How to Find a Credible & Respected Online College The Importance of Graduation Rates & Employer Acceptance of Online Degrees

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.

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
Apex School of Theology NC 100% 100.00% Private not-for-profit 581 n/a
Bethune-Cookman University FL 100% 49.70% Private not-for-profit 3,649 $27,058
Johnson C Smith University NC 100% 43.70% Private not-for-profit 1,344 $32,136
Stevens-Henager College-Murray UT 100% 27.10% Private not-for-profit 2,382 n/a
Pennsylvania State University-World Campus PA 100% 20.00% Public 2,795 n/a
Western Governors University UT 100% 16.70% Private not-for-profit 35,493 n/a
Thomas University GA 100% 15.90% Private not-for-profit 633 $24,860
Union Institute & University OH 100% 12.50% Private not-for-profit 930 n/a
University of Maryland-University College MD 100% 7.50% Public 12,858 n/a
Cox College MO 100% n/a Private not-for-profit 566 n/a
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School Name State % Undergraduate Taking Any Distance Education 2014 6-Year Grad Rate Sector Size Total Price
Apex School of Theology NC 100% 100.00% Private not-for-profit 581 n/a
Bethune-Cookman University FL 100% 49.70% Private not-for-profit 3,649 $27,058
Johnson C Smith University NC 100% 43.70% Private not-for-profit 1,344 $32,136
Stevens-Henager College-Murray UT 100% 27.10% Private not-for-profit 2,382 n/a
Pennsylvania State University-World Campus PA 100% 20.00% Public 2,795 n/a
Western Governors University UT 100% 16.70% Private not-for-profit 35,493 n/a
Thomas University GA 100% 15.90% Private not-for-profit 633 $24,860
Union Institute & University OH 100% 12.50% Private not-for-profit 930 n/a
University of Maryland-University College MD 100% 7.50% Public 12,858 n/a
Cox College MO 100% n/a Private not-for-profit 566 n/a
Southern New Hampshire University NH 95% 49.00% Private not-for-profit 12,294 $43,056
Humphreys College-Stockton and Modesto Campuses CA 95% 77.40% Private not-for-profit 520 n/a
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide FL 91% 24.30% Private not-for-profit 5,195 n/a
Marylhurst University OR 89% 30.80% Private not-for-profit 364 n/a
Allen College IA 87% n/a Private not-for-profit 305 $32,245
Franklin University OH 86% 13.10% Private not-for-profit 2,921 n/a
Saint Leo University FL 86% 41.50% Private not-for-profit 9,989 $33,200
Clarkson College NE 86% 11.10% Private not-for-profit 557 $25,760
Liberty University VA 85% 51.90% Private not-for-profit 33,095 $33,544
Bellevue University NE 84% 29.40% Private not-for-profit 5,521 n/a
Regent University VA 83% 52.70% Private not-for-profit 1,798 $28,368
Park University MO 83% 41.70% Private not-for-profit 4,178 $23,248
Great Basin College NV 81% 3.30% Public 1,659 $15,070
Baptist Bible College & Seminary of Pennsylvania PA 81% 47.90% Private not-for-profit 466 $29,190
Crossroads Bible College IN 80% 35.00% Private not-for-profit 178 n/a
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Schuylkill PA 80% 42.20% Public 718 $30,150
Messenger College TX 80% 10.00% Private not-for-profit 41 $17,804
Granite State College NH 78% 21.40% Public 1,186 n/a
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Ponce PR 77% 28.90% Private not-for-profit 4,884 n/a
University of the Southwest NM 74% 17.20% Private not-for-profit 240 $25,380
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Arecibo PR 74% 30.70% Private not-for-profit 3,861 n/a
National University CA 74% 46.20% Private not-for-profit 5,841 n/a
Midway College KY 74% 28.30% Private not-for-profit 903 $37,650
Jefferson College of Health Sciences VA 73% 37.20% Private not-for-profit 732 $36,353
Fort Hays State University KS 73% 41.50% Public 7,444 $16,410
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Aguadilla PR 73% 26.30% Private not-for-profit 3,871 n/a
Arlington Baptist College TX 73% 30.00% Private not-for-profit 215 $20,610
Anderson University SC 73% 51.80% Private not-for-profit 2,305 $37,014
University of Maine at Augusta ME 72% 12.10% Public 2,741 n/a
Kent State University at East Liverpool OH 72% n/a Public 712 n/a
Fairmont State University WV 72% 32.00% Public 3,612 $17,310
Cleary University MI 71% 38.70% Private not-for-profit 325 n/a
Wright State University-Lake Campus OH 71% 33.30% Public 851 $16,010
Mid-America Christian University OK 71% 38.50% Private not-for-profit 2,084 $27,418
Presentation College SD 71% 39.00% Private not-for-profit 621 $28,914
Eastern New Mexico University-Main Campus NM 69% 27.40% Public 3,362 $16,149
University of Maine at Fort Kent ME 69% 46.70% Public 799 $18,795
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Lehigh Valley PA 69% 54.20% Public 776 n/a
Indiana University-East IN 68% 26.80% Public 2,741 n/a
Mississippi University for Women MS 68% 41.00% Public 2,106 $16,823
Lincoln Christian University IL 68% 50.60% Private not-for-profit 548 $26,434
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Bayamon PR 68% 28.00% Private not-for-profit 4,275 n/a
Eastern Oregon University OR 67% 33.90% Public 2,678 $21,090
New Life Theological Seminary NC 67% 18.80% Private not-for-profit 77 n/a
Hobe Sound Bible College FL 67% 60.00% Private not-for-profit 130 $14,140
Chadron State College NE 67% 36.20% Public 1,992 $16,440
Columbia College MO 66% 37.60% Private not-for-profit 11,627 $21,833
Northwestern State University of Louisiana LA 66% 38.00% Public 5,954 $18,436
Northwood University-Texas TX 66% 39.10% Private not-for-profit 565 $35,370
Central Christian College of Kansas KS 66% 32.30% Private not-for-profit 840 $24,500
Hodges University FL 66% 25.00% Private not-for-profit 1,494 n/a
Arizona State University-Downtown Phoenix AZ 65% 58.30% Public 7,906 $25,521
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Fajardo PR 64% 30.10% Private not-for-profit 1,945 n/a
The University of Texas at Tyler TX 64% 44.90% Public 4,590 $21,222
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-Guayama PR 64% 31.30% Private not-for-profit 1,887 n/a
Inter American University of Puerto Rico-San German PR 64% 37.40% Private not-for-profit 4,092 $14,312
The University of Texas of the Permian Basin TX 64% 33.70% Public 2,698 $16,749
Universidad del Sagrado Corazon PR 63% 31.10% Private not-for-profit 4,669 $19,760
Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico-Arecibo PR 63% 22.20% Private not-for-profit 589 n/a
EDP Univeristy of Puerto Rico Inc-San Juan PR 63% 17.60% Private not-for-profit 944 n/a
University of Illinois at Springfield IL 62% 48.70% Public 2,326 $22,378
University of Hawaii-West Oahu HI 62% 40.00% Public 1,482 n/a
University of Maine at Machias ME 62% 31.40% Public 590 $18,968
Valley City State University ND 62% 48.10% Public 910 $16,986
Bluefield State College WV 62% 26.60% Public 1,542 n/a
Everglades University FL 62% 51.40% Private not-for-profit 1,184 n/a
Nevada State College NV 62% 14.10% Public 1,925 n/a
Colorado Christian University CO 61% 40.30% Private not-for-profit 2,639 $38,130
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Fayette- Eberly PA 61% 48.10% Public 717 n/a
Capitol College MD 61% 38.50% Private not-for-profit 367 $33,460
Ohio Christian University OH 61% 28.80% Private not-for-profit 2,341 $33,418
University of Alaska Southeast AK 61% 13.80% Public 1,429 $18,657
University of Florida FL 60% 87.50% Public 31,265 $19,103
The Baptist College of Florida FL 60% 46.90% Private not-for-profit 427 $16,738
Tennessee Technological University TN 60% 49.40% Public 9,444 $22,963
University of Great Falls MT 60% 36.40% Private not-for-profit 792 $32,654
Indiana Wesleyan University IN 60% 64.30% Private not-for-profit 9,976 $34,588
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College KY 60% 61.50% Private not-for-profit 119 $15,294
University of Minnesota-Crookston MN 60% 47.90% Public 1,816 $22,722
Peru State College NE 59% 36.70% Public 1,510 $16,556
Jones College-Jacksonville FL 59% 8.30% Private not-for-profit 192 n/a
Bluefield College VA 59% 50.00% Private not-for-profit 761 $35,560
Brigham Young University-Idaho ID 59% 48.60% Private not-for-profit 18,815 $11,398
Southeastern Oklahoma State University OK 59% 28.80% Public 2,945 $15,045
Piedmont International University NC 58% 42.50% Private not-for-profit 165 $23,578
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College IN 58% 45.50% Private not-for-profit 472 $42,362
Indiana Institute of Technology IN 58% 32.40% Private not-for-profit 4,379 n/a
Arizona State University-West AZ 58% 59.20% Public 2,879 $23,117
Southwestern College KS 58% 53.80% Private not-for-profit 821 $37,632
Ohio University-Eastern Campus OH 58% 40.00% Public 664 n/a
Hawaii Pacific University HI 58% 42.30% Private not-for-profit 4,340 $36,590
Keiser University-Ft Lauderdale FL 58% 41.70% Private not-for-profit 13,351 n/a
University of Maine at Presque Isle ME 57% 45.70% Public 900 $18,276
Kent State University at Ashtabula OH 57% n/a Public 1,226 n/a
Kent State University at Geauga OH 57% n/a Public 1,275 n/a
Morehead State University KY 57% 46.20% Public 7,498 $18,851
Georgia Southwestern State University GA 57% 32.10% Public 2,136 $19,063
SUNY College of Technology at Canton NY 57% 30.70% Public 3,129 $21,416
SUNY Empire State College NY 57% 14.40% Public 6,421 n/a
Alaska Pacific University AK 57% 58.30% Private not-for-profit 292 $43,180
Davenport University MI 57% 37.10% Private not-for-profit 4,172 $26,872
Brenau University GA 57% 46.60% Private not-for-profit 1,283 $38,528
Western New Mexico University NM 56% 22.30% Public 1,956 $20,803
Bethesda University of California CA 56% 75.00% Private not-for-profit 222 n/a
Northwest Indian College WA 56% n/a Public 570 $13,701
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary NC 56% 27.60% Private not-for-profit 350 $13,035
Louisiana State University-Alexandria LA 55% 25.40% Public 1,575 $17,013
University of South Florida-St Petersburg FL 55% 31.80% Public 3,114 $20,170
Florida Gulf Coast University FL 55% 49.10% Public 11,070 $19,102
Mercy College NY 55% 29.90% Private not-for-profit 6,416 $34,278
Texas Woman's University TX 54% 43.90% Public 7,653 $18,259
Florida International University FL 54% 54.20% Public 30,350 $22,968
Kent State University at Trumbull OH 54% n/a Public 1,638 n/a
Clayton State University GA 54% 33.30% Public 4,924 $18,830
Mercy College of Ohio OH 54% 46.90% Private not-for-profit 732 n/a
Montana State University-Billings MT 54% 23.60% Public 3,596 $17,835
University of Central Florida FL 53% 69.70% Public 41,264 $20,839
Brescia University KY 53% 25.90% Private not-for-profit 768 $30,390
Wilmington University DE 53% 28.30% Private not-for-profit 5,210 n/a
West Virginia University at Parkersburg WV 53% 29.50% Public 2,572 n/a
Idaho State University ID 52% 29.80% Public 8,483 $21,068
Rochester College MI 52% 39.00% Private not-for-profit 847 $28,890
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Dubois PA 52% 45.20% Public 606 n/a
Troy University AL 52% 35.70% Public 11,533 $18,228
Tennessee Temple University TN 52% 20.70% Private not-for-profit 548 $23,250
Saint Joseph's College of Maine ME 52% 62.60% Private not-for-profit 1,022 $45,790
Nicholls State University LA 52% 40.70% Public 5,115 $19,180
Shaw University NC 52% 24.40% Private not-for-profit 1,830 $29,378
Fontbonne University MO 52% 48.10% Private not-for-profit 1,080 $33,896
Texas A & M University-Commerce TX 51% 51.80% Public 5,775 $14,867
Northwood University-Michigan MI 51% 55.80% Private not-for-profit 2,227 $35,028
McNeese State University LA 51% 40.90% Public 6,507 $17,759
University of Arkansas at Little Rock AR 51% 24.40% Public 7,025 $23,191
Limestone College SC 51% 28.20% Private not-for-profit 2,671 $36,416
Madonna University MI 51% 50.00% Private not-for-profit 2,236 $27,944
University of Michigan-Flint MI 51% 34.30% Public 5,374 $23,026
University of Mary ND 51% 46.10% Private not-for-profit 1,773 $24,121
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Greater Allegheny PA 51% 41.00% Public 582 $30,064
Rogers State University OK 51% 24.00% Public 3,224 $18,451
Kent State University at Salem OH 50% 20.60% Public 1,083 n/a
Northwestern Oklahoma State University OK 50% 34.40% Public 1,703 $14,522
Bethel University TN 50% 35.80% Private not-for-profit 4,355 $30,196
Elizabeth City State University NC 50% 39.20% Public 2,209 $13,161
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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?