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Choosing an Online School: Safety Tips for your Education

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For service members or military spouses seeking higher education, online programs often sound like the perfect choice. Online classes are portable, so you don’t have to transfer every time you move, and mid-semester PCS or deployment orders are much less likely to wreck your transcript if you can take your classes with you. The on-your-own-time scheduling makes it easier to fit school into your schedule around training, work, or family obligations. Even with tuition assistance and MyCAA, it is also helpful that online programs are often less expensive than offline courses, because many of the fees schools charge to traditional students do not apply to distance learners. Virtual classrooms and work at your own pace can be a great fit for the military lifestyle whether you’re a service member or a family member.

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It is important to be especially cautious when choosing an online degree program, however. Many very respectable institutions offer high-quality education and solid credentials to online students, but many others offer little or no real learning, almost no support from professors or staff, credits that will not transfer to another school, and a degree that counts for next to nothing in the job market. Some of these less-reputable schools are known as “degree mills,” institutions that rush students through a degree program with low or no academic standards and little actual learning, then issue degrees which are accepted almost nowhere. Others are legitimate institutions which simply lack the established reputation to impress employers, graduate schools, or an institution you may want to transfer to. Still others are somewhere in between those two categories.

Online programs can work out wonderfully for you, but to ensure that you avoid trouble and get the education and the degree you need, you should proceed with caution and do a lot of research.

What Not to Trust:

  • A state license to operate. A “degree mill” is more likely to emphasize its state license than a legitimate school with an established reputation, because degree mills have few other real credentials to advertise. A school that makes a big deal out of its state license is probably not a reputable institution. Be cautious; licensing requirements for colleges, universities, and vocational programs vary from state to state, but most have almost nothing to do with a school’s academic quality. A state license means that a school meets bare minimum requirements to operate legally, but its credits and degrees may not be accepted by other schools, or by potential employers. Of course, if a school does not have a state license, that should be an obvious warning sign. To verify a school’s license, check with your state’s department of education.
  • A legitimate-looking website. This is the twenty-first century, and many high school students can design professional-looking websites that convey a sense of legitimacy. A well-designed website tells you nothing about the academic quality, reputation, or legitimacy of the school. Do your research, and don’t be fooled by appearances.
  • A “.edu” Internet address. Today, the U.S. Department of Commerce only allows accredited colleges and universities to use “.edu” in their Internet addresses. This requirement is relatively new, however, and some schools that slipped through the cracks under the old rules still use “.edu” addresses. Please do not assume that a “.edu” address indicates that a school is legitimate; do your research.
  • A fake or worthless accreditation. “Degree mills” and other less-reputable institutions will sometimes try to make themselves sound legitimate by producing an impressive-sounding list of credentials, many of which are as worthless as the school’s degrees and credits. See the section below about accreditation from recognized agencies, and make sure that the credentials your prospective school is claiming are legitimate.

What to Look For:

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  • Accreditation from a recognized organization. Legitimate schools and programs will be accredited, meaning that they have passed a process of quality review and received approval from a nonprofit accrediting organization. To receive accreditation, a school must meet minimum requirements for the quality of its curriculum, the qualification of its faculty, and the quality of its student support services such as libraries and advising. Find out which agency, if any, your prospective school is accredited by, and then contact the agency to verify that the school really is accredited (some degree mills will lie about their status). Check up on the agency, too; some degree mills pay so-called “accreditation mills” to issue a worthless accreditation that sounds impressive but means nothing. Legitimate accreditation agencies will be recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA); you can find a list of agencies on CHEA’s website.
  • An established reputation. Even legitimate, accredited online schools may not have established a reputation that can make them competitive with traditional campuses, especially when dealing with prospective employers or graduate programs. Before your make your decision, think about what you plan to do with that degree; if you plan to look for a job, contact a few employers in your field and ask their opinion; if you plan to apply to graduate school, contact the graduate programs that interest you and ask them about your potential school. In general, your safest option is look for an online or distance-learning program offered by an established brick-and-mortar school; most major universities and a number of smaller ones now offer both campus and online degree programs in some subjects, and your diploma will look the same either way.
  • Other factors. Other factors to consider in your decision are similar to those you would consider when comparing traditional offline colleges. Who are the faculty and what are their qualifications? How much interaction will you get with your professors? Will help with classes be available when you need it? What kind (and quality) of student support services does the school offer; will you have access to online library resources, career and degree advising, counseling services, etc.? What is the program’s job placement rate? Do some research, and if possible, try to talk to former students, who are more likely to be candid than the recruiting office.

Where to Look: