The number of students taking online courses has been rising each year. It’s estimated that over 6 million Americans go to online school.
The increase in the number of online students has led to the rapid expansion of online schools and diploma mills.
This is also something I’ve had to worry about during my academic career. To avoid being scammed I did countless hours of research on how to recognize if a school is legit.
Here’re all my tips on how to avoid getting scammed, which have helped not only me but thousands of other students as well.
4 Ways to Find Out if an Online Course Is Accredited or Not
1. Check the School’s Website for Accreditation
Online schools, as well as other schools of the traditional kind, have two kinds of accreditation:
- Institutional accreditation means the specific school is accredited, and the institution can receive federal government financial aid.
- Specialized accreditation, also called programmatic, means a specific program is accredited.
Start by checking the school’s website. If the online school is accredited, most colleges have this information on the About page.
Other universities that offer online degree programs put a link to the accreditation status on the front page. This link is usually found at the bottom of the front page. If not, check the search function.
If you’re not looking for institutional accreditation but programmatic accreditation, you’ll have to go to the homepage of the specific program and look for accreditation there.
Other colleges also have a whole page dedicated to accreditation, which says what’s the body that provided the accreditation. Programmatic accreditation can also be included here. For example, if it’s law school, they can be accredited by American Bar Association.
If you can't find accreditation information on the website, you can visit the department and council websites to look for accreditation or contact the school directly.
Note: Even if a university says it’s accredited, always go to the accreditation agency website. Don’t take what is written at face value because who’s to say the school isn’t lying.
Accrediting agencies will have a way to verify the current accreditation status of online programs and schools.
2. Check the Accreditation History
You can always check if an online education institution has accreditation history available on the department or council sites.
“Even good schools can sometimes do things, or have things happen, that may jeopardize their accreditation,"
- Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships for OLC
Checking colleges and universities accreditation history will let you know if the school had any issues in the past and if these have been dealt with.
3. Pay Attention to the School’s Name
Here’s a trick that an online college can do:
They use official-sounding names, such as a name resembling that of a well-known, prestigious academic institution.
What online college does is add something more to the name.
For example, Harvard University Online English Literature Course.
This name leads the student to think this online program is part of the prestigious Harvard University when in reality, it’s not affiliated with it in any way, and it’s another one of the degree mills.
Some online colleges and universities take it a step further and even create a website that resembles the educational institution they’re trying to portray. All this is done to confuse prospective students.
To avoid being scammed, google the official website of the educational institution and look up all the programs and courses they offer. If you’re still having doubts, contact the original school directly and ask if they’re offering the online programs you’re interested in.
4. Stay Away From an Online Degree Program That Seems Too Good to Be True
Online colleges have admission requirements that are the same or similar to in-person programs.
If colleges and universities have no application process or very simple admission requirements, this is a red flag. For example, if all you need to enroll is a resume, think twice.
Also, if the college claims you’ll get a degree for the online course in an extremely short time period, chances are the school's accreditation isn’t valid.
One more thing to be wary of is if the university is praising the online course too much. For example, if they’re claiming an extremely high average salary for graduates, or high employment rates after course completion, without disclosing where this information comes from.
Types of Accreditation and Accrediting Agencies
In the US, to make sure universities provide high-quality education, there are two types of recognized accreditation:
- National accreditation — Nationally accredited schools have a more narrow focus. These are schools such as vocational, career, religious, and technical.
- Regional accreditation — Most schools in the US got accreditation from a regional accrediting agency.
The US has seven regional accrediting agencies , which the U.S. Department of Education recognizes.
Prospective students can choose which higher education accreditation works best for them and their degree level.
However, regional is seen as more rigorous, which is why employers prefer it. It’s also easier to transfer credits between regionally accredited academic institutions.
Council for Higher Education
Council for Higher Education (CHEA) is an excellent resource for checking if universities are properly accredited.
CHEA works together with the Department of Education but also has its own evaluating online degree services.
Agencies recognized by CHEA accredit schools and affirm that a legitimate school has standards and processes that align with the quality level CHEA has established.
If you’re unsure if a trustworthy accrediting agency accredits specific programs you’re interested in, check the CHEA website. There you’ll find a list of all accrediting organizations that CHEA supports.
US Department of Education
When it comes to evaluating schools’ accreditation and online degrees, the US Department of Education could be your best friend.
On their website, you can find a Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs . Here you’ll find hundreds of institutions, so it’s easy to check if your desired school is accredited.
Here’re a few examples of search criteria you can use:
- Institution name
- Accrediting agency
Once the results appear, you can click on them, and you’ll see the accrediting body, identification number, and other important information.
You can find both institution and individual programs’ accreditation on the college profile page.
Note: Not all accredited colleges are included in the database because it takes time to update if a change in the status of an accredited college happens.
If your desired school isn’t in the database, also check CHEA’s website and accrediting agencies. You can also make an on-campus visit and ask around yourself.
How to Tell if an Online Course is Legit: The Takeaway
Investing in your education is always a wise investment, so make sure the universities and colleges you’re interested in are legitimate.
Start from the school’s website and go from there. Check if the accrediting agency is listed on the CHEA website or if the university can be found in the US Department of Education database.
Also, pay attention to little things, such as the school name, entry requirements, on-campus student services, and never pay the tuition fee upfront.