Recently we at Sitejabber published an infographic on the growing trend toward more online education. More and more students are choosing to take their learning onto the internet, and more institutions are opening to meet that need. Online for-profit schools have had their fair share of turbulence over the past year, at least some of them, schools such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University, offer legitimate degrees, even if they come with a hefty pricetag and uncertain benefit. There are others that are merely diploma mills – schools that you pay in order to receive what amounts to a fake degree which isn’t honored by employers or higher institutions of education (other than its own).

With over 200 online colleges offering degrees, it may be difficult to figure out which program would reap the most benefits while also weeding out diploma mills. When trying to find that perfect fit, here are some tools to use and points to keep in mind.

Check information online

Just as you would do your research for large purchases like cars and cameras, you also want to make sure you explore well the schools in which you’re interested. As a way to help potential students make the right choices, the Education Trust developed College Results, an indispensable tool to help you investigate schools. With this webtool you can search for a college or compare several to find similar schools as well as get information on retention and graduation rates, demographics, tuition, median SAT / ACT scores, etc. Be especially attentive to retention and graduation rates. Schools with low rates may not be supporting their students to succeed. If you can’t find your college of interest on College Results, it likely isn’t a school accredited by a regional or national agency.

Always make sure to look at multiple sources and information provided by other students. That is, check for reviews online – on Sitejabber and at the Better Business Bureau. You can also Google the college’s name with “scam” following the name.

Be wary of diploma mills

A college that attempts to motivate you by saying that “you may be just weeks away from a college degree” is basically screaming “we’re selling fake degrees, come one, come all!” Diploma mills generally ask for little to no admissions paperwork (i.e. just a form or resumé), little to no work on the courses (i.e. going to class for an hour a week or trading in life “experience” for credits), and little to no work for graduation (i.e. no thesis or final paper required, just a payment). Diploma mills also generally require a one-time only payment, whereas real universities charge tuition by the credit hour or by the semester.

Check for the right credentials

While credentials don’t always tell the entire story, legitimate online colleges or universities are typically accredited by a regional or national accreditation agency. Don’t be fooled by schools which list several low-quality credentials, as one high-quality credential should be sufficient. As well, schools will sometimes even establish their own accreditation agencies in order to come up with the “proof” that they’re a real college. If you do your investigation, you may find that none of the agencies are truly accredited. Check the Department of Education’s list of regionally and nationally recognized accreditation agencies to see if the college is being truthful with you.

Trust your gut

Besides the clear evidence that a college may not be all it’s cracked up to be, look for some other smaller red flags. Does the recruiter or admissions counselor ask you about your salary or how you will finance your education immediately? Does she give you pointers on how to manipulate data for the financial aid forms? Or does she mention that financing your education should not be a problem because they work with a bank (which happens to be their own)? Are there faculty listed with qualifications? Does the name of the school sound too much like another more prestigious school (for example, Preston University, which sounds very close to Princeton)? Ask yourself those kinds of questions and follow your gut. Sometimes that weird feeling in the pit of your stomach is trying to tell you something valid.

Make your own decisions

Remember that the decision of which college to attend is yours. You may seek the opinions of your family or friends, but at no point should you feel like the admissions counselor or recruiter is part of the decision-making process. Professionals at good universities will help you make your decision by asking you questions about your career goals and perhaps your workload outside of school to help gauge what courseload is appropriate for you. Those who engage in high pressure sales tactics, such as making you feel guilty for not finishing your degree or for not having the means to provide for your family, are just signs of the bad experiences that are to come.

It’s also important to note that even legitimate online degree programs have notoriously low graduation rates and there is scant data on income improvements of degree holders. A good alternative option to an online degree is your local community college. For a complete list of accredited schools, visit the US Department of Education.

If we’ve missed some tell-tale signs, be sure to let us know by leaving your comments for us below. Or if you’ve had a positive or negative experience with an online or distance learning program that you’d like to share, you can write a review on Sitejabber or share with us below.

Sitejabber is a consumer protection service which helps people avoid fraudulent websites and find good sites. You can use Sitejabber to review, complain about and report fraud on websites, as well as research unfamiliar sites. Sitejabber is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation and was named a Top 100 Website of 2010 by PC magazine.

Note: Sitejabber corrected misspellings within reviews for this article.

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