- The Council for Higher Education Association, Accessed November 2017, http://www.chea.org/
- How to Check if an Online Program is Accredited, U.S. News & World Report, Accessed November 2017, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-06-12/how-to-check-if-an-online-program-is-accredited-follow-5-steps
- Accreditation: Universities and Higher Education, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed November 2017, https://www.ed.gov/accreditation
Choosing a college is a big decision, given the significant investment of time and money you'll be making. That's why it's so important — especially for online students — to be sure that you are choosing a legitimate college that will help set you up for a successful future. For starters, you'll want to select an online program that is accredited and well recognized by employers. But beyond that, your goal is to find an institution that provides a strong academic program and also cares about the needs of its online student population.
If you're a prospective online learner, here are some key considerations that will help you as you investigate potential online schools:
1. Do some accreditation digging.
In your research, you may come across an online program you've never heard of (after all, there are a lot of colleges and universities out there!). That doesn't mean it's not legit, but don't take their claims at face value either. Do your due diligence to confirm that it's not a diploma mill, and that the school is accredited. Accreditation is the gold standard for quality — with regional accreditation being the highest level, followed by national accreditation — since it means an outside agency has evaluated the school to make sure it is meeting educational standards. If you attend a school that is not accredited, a future employer may question the legitimacy of your degree.
Start with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which maintains a database of institutional accreditation so you can double-check that your school of interest is listed. In addition, certain programs have another layer of programmatic accreditation. For instance, an MBA program with accreditation from the AACSB — the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business — might hold more weight than one that doesn't have that designation. This varies by field of study, so start by identifying the top accrediting body for your industry, and then see if the programs you're looking at have been awarded that accreditation.
2. Head to social media.
These days, it's easy to get a sense of a school or program's reputation with just a quick search online. Check out each school's social media profiles, and do a Twitter search to see what people are saying about the institutions. If you see several people making complaints, that should send up a red flag. On LinkedIn and Facebook, see if there are active alumni groups. Other things to look for: Do they have engaged followers and a stream of activity? Are there posts about student services or school news and events? Keep in mind that some schools are more active on social platforms than others, but there should be at least some activity that demonstrates a tight-knit school community.
3. Learn more about the faculty.
In addition to the school itself, it never hurts to see what the faculty and administrators are up to. Are top professors and department chairs well respected in their fields? Are they publishing research or writing newspaper op-eds? Do they hold leadership positions within well-known academic associations or committees? Much of your academic experience will be shaped by the faculty members that teach you, so you want to make sure you're learning from academic leaders. If the professors don't have impressive qualifications, perhaps that online school isn't as great as they claim to be.
4. When in doubt, ask questions.
If you're really interested in an online college but can't seem to find the information you need online, reach out. Legitimate academic institutions are more than happy to hear from prospective students and address all of their concerns. You may want to learn more about the admissions process, or you may have questions about graduation rates, student outcomes, and career services. As an online student, you may also want to find out more about the resources available to support you with technical issues and academic help if needed. The responses you get, and how long it takes to get them, can tell you a lot about the school. If they get back to you in a timely manner and go above and beyond to answer your questions, that's a good sign. If they avoid giving you a straight answer, things might not be so rosy.
Choosing an online college is perhaps more challenging that finding a brick and mortar school since there is usually no campus tour component. And because there have been so many headlines about certain online schools not doing right by their students, you want to be extra vigilant when questioning legitimacy. By going through the checklist above, you'll be able to figure out which online programs are not only legit, but also best for you.