Finding Credible & Respected Online Colleges The Importance of Graduation Rates & Employer Acceptance of Online Degrees

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If you’ve earned or are earning an online degree, chances are you’ve had this thought: What will happen when I’m applying for a job? Should I tell them I went to school online? Maybe you’re considering distance learning but want to be sure you’re choosing a legitimate program. Learn how to separate credible online learning programs from disreputable ones and how to let the world know your degree is legitimate and demonstrates your promise as a qualified employee.

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Will Potential Employers Know Your Online College Degree is Credible?

Cost savings is an obvious benefit of earning an online degree, but for many people the choice to go to school online is motivated by more personal reasons: working full-time, caring for a family member, or perhaps having a disability that makes classroom learning challenging. An employer's job is to make smart decisions about who will optimize the company's success. They want to see dedication and ingenuity. You need to demonstrate that your decision to enroll in an online degree program was not to avoid hard work, but, rather, a responsible decision that allowed you to take care of your obligations without sacrificing your dreams.

In pursuing an online degree, there are factors within your control than can help persuade even picky future employers and HR departments not to put you on the "no" pile. The simplest way to reassure employers that your degree was not earned in a "diploma mill," a term used for online schools willing to dole out any number of degrees without merit in exchange for money, is to choose a college or university with a known and respected reputation. Consider universities with longstanding residential campuses that also now offer online courses or degrees.

Consider what you want to study. If you're choosing an online school for a bachelor’s degree and know you want to study computer science, choose a school known for excellence in technology fields. The same goes for higher-level degrees: if you’re a prospective doctoral candidate in education, choose a university with a strong education school. You can underscore to a future employer that you wanted to benefit from the excellence of the institution in your area of study.

How to Determine the Credibility of an Online College

Here are the key questions to ask in evaluating the credibility of an online school:

  • Is This School Accredited?

    The federal government, via the Department of Education, approves certain agencies, empowering them to create and enforce accreditation standards for colleges. It’s the not a matter of the federal government coming and inspecting a particular institution for high quality education or health services or safe food, it’s typically a regional accrediting agency.

    There’s also CHEA (the Council for Higher Education Accreditation), which is not a government body, but is reviewed by the Department of Education regularly and which also protects students, ensuring that they receive quality education from an institution CHEA grants accreditation to. If a particular college is not recognized via an agency via the Department of Education, but is recognized through CHEA, that may be for a variety of reasons, but none of them sinister. Here is the complete list of agencies recognized by either the Department of Education, CHEA, or both.

    The name of an accrediting agency should appear on a school’s website. If you can’t find it on the website, call the school and ask if they are accredited and for the name of the accrediting body. Investigate the name of the accrediting body to verify—some institutions trying to scam students will simply invent a name that sounds credible.

  • What is the Graduation Rate of This School?

    "Graduation rate" refers to the percentage of first-time college students who complete a bachelor’s degree within six continuous years. While no school has a perfect record, a very low graduation rate suggests that an institution is not doing its job of moving students through a program and out into the working world. The average grad rate for a for-profit school is 23 percent. Here are some data points about graduation rates for all types of colleges.

  • What's the Loan Default Rate of Students from This School?

    If you're considering taking out loans to pay for your online education, make sure you've researched the loan default rates for the schools you're considering. This measure will help you understand what percentage of students enrolled in a school are not able to pay back their debt, and while this might be for a variety of reasons, a rate much higher than the national average may indicate that the school charges too much money and is not a good return on investment. Check out the federal database regarding default rates.

Find Graduation & Distance Learning Rates for Online Programs

To help in your search for online programs, we’ve compiled a list of public and private not-for-profit schools with at least 50 percent of their students enrolled in distance education. Here you can compare graduation rates and also see plenty of respected institutions offering online education. This is not an exhaustive list. If there’s a particular school you’re interested in, contact the school directly to learn more about their online offerings and graduation statistics.

School Name State % Undergraduate Taking Any Distance Education 2014 6-Year Grad Rate Sector Size Total Price

Sources: NCES, CollegeResults.org

Caution Signs That an Online Program May Not be Credible

Now that you know what signals a credible online degree program, but what kind of institution raise red flags? Consult this list to make sure none of the following questionable or downright illegal recruitment and marketing tactics apply.

It’s nearly impossible to contact the admissions office.

If this is the case, chances are the "admissions office" is not really an admissions office.

The address listed is a P.O. Box, or a representative on the phone can’t provide a legitimate street address for you.

Don’t be fooled by someone persuading you that there is no street address because the school is online. Even some all-online schools have limited campuses, or at the very least an administrative building.

You’re receiving a huge amount of pressure from the school to enroll. Think 30+ phone calls in a month.

Especially if you fill out a lead form expressing interest, some schools will reach out with an email or even a phone call, or ask to send you an information packet about the school. But a school that calls you so much it borders on stalking? Forget it.

You’re asked to pay the whole cost of tuition right up front.

Traditionally, students pay for a semester at a time, or a year’s tuition in chunks. College is expensive, and administrators know that—In order to retain students, they try to accommodate individuals and families. Don’t be bowled over by a scam artist who tells you that "college is just expensive."

The school’s name sounds like a well-known university, but it’s just slightly different.

Everyone knows Harvard University. If a school’s name is “Harvarden University,” question why they chose that name. If they’re trying too hard to sound legitimate, they’re probably not.

The school’s accredited…by tons of agencies.

A legitimate online school should be accredited. But if the school’s website lists a whole bunch of different agencies, this could be another sign of overcompensating. In every case, look up the exact agency’s name that’s listed and the institution itself in the Department of Education database.

You’re told that you’ll graduate in an unrealistically short amount of time.

No matter how desperate you are to earn a degree, don’t be sucked in by the false promise of graduating in a short amount of time from a legitimate program.

There’s no way to contact the school’s library, alumni, technology department or faculty.

Real schools, online included, have student services. There should be more than just nominal listings of professors and staff.

There’s no information about program requirements.

Committing to a degree program is a big investment. Legitimate schools tell prospective student what classes and credits earn particular degrees.

It’s an international school based in a small country almost exclusively recruiting in the United States.

There are above-board international online schools, of course, but these should also be accredited (and they can be accredited by CHEA, anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth). Some small countries may have no accrediting bodies, so unaccredited operations out of these countries who recruit heavily in the U.S. can’t be verified as legitimate.

Attendance is not required.

Just because a class is online, doesn’t mean it’s a free for all. Above board online programs have qualified professors who teach remotely and expect a certain level of attendance and engagement from their students, just like in a traditional classroom.

Online or On-Campus: What’s the Difference?

While some universities and colleges simply offer online courses, others are 100 percent online. If you are in position to choose between a wholly online school and a traditional school with online offerings, here’s a table that allows you to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of each choice:

  Lowest Cost Most Flexibility Most Employer Friendly Best Social
Online Only Yes. 100 percent virtual schools tend to be more affordable than any other type of education. Depends. Online courses still require attendance, but if flexibility simply means being able to be at home, then yes, this is likely the most flexible option. Some employers have evolved with the times and may not question or even take note of an online degree. But the fact is, a few bad apples have tainted the reputation of totally virtual schools so there is skepticism. Depends. We live a such a virtual culture that community building takes place online all the time. Of course, some schools do this better than others. Ask the Admissions Office of your potential school and see what they offer in the way of peer community.
Blended If you take a mix of online and traditional classroom courses, the cost of tuition will likely be higher than at a totally online school, unless you get a sizeable amount of federal aid. Depends. If your blended university is far from your home, then being able to take online courses there signifies a huge amount of flexibility. Yes. Much of the research is anecdotal, but employers will likely be more comfortable with a known entity than a totally virtual school. Depends. The college social experience is what you make of it. As an online student, if physical community such as student groups and alumni events are important to you, then choosing a local brick-and-mortar school may be best.

Busting Online College Myths

Online college is a popular and sometimes taboo subject. But don’t be swayed by what your friend heard on the news, or what one person’s awesome experience was—learn the facts, and make an objective decision. Let’s bust a few myths about online learning off the bat:

  • 1. Maybe a lot of people take online courses, but you can’t do college completely online.

    Not true. According to the National Council of Education Statistics, 14 percent of students earning an associate’s level degree or higher take all distance learning courses.

  • 2. Going to college online is really easy.

    Online courses are no easier than traditional courses. Unless the online program is a scam and you’re pay for a degree, get ready to show up and focus, just like anywhere else!

  • 3. You can go to college online, but you can’t get a graduate degree online.

    False. There are online graduate programs in just about every area imaginable: you can even earn a PhD online.

  • 4. Online education is just a fad.

    On the contrary, a lot of people think the future of education lies in online learning. In data from the National Center for Education Statistics, year over year data from 2013 to 2014 shows that total enrollment in at least one online course went up four percent. Put it this way: when a company’s profits go up that much year over year, it’s a success.

From the Expert

Bob Rubinyi Center for Educational Innovation, Senior Analyst for Online Learning

Is your impression, at the University of Minnesota or generally, that more students are enrolling in online courses and completing their entire degree online?

What we have found is that despite the fact that we have close to 50 online programs, as it turns out the majority of our enrollments are actually from individual students who are otherwise residential students taking individual online courses… [For] a lot of institutions such as ours…the majority are students who are in residential programs at the University.

Public and nonprofit higher education institutions are significantly increasing their engagement in the online area. Arizona State and other publics and privates are increasingly involved with developing more online programs.

What might a future employer see as a red flag concerning an online program? Basically, what should students enrolling in an online degree program watch out for?

The reputation of the institution is extremely important. In the first phase, we saw a lot of the for-profits…not that for profits are bad, but the biggest thing students look for is the reputation of the institution, and now [students] are looking towards traditional institutions. [Reputation is] certainly something employers are looking for.

What are markers of a strong online learning program?

High quality faculty. I like it when a lot of the same faculty teaching on the ground are also teaching online. A curriculum that fits together is important as far as how the courses are scaffolded…[When] courses are not just a loose collection but there’s really a systemic structure to them. The other thing would be successful graduates [who] get placed in positions that they were seeking the particular education program for.

Does it help when an online learning program is associated with a recognizable, traditional university?

Yes. Certainly the individual universities have a lot of brand recognition and students certainly respond to that…In my conversations with students, they’ve indicated that they had heard about the University and that was a big reason why they wanted to look at our university first or other universities that they were familiar with.

Any other advice you may have for potential online students?

Especially when we’re talking about adult learners, I tell them to make sure to go to potential employers for positions they might be looking for and ask them, what type of educational experience are you looking at? What type of schools do you respect? What type of degree or credential?