The Internet feels like a vast sea of information when you’re trying to find the best online colleges and universities. A ton of them exist. Not all of them are legitimate. Because of the sheer volume of online schools out there, it is often difficult to tell the legitimate degree program from the diploma mills. Fortunately, if you’re among these students, a little research on your part allows you to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. The following information is intended to offer some guidelines to students like you who would like to find a legitimate online college or university.

Know What to Look For

Even if a school says they’re accredited by an official-sounding organization, this so-called accreditation could be meaningless. You want to make sure that the program is accredited by an organization that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The latter provides a full list of accredited institutions on its website.  Although programs may claim to be accredited by other bodies, these are typically not legitimate if not recognized by the government and CHEA.

Most colleges and universities have a page on their website that spells out their credentials. This accreditation page usually reveals the accrediting body that provided the school’s accreditation. However, other accreditation information could be highlighted as well. For example, if the college or university has a law school, the accreditation page may also say that the school is accredited by the American Bar Association (or something similar). Many individual programs within a college or university may have such accreditation or affiliation on the university’s accreditation page. This additional information provides would-be students with another way to determine the legitimacy of the school.

Avoid Programs that Seem Too Good to Be True

Legitimate online programs have admissions and completion requirements that should be fairly similar to comparable traditional programs. If you can enter the school without an application process, if you’re given course credit for “life experience,” or if the school claims you can get a degree by mail in an incredibly short time, the program is typically not legitimate. Also, avoid those that charge a flat fee rather than having you pay for course credits as you take classes–especially if the fee seems relatively low compared to the value of the degree you expect to receive.

The reality is if the program seems too easy, it’s probably a scam. Although it is possible to test out certain classes, be wary of degree programs that promise a full degree via testing and life experience.

Where Is It Located?

A fake online school’s website will sometimes have only a post office box and no legitimate street address. Along the same lines, the school may have moved addresses, meaning that it started in one state and then moved to another state (or two or three). This movement doesn’t indicate an expansion of campuses, meaning the college has campuses in several states. Rather, it often means that the school was shut down due to fraudulent activity, so it had to move its operations out of one state and into another.

Are There Student Services?

Legitimate colleges offer student services. While it may be difficult to have a brick-and-mortar library for a fully online school, the school should offer other services, like student advising, a directory of staff, and the like. (Actually, some online schools do have a digital version of the library, where students can not only access digital copies of books but also request copies of books from libraries around the world.) Some online schools will even specifically include a page that outlines online services. These could include online career and job center, virtual orientation services, and a writing center to name but a few. Here are a few examples of reputable online schools that offer a plethora of student services to their online enrollees:

What’s In a Name?

For best results, look for online programs that are managed by reputable brick and mortar institutions. Existing colleges and universities offer many online programs that are comparable in scope and prestige to their traditional programs. Find the schools that are tops in the field you’re interested in studying, then do some research to find out which have online programs. Also look into schools that are touted by the relevant professional organizations in your field of study; for example, look for online dental programs that are recognized by the American Dental Association or psychology degree programs accredited by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation . Beware of programs with names or that tout accreditations that sound similar to those of legitimate programs, but are slightly different; bogus programs often use an incorrect spelling to fool unsuspecting students into enrolling.

As technology continues to change and advance, more and more students will seek out alternative educational opportunities like online degree programs. It is likely that these students will come across both legitimate and phony online programs. You may also find that many legitimate brick-and-mortar schools from Boise State University to Harvard University have online degree programs. In fact, your best bet for finding the best online colleges and universities may start with a search of traditional schools and work your way from there.

Additional Resources

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