Gauging Legitimacy of Online Degrees

How can you tell if that online degree program you’re eyeing is the real deal?

Before investing time and money in something that might just be too convenient or inexpensive to be true, do a little investigating, advises Michael Lambert of the Distance Education and Training Council based in Washington, D.C.

His organization, which began as an accreditor of correspondence courses and has morphed into an online and distance education accreditation body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, offers a list on its website of the schools and programs it accredits.

Lambert also points to the virtual home of a consumer watchdog and advocacy group , which rates, ranks and verifies the cost, quality and credibility of online colleges and universities.

Check for regional accreditation, says Phil DiSalvio, dean of continuing education and professional studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Most legitimate online colleges and universities are recognized by states and are accredited regionally by organizations such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. For a list of regional accrediting bodies, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Figure out how many doctoral students advisers work with and how many committees professors sit on, DiSalvio says. Does the university offer resources for students, such as a remote library or online tutoring and writing labs? What about those faculty members? Are they full time or adjunct? Are they known scholars in their fields? Do they have experience in the field?

A clue to legitimacy is admission requirements, DiSalvio says. They should be identical to those of an on-campus program. An open admissions policy generally brings in a lower-quality student, DiSalvio says.

Finally, Lambert suggests talking with colleagues about the online program you’re considering. Will their school districts embrace an online degree? “If there’s a question, get that nailed down before you start enrolling,” he says.

— Kate Beem