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Online High Schools: What You Need to Know

May 13, 2008 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

In 2006, the State of Michigan caused a stir when it signed into law a bill that required all high school students to take at least one online class before graduating.  It’s a sign of the times: high schools are starting to test the online waters with programs ranging from supplemental classes for AP students to entire high school diplomas offered online.  Even universities are starting to get involved; brick-and-mortar schools such as Stanford and Indiana University sponsor online high schools.

Students who use online high schools include homeschoolers, rural students, and gifted students in districts without access to rigorous AP classes.  If you’re interested in an online high school—either for yourself or for your child—here are a few things you should know.

Types of Online High Schools

Public schools

Some states run public online high schools under the same requirements as the state’s brick-and-mortar public schools.  Tuition is free.  Not all public online high school programs offer a diploma, however; some just supplement traditional high school students with classes they can’t get at their local school.  Be sure that the school you choose offers a diploma.

Charter schools

Charter schools are government-funded and typically free to students, but they aren’t regulated as tightly as public schools are.  This means charter schools are more free to try innovative teaching practices, but they aren’t always better than public schools.  Choose a school with a long track record of success; it won’t be as likely to close while you’re attending.  Some charter schools only accept students within their school district, so this may limit your choices.

Private schools

Private schools are not funded by the government.  They are often expensive, but their price tag doesn’t guarantee quality.  Private schools are not government regulated as public schools are, and some provide a better education than others.  Be sure the private school you choose is accredited.

University-sponsored schools

Some traditional colleges, such as Stanford, the University of Missouri, and the University of Oklahoma are now offering online high schools that are available to students across the country.  Some of these schools allow students to earn university credits while taking classes toward a high school degree.

What to Look For in an Online High School



There are legitimate accredited online high schools out there, but there are also plenty of scams.  Before signing up for any online school, check to make sure it’s properly accredited.  Many high-quality online high schools are accredited by one of the country’s six regional accreditors.  For more information on accreditation, check out Accreditation 101.

Your location

Some public and charter schools only accept students within their district.   In addition, high school graduation requirements can vary by state, so many students choose programs within their state.  You can get a diploma from an online program physically located outside of your state, but be sure the school knows about your state’s graduation requirements and can help you meet them.


Online high schools can range from free to thousands of dollars per year in tuition.

Acceptance from colleges

Your online high school diploma is more likely to be accepted by colleges if it’s regionally accredited, although some colleges may also accept national accreditation. 

Teacher and peer interaction

Online instruction can be isolating, but not if it’s done right.  Do some research into the program before signing up, and if possible, talk to a few current or former students.  Ask about peer and instructor interaction.  Do instructors provide one-on-one feedback?  Do they communicate in real time, either by video conferencing, instant message, or another method?  Do they respond to emails quickly?  Are students encouraged to interact and discuss projects?

Rigorous course material

How does the course material compare to that of a typical high school?  Are students expected to be responsible for challenging projects and papers?  If possible, ask to speak with some of the instructors about their workload and expectations.

Not every online high school is created equally.  Do your research before choosing a school—make sure it meets your state’s graduation requirements, has regional accreditation, and offers rigorous and challenging course materials.  If you do, you can earn a high school diploma without leaving home.


massp Over a year ago

Michigan requires an "on line experience" which does not translate to a class. Students can get the online experience just from doing research papers and other projects that require use of the internet. There is pending legislation in Michigan that would allow all students to take up to 2 online courses per semester.

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