Earning a Dietitian Degree Online

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You’ve been doing your research. You’ve decided that becoming a dietitian (RDN) looks like the career for you. You’ve reviewed degree options at colleges and universities. But you are a busy mom, or a career changer with a fulltime job, or have other constraints on your time and you are wondering if it’s possible to pursue the education you need online. And if so, how do you know which programs you can trust and which you need to avoid?

At some point in your journey toward becoming an RDN, or to maintain your license as one, you are likely to take online classes.

“The good news is that there are a number of courses and online degree programs in this field and a lot of people enroll in them,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of ChampagneNutrition.com. The key is making sure you find a program that is accredited. “Just like they do for traditional programs, the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®), the accreditation arm of the Academy, certifies online programs that meet its criteria for RDs/RDNs.” ACEND even provides a helpful list of online schools that do not meet its requirements for accreditation.

At some point in your journey toward becoming an RDN, or to maintain your license as one, you are likely to take online classes to meet basic requirements, acquire continuing education credit for renewing your license—or, even, obtain a degree.

Online degrees are now considered as legitimate as those earned sitting in a classroom.

Accredited online courses and programs for dietitians have come a long way in the last ten years and online degrees are now considered as legitimate as those earned sitting in a classroom on campus. In ACEND-accredited programs, requirements for graduation, coursework and faculty are generally the same for both traditional and online degrees, and diplomas do not specify whether the degree was earned online or on campus.   

But the reality is, getting an online education is very different from a traditional classroom setting. However, armed with the right information and with expectations for this experience clear, you’ll be ready to tackle your degree.


Who is Online Learning Best For?

At first glance, being able to take classes when it’s convenient for you—anytime day or night—is an attractive alternative to attending classes on campus, but it’s not for everybody. To succeed, you must be fully committed, self-driven, and well-organized.

Many schools set up clear expectations from the start. For example, the University of North Colorado (UNC), an ACEND-accredited school, advises that prioritizing and managing course time around your already busy personal schedule is the key to success—as is being able and willing to do the following:

  • Excellent Preparation: Read the syllabus, review the course timeline, and familiarize yourself with the “online” classroom (typically a cloud-based online portal you will receive login access to) before diving in so you have an overview of what to expect and what is required.
  • Good Time Management: Set aside time each day to work on classwork. Treat it like you would a job; establish specific blocks of time for study and “report in” at the designated times.
  • Set Personal Reminders: Add key dates to your personal calendar for assignments, tests, and reports. Develop progress goals for larger assignments or papers and enter those. Plan research times and study sessions for daily work, test prep, and papers and add those to your calendar as well.
  • Ask for Help: Whether it’s clarification on course assignments or assistance with technical issues, do not hesitate to ask the tech desk or instructors and fellow students for help, sooner rather than later.
  • Create a Dedicated Work Space: A dedicated workspace at home or your office will help with focus and organization.
  • Save and Back Up Your Work: Just as in business or personal finances, you’ll want to save everything and save often. You’ll also want to back-up your files to more than one location.

You may be thinking that these are factors that would be good for either traditional or online classes. Yes, they would, and they are especially important for online students who are working on their own. If you are not well organized, are shy about asking questions, have trouble prioritizing, dive in before you’ve prepared, don’t keep good track of due dates, and generally “wing it” in most situations, you probably don’t have the personal discipline required for successful completion of an online program.

If you are not well organized, are shy about asking questions, have trouble prioritizing, don’t keep good track of due dates, and generally “wing it”, you probably don’t have the discipline required for successful completion of an online program.

What Should I Look for in an Online School?

Can you really get a quality education for a dietitian online? Absolutely—and they’re often taught by the same people who teach in classrooms. The University of Southern California’s (USC) Leonard Davis School online ACEND-accredited MS in Nutrition, Healthspan, and Longevity (a common dietitian master’s degree area of study), for example, is commonly taught by regular faculty. This is often the case for other programs and schools listed in the ACEND database. As you search for the right school for you, pay attention to the answers to these questions:

Is the Program You’re Looking at Accredited?

Check regional accrediting bodies to verify that the institution is accredited. Check ACEND to make sure the degree program at that institution is accredited for RDNs.

Does the Program Offer the Specialty You Want?

All dietetics degree programs list specific required classes and electives for graduation on their websites, which you can easily access and review.

What Qualifications Do the Faculty Have?

Faculty need to meet the same qualifications as those teaching in traditional programs. Most institutions of higher education require professors in upper level and graduate courses to have a minimum of a doctoral degree in an academic field of study and be subject matter experts in the field in which they teach.

How Does Online Learning Work?

Colleges and universities offering online degree programs in dietetics are committed to offering online students an academic challenge and a true university education. Using web-based software such as Canvas, schools create an online classroom where students do the same things done in traditional classrooms: they turn in assignments, access course content, interact with their professors and other students, take quizzes, share information, and collaborate on projects. In fact, that same software designed for online courses is also used to provide additional structure and support to traditional classroom courses taught at the school.

The main difference between online learning and classroom learning is:

  • Much of the interaction occurs in writing, using the online discussion boards, emails, and classroom software.
  • Interaction occurs asynchronously (not at the same time). There are deadlines, but students post and turn in assignments on their own schedules.

In many ways, getting an online education is a lot like being on social media. If you live with a phone in your hand, you’ll be familiar and comfortable with the process. With social media, while not everyone is online when you are, you feel engaged and connected. The same holds true for your online classroom community.

What are the Technical Requirements?

Most schools post technical guidelines online and provide robust technical support so that technology is not a barrier for students. For the most part, the tools and classroom software are web-based. Generally, you’ll need access to a device with reliable internet access; a high speed connection is recommended. Desktops and laptops work better than tablets or phones (although the later is fine for reading, checking assignments, etc.). Wired internet connections are highly recommended for proctored tests and live video. School websites will specify the minimum requirements for PCs, Macs and browsers. Generally, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari are recommended; Internet Explorer and Edge are not recommended and are not supported in some environments.

Do You Need to Be Physically Present for Anything?

That varies, depending on the school and the program. The advisor for the dietetics program you are thinking about will clarify this for you. In general, almost all the curriculum is online, but there are some exceptions, depending on the school. For example, some of the science classes may require lab work. USC, for instance, requires a one-week Professionalization Seminar orientation. Students who apply for Dietetic Internships usually need to be onsite for rotations at the medical center or public health facility to which they’ve been assigned. Your advisor will walk you through the options for how to deal with these situations.

What Kind of Academic Support Exists?

Just like traditional students, as an online student, you’ll have access to a wide range of campus resources from the comfort of your home, your office—or your local park for that matter. For instance, Kansas State University, like many other schools, offers the below services for online learners. Be sure to ask what services the school you’re looking at provides.

  • Academic advisors for the path you wish to take
  • Academic coaching to help you conquer a difficult class
  • Tutoring online via video conferencing
  • Writing Center to improve your skills  by working with a writing tutor
  • Textbook assistance in locating books and materials
  • Library access for research
  • ID Center for student ID cards
  • Assistance with online testing and proctored exams (where, when, how)

How Much Does an Online Degree Cost?

This will vary widely, depending on the school, the program, the location and other factors. Most colleges post estimated costs for tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses and transportation online for their programs. When looking at these, online students can discount room and board, eliminate parking on campus and reduce some other items.

But they may need to adjust tuition upwards; some schools charge more per unit or credit hour for online classes. Also, if you are an out-of-state student, even though you are an online student, with some schools you may need to pay the non-resident tuition at a public college. For example, at the University of Vermont, 2020 tuition for the two-year MS program is $13,900 for residents, but is $32,600 for non-residents. Private universities tend to charge the same tuition for everyone, residency is not a factor. The same is true with for-profit online schools, if they even offer dietetic programs, but it’s important to make sure the school you’re looking at is accredited; some are not. The College Board calculator is a good resource for help in estimating your expenses.

Is Financial Aid Available? What About Scholarships?

Just as they are for traditional students, both financial aid and scholarships are available to online students enrolled in accredited degree programs and schools. Most colleges and departments describe available scholarships and how to apply, as well as the process for financial aid, on their websites. 

Will an Online Degree Make a Difference to Employers?

The online programs and traditional programs accredited by ACEND are comparable and degrees that are issued do not indicate whether the program of study was in the classroom or online. In fact, in the world of dietetics, online study at both the undergraduate and graduate level is not unusual. Employers are very familiar with the RDN education, supervised practice, and national examination requirements established by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). As a result, employers tend to focus on your experience in the Dietetic Internship and your work history. The good news is, dietitians are in high demand. Often students are recruited right out of college and most schools do provide some guidance in the job search process.

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