Good, bad and accredited online collegesRequirements for licensing and/or authorization for educational institutions vary from state to state in the United States. Most states require that a learning institution be certified, authorized and/or accredited in order to award degrees to students. There are some schools out there that do not meet these requirements. In fact, there are several levels of fraud found in some educational programs and “schools.” They range from using the student’s work history as the “learning” period that earned the degree to simply selling diplomas. These “diploma mills” have been around for decades. Online programs like Degrees-R-Us promise a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in about 10 days. (There is a higher tuition fee if you want to graduate with honors!)

Now, however, there are some states (Oregon, Iowa, and South Dakota) that are cracking down on schools within their borders that grant degrees without any type of approval and legitimate accreditation. There are also some states (Wyoming, Montana, and Hawaii) that allow unaccredited universities to do business as long as they have a physical presence in the state. The problem is that when a state does pass legislation that requires accreditation, those schools simply change addresses (when you don’t have a campus, it’s not that difficult to move). The question of jurisdiction also comes into play. If the institution has an address in one state but sends out degrees from another state, then which state is responsible for it?

For this reason, the most important thing to check out before you begin any kind of online degree program is the accreditation the school has, or claims to have. Simply having a statement about being “licensed by the state” isn’t an accreditation and may not mean anything at all. There have been many violators that claim accreditation from agencies that either don’t exist, have been created by the school itself, or are legitimate agencies but have no record of accreditation for the school. Students who are enrolled or have completed degrees from schools that are not accredited have wasted a lot of time, money, and effort on a degree that may be rejected by potential employers. Credits from schools that are not accredited cannot be transferred to other universities.

There are several state-based and regional accrediting bodies. Each is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

To find out whether the school is truly accredited, contact the appropriate State Department of Higher Education.

Problems with non-accredited schools
Some of these violators have been awarding diplomas and degrees for decades. Courts that have shut them down have cited problems like:

  • Too few qualified faculty members to maintain the number of students or level of education
  • Too much credit given for previous life and work experience without properly determining the actual level of knowledge
  • Not having course objectives
  • Awarding Ph.Ds to students who haven’t performed the type of research and analysis typically required of such a degree

Basically, the problem relates to the schools having substandard requirements for earned degrees. Some programs even allow students to earn master’s or doctoral degrees without having first earned a bachelor’s degree.

Play it safe
The best bet is to stick with a known, reputable university or college that is offering online/distance learning. That school’s reputation will be at stake so it is more likely to have the same quality online as offline. Of course, there are some good programs from universities that are strictly online. According to an article by a former student at the University of Phoenix Online, many students feel as connected with other students as they would if they were on a campus attending classes in the traditional way.

Evaluating the Program
So once you know the school is accredited, is the decision easy? Not necessarily. There are still a lot of questions to ask before you make your selection, such as:

  • How is the course presented?
    Investigate the method by which the instructor gives lectures. Does the instructor simply put the lecture online as text? Are there accompanying slides? Is there any interaction? Is there video or audio? Are exams given? How are assignments turned in? The format of the course is sometimes as important as the content. Great content is more easily absorbed if it’s done in a dynamic and innovative manner that involves interaction between the student and instructor as well interaction with the content itself. Online learning technology provides many opportunities for innovation. Find a school that takes advantage of it.
  • How do students interact with each other?
    Is there an established method for interaction and congregating? Online programs can use chat rooms, instant messaging, teleconferencing, and video conferencing to communicate. The key is to find a program that has this interaction built into it and even requires it. How the online community functions should be very important to both the instructor and the educational institution.
  • Are the instructors qualified?
    Check out the credentials and degrees the instructors hold, as well as their knowledge of online learning and its differences from classroom learning. What kind of support do the instructors get for their online courses? If technical problems arise, is there someone to turn to? A school that is dedicated to its online programs will have the development staff and the support staff to make it successful. Instructors (and students) have to be able to adapt to changing technology.
  • What kind of reputation does the school have?
    It may seem simple — a good school will have a good online program. That may be true, but it is also probable that its online program is still too new to judge, so you’re left with nothing but the reputation of the school’s traditional programs. This reputation, however, may not be as straightforward as you think. You can look at the overall quality of the school and make a judgement, but there may be weaknesses in the program in which you are interested. It’s not uncommon for a great school to have a weak program or two.
  • How are students evaluated?
    Earning a degree should mean just that — earning it. If students aren’t assessed properly and degrees are handed out with little or no verification that any knowledge has been transferred from the instructor to the student, then how can the program be rated? Students, particularly adult students, learn more by doing than by simply listening. For this reason, it is important to ensure that part of the program involves applying what has been learned.
  • What kinds of library facilities are available?
    Make sure the school has a good system for ensuring that reference materials and texts are accessible from anywhere. If a student is taking a course in another state (or another country), the online program shouldn’t limit that student’s ability to do assignments because of lack of electronic reference materials. Online references are extremely important and should be up-to-date and accessible at any time.