Advances in technology over the past decade have propelled colleges and universities into the realm of online education, creating a crowded market for students considering an online degree.
But not all programs are a safe bet.
Online colleges have been criticized for putting profits over students; some have even been the subject of lawsuits claiming misrepresentation or fraud. To avoid scams, students need to be savvy consumers and do their research before signing up for an online degree program, experts say.
These indicators that can help students tell a good online program from a bad one.
Accreditation: Like a stamp of approval, accreditation tells students that a school or degree program meets certain academic standards. It also tells employers that graduates of the program are likely to be prepared for the workforce.
"If you really want a credential for a job, the most secure bet is to go to a regionally accredited institution," says Janet Moore, chief knowledge officer at the Sloan Consortium, a research organization specializing in online education.
While most colleges list their accreditation on their websites, students should do their legwork to ensure the school's credentials are legitimate. Some institutions tout phony credentials from accrediting bodies that either don't exist or aren't reputable, warns Anne Johnson, director of the advocacy group Campus Progress.
The Accrediting Council for Distance Education, for example, claims to be an "internationally recognized, independent and private education accrediting body," but is not recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education.
The College Navigator tool on the Department of Education's website allows students to verify the accreditation of any school on their radar, as well as check the vitals of that institution: graduation rates, retention rates and default rates on student loans.
Curriculum and credits: Before enrolling in an online degree program, students should verify whether the credits they earn can transfer to another college if they switch programs.
If those credits can't be transferred, students should ask themselves, "Why?" It may be because other colleges don't consider the courses in that program up to their academic standards.
Students should also ask about credit for prior courses, Moore says. "If you dropped out of college in 1990 in your junior year … are you going to lose those credits? Or can you pick up where you left off?" she adds.
Another area students should research is the curriculum for the online degree program they are considering, Moore says. Courses for an online degree in computer information technology, for instance, should teach students practical skills needed in that field, such as operating systems and in-demand coding languages.
Support services: Earning a degree online doesn't eliminate the need for academic assistance. In fact, in most cases, it increases the need for those services, experts say.
"What is the support level going to be? Who is going to help you day one, week one, when you need help?" says Chris Caywood, president of online services at DeVry Inc., which operates several for-profit institutions, including DeVry University and the Chamberlain College of Nursing.
Students want to ensure their online degree program will help them enter into, or advance in, their chosen career field.
"I'd ask a lot of hard questions about what the career services piece looks like," Caywood says. "Are we supporting you not only in educational achievement, but when you want to get that next job?"
By asking those hard questions, online students can also get a feel for how responsive a school is to their needs. If information about support services is not readily available on a school's website, or if students have a hard time getting answers when they call, the program may be trying to hide something, says Johnson from Campus Progress.
"If you're having a hard time ... getting information about what it would be like as a student at that school, that's going to tell you a lot about what your experience would be," Johnson says. "If you can't get a hold of anyone about to ask about their academic counseling or career placement services, I'd say that's a big red flag."
Another red flag: pushy financial aid counselors.
Students should make sure they fully understand their financial aid package before signing for any loans, and be wary if schools pressure them to take out loans for their online degree program—particularly private loans, Johnson adds.
"Access to financial aid counseling is very important, and students should be very leery if they don't have the information they need, or feel like their questions aren't being answered," she says.
Statistics: Numbers such as graduation rates or student loan default rates can tell students a lot about a school, says Moore, with the Sloan Consortium.
A low completion rate could indicate the program doesn't have strong academic support for students, and a high student loan default rate may be a signal of poor financial aid advising.
Low employment rates for graduates might raise a red flag about a school's career services department, or lack of one, and might also hint at a larger problem: diploma mills. These institutions churn out graduates with degrees that carry little weight with employers because of low-quality curricula or lack of legitimate accreditation.
Retention, success, and default rates will separate the good schools from the bad, Moore says. "The difficulty is getting people to buckle down and do that research ahead of time."
Originally published at USNews.com on November 9th, 2012