Students are looking to online schools for their education needs, especially as work obligations and personal responsibilities begin to get in the way of finishing a degree. However, not all online schools are the same; there are reputable schools and those that are not as reputable. This article will help students determine online schools that fit their criteria while being reputable, including some things that everyone should look out for when searching for online programs.
The best way to see if an online school is reputable is to check out its accreditation status. Many online schools do not have an accreditation status, meaning that they are most likely for-profit institutions or “diploma mills” that are essentially conferring meaningless degrees. Students should check for accreditation status of the school they wish to attend, but they must be vigilant: many schools have chosen to try to trick unsuspecting students by misspelling the name of an accreditation agency in order to seem like they are more legitimate than they are. The accreditation students will want to check for is provided by either the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation; the former has a full list of the schools they accredit on their website.
Is There A Campus?
Online education has become mainstream, meaning that many brick-and-mortar institutions have both online and on-campus programs. However, for-profit institutions that only focus on online educations won’t have a real-world campus, making it less likely that the program is reputable. If a student is interested in completing a degree that normally would require on-campus intensives and none are required, this is a sign that the program may not all that it seems to be. It is advised that students start their online school search by looking to reputable colleges and universities that have a campus prior to finding a school that has no campuses.
Check With Professional Organizations
Graduate programs and even some undergraduate programs are focused on a single profession. Students who want to become teachers, educators, lawyers or any profession in which a license or certification is required to begin that career will want to check with professional organizations to see which online schools they recommend. Many online programs will provide a pathway to licensure and certification, but only if they can meet the education and practical experience requirements that are set forth by the professional organizations that deliver those endorsements; the same is true for any profession that requires the government to assess the individual prior to allowing them to practice in the state. This information will be front and center on an online school’s website; if it’s not, it may mean that the school isn’t reputable.
What To Avoid
There are a few things to avoid when looking for a reputable online school. Students will want to watch out for schools that do not have an application process; this is indicative of a diploma mill school, which the Better Business Bureau describes as a for-profit institution that delivers a diploma and not an education. Another thing to avoid is any program that gives students course credit for life experience; reputable schools will consider life experience during the application process, but that experience does not necessarily translate into the education that student needs. Other things to watch for are schools that have students pay a flat fee for the entire program rather than paying per course and schools that deliver their degrees through the mail and not with a graduation ceremony.
Applying to a reputable school requires completing an application packet and sending in certain types of information. Most online colleges ask for at least a high school transcript or a GED to see the education that the applicant has. Many also ask for an ACT or SAT score. Less reputable online colleges ask for little to no information. As long as an applicant has a credit card, the school will accept them and let them enroll. The school may ask for a high deposit too.
Online colleges that lack accreditation are diploma mills. They only care about making money off students and not their education or future. These schools often offer guaranteed graduation. Admissions reps promise incoming students that they can finish their degrees in a few years or less and may claim that students can finish some programs in just a few months. Traditional colleges never guarantee that students will graduate or tell them how long it takes to earn a degree. It depends on the student’s enrollment status and whether they brought any credits with them along with other factors.
Lack of Services for Students
When a traditional college offers an online program, it gives new students access to the same services that are available on its campus. Scam schools do not have any services for students or offer few when compared to other schools. Online students may need tutoring from someone with more experience in the program or want to speak with a financial aid counselor to get money for school. An online college that doesn’t have a good reputation may claim that it will add those services in the future but have no plans to do so.
Tuition and Financial Aid
Any student attending college can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This helps them qualify for financial aid every year and get the help that comes from both the government and the college. Scam schools do not accept traditional forms of financial aid and will not let students submit the FAFSA. This is because they do not have the accreditation required to get financial aid for students. Diploma mills often encourage students to use private loans to pay for college and connect them with lenders who charge high-interest fees. Some students find that they need to pay their loans while in school too. Bad online colleges will sometimes require that students pay their tuition and fees at the beginning of the semester and charge double what reputable online colleges charge.
Credits for Experience
Online schools appeal to non-traditional students who want to earn a degree and have time for their other commitments. Some fall victim to scams from schools that claim they offer credit for the real-world experiences that the student has. The idea is that students get more credit when they start to reduce the time that they spend in school. Though reputable schools sometimes offer credit for experience, they ask students to take exams that test them on their knowledge. They only earn credits if they pass those exams. Diploma mills give students credit for simply working in a specific industry without ensuring that they have skills that transfer to the program.
The cost of attending an online school should depend on factors such as the student’s education level and the number of credits they take. Graduate and doctoral programs often charge higher rates than undergrad programs do. Students pay fees that can include a virtual learning fee and one for online services. Scam schools often tell students up front how much it will cost to earn their degrees and may charge them the full amount before they enroll. The school may pressure students to use expensive loans that are only available through specific lenders too.
Students looking for reputable online colleges should always look at the contact information of each school. The top online colleges are associated with physical campuses. Online students can visit if they want to speak to a counselor or rep and use the resources that are available on the campus. Diploma mills typically have very little contact information other than an email address. They might have email addresses for certain departments or provide students with the phone numbers of their professors. Students can easily do a quick search to see the location of the school’s headquarters and if any other information is available.
Strong Sales Tactics
According to the Federal Trade Commission, a major warning sign of a diploma mill is that it uses pushy sales tactics. Many students today want to compare schools and learn more before they enroll. They might ask questions about the history of the professors, graduation rates and average financial aid packages. Diploma mills advertise on websites that promise students help with choosing the right college. They then call and email the student several times a day and multiple times a week. Some even send text messages when they get phone numbers. Good schools will never force students to sign up or push them to make a decision on the spot.
Vague or Familiar Name
A serious problem facing students today is that some online colleges pop up and disappear almost overnight. Once the school earns a bad reputation and has a drop in enrollment, it can shut down and restructure before opening with a different name. Those who attended the old college lose both their money and the credits that they earned. Many of these schools hook incoming students with a name that sounds vague but slightly familiar. They choose names that are similar to those of established colleges to confuse students and make them think that they signed up for a reputable school.
Incentives for New Students
Reputable online colleges make no promises to students who apply and enroll. Those schools can help students get financial aid and earn credits online but make no guarantee that it will accept all applicants or that all students will finish their studies. Scam colleges often offer incentives for new students as a way to get them to sign up. This might include a loan that covers their childcare needs or the promise of loans that will pay all of their expenses. Schools often claim that tuition rates are going up in the future and that students can lock in a lower rate when they sign up today, even if there aren’t any plans to increase tuition.
While students can study overseas and either earn their degrees or get credits that transfer to other schools, a big warning sign of a diploma mill is that it only has an overseas address. This may mean that the school lacks accreditation or does not have the authorization to operate in the United States. These schools often cater to older students who want to earn a graduate or doctoral degree as well as those who want to study medicine or law. Students do not realize that their degrees do not qualify them to sit for their licensing exams or that their education won’t help them work in an American industry.
Reputable online colleges ask students to interact with their professors and those in their classes. They use programs such as Blackboard that allow them to post on a discussion board and see what others thought about their assignments. Students also find the contact information for their professors through the system. Not only can they call their teachers, but they can send them emails. Diploma mills prevent students from interacting with others. Students may have a hard time finding an email address for a professor or discover that they don’t interact with other students. They do basic work and get grades when they submit it.
Diploma mills generally do not have as many degree requirements as reputable schools do. They don’t want to risk students failing their classes and leaving because they won’t get their money. These schools make it as easy as possible for students to graduate. Many do not provide students with traditional assignments but send them workbooks instead. Students just need to answer the questions in the book and submit it to pass the class, which can take as little as one month. Those who graduate from the program do not have the skills needed to work in the field.
Dangers of Diploma Mills
Students looking for reputable online colleges might decide to take a chance on a school that exhibits some warning signs because they think that getting a degree is the only thing that matters. While employers today do look for job seekers with college degrees, they also want to know where they earned their degrees. An online degree can show that the applicant has good time management skills and can handle multiple commitments. It can also show that the applicant has poor common sense and problems making decisions because they choose the wrong schools. Students with a degree from a diploma mill have a hard time finding work in their chosen industry.
Another issue with attending a scam school is that students have no guarantee that they can use their credits. Only colleges with regional accreditation allow students to transfer in and out of their programs. This allows students to move to a different school or take some classes online. If the school does not have regional accreditation, students will find that they cannot transfer their credits. There is a risk that the government might shut down the school too. This will require that students start work over again at a new school to earn their degrees.
Finding an online education that is reputable is easier than it has been in the past, but some schools are still operating with profit as their primary motivation. Students need to do their research and ensure that the school they choose is recognized by the government, has accreditation, and will help them get jobs in the real world. This article is by no means comprehensive on this issue, but this is a good place to start for any student who is concerned about finding a reputable online school.
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