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How Do You Know Whether an Online School Is Credible?

In the world of online education, many diploma mills and other business scams exist, intent on tricking prospective students into paying tuition money in exchange for worthless degrees and diplomas that will not prepare you for any kind of career. It is especially important for you to check a school’s background and accreditation – and to look out for red flags – during your search for the perfect school.


Accreditation is a good indicator of a school’s level of education quality. Typically, accreditation is awarded to a school once it has met an acceptable level of quality in regards to higher education. In the United States, online colleges and traditional universities are usually recognized by one of six regional accreditation agencies:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Schools & Colleges

You can learn more about accreditation and check the approved list of accredited schools on the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Keep in mind that some majors and programs need to be accredited by their own academic and professional agencies as well, particularly fields like health care, music or business. Ask the school to provide you with proof of accreditation that you can then verify on the Department of Education website or on the database organized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

However, some legitimate schools and programs may not have accreditation, such as newer programs and faith-based schools, so do not rely on accreditation alone to help you determine a school’s education quality.

Red Flags

These and other signs may point to diploma mills and non-accredited institutions that will not be recognized by other universities or in the workforce. The Better Business Bureau also outlines red flags to consider when evaluating an online college.

  • The promise to graduate much faster than normal, for instance, earning a bachelor’s degree in a few months
  • Pay-as-you-go degrees
  • Difficult to contact admissions offices
  • No emphasis on interacting with professors
  • Contact addresses are PO Box numbers or suites (even online colleges should have a campus and headquarters)
  • Overcompensation for accrediting agencies. Ex: more than one regional accrediting agency is listed
  • Emphasis on life experience and continuing education
  • Ads, including pop-up ads appearing on the school’s website
  • Refusal to accept federal financial aid
  • No testimonials or mention of alumni networks
  • Open admission

Credible Schools

Accredited online schools will have websites and a layout that supply you with information similar to a traditional university’s website. Information on accreditation (if applicable), program requirements, and entry requirements will be easy to find on a credible school’s website. These schools should also have a non-PO Box physical address where students can send mail or even visit, though for some strictly online schools, that physical address may not be a campus, but just an administrative building.

Also remember that traditional brick-and-mortar schools also offer online programs that are equally credible to their on-campus programs, so check to see if any of your local universities offers distance programs as well.

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