses apply methodologies designed to achieve the same results as classroom knowledge through distance learning.

Several vocational programs have a strong hands-on requirement. How can students in these
programs ensure they are receiving all the training they need?

Before enrolling in a program students should verify that the institution itself is accredited and has no outstanding issues. Following that, students should investigate whether the program is accredited by the appropriate professional organization that accredits their chosen academic programs or licenses program graduates to make sure that the program is in good standing.

The second way a student can ensure they are receiving required training is to request to see the placement rates of graduates of the program. Institutions are required to collect this information and make it publicly available. Students may also ask if they may speak with alumni to get a more personal view. While this opportunity is not always an option, it is worth asking.

Online School Resources

College Scorecard

This site run by the U.S. Department of Education provides a wealth of information for students who want to pursue everything from vocational studies to a graduate degree.

eLearn Magazine

A magazine focused on current issues, trends and concerns in online learning.

Getting Smart

A resource designed for the teacher and student alike, this website focuses on every aspect of education, including online studies and vocational or career schools.

Online Learning Consortium

A leading professional organization devoted to providing guidance to educators, online learning professionals and organizations worldwide.

Online Learning Insights

A blog with up-to-date information on the online education systems across the U.S., including vocational and career colleges.

Online Learning Tips

Presented by the American Public University System, this website offers a wealth of information for incoming students.

Study Guide Zone

It is never too late (or early) to brush up on studying skills. This site offers practice tests, study tips and more.

United States Distance Learning Association

The USDLA focuses on promoting and developing new online learning options for students.

U.S. Department of Education: Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

This service provides up-to-date information on accreditation status for colleges across the U.S.

U.S. News and World Report: Online Colleges

This comprehensive guide offers detailed information on colleges, including vocational and community college options.

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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