Maybe a job loss has prompted you to think about going back to school. Many online educational opportunities abound, and their convenience can be unparalleled for adults who have lots of responsibilities to juggle. But how can you make sure the program you're considering is legitimate and worthwhile? These tips can help:
1 Check for proper accreditation. The institution you choose should be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education ( www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation ( www.chea.org or (202) 955-6126 ). Sometimes a legitimate regional accrediting organization — such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — will be cited; just make sure it's recognized by the two national resources listed here.
2Find out the word on the street. Particularly if you're switching career fields — but even if you're not — ask workers and hiring managers which kinds of certificates and degrees mean something in their universe. Ask them whether they've ever heard of such-and-such an institution, and find out whether that institution's credentials would boost your resume. (Side note: This process can help you accomplish some networking with a purpose and can result in your standing out as highly self-motivated.)
3Steer clear of diploma mills. Fraudulent educational institutions are becoming more common, and in some cases their distance-learning opportunities can seem so real — even though the degrees and certificates they're cranking out aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Recognize that an official-looking Web site just isn't enough.
4 Get proper — not bogus — credit for career and life experience. One sign you may be dealing with a diploma mill is the promise of degrees given on the basis of "life experience" with little or no work on the student's part. That said, many legitimate colleges and universities allow older students to trade career experience and other skills for college credits after going through a formal process, so check into this and see what's involved. You also can earn college credits passing inexpensive College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests ( www.collegeboard.com/ student/testing/clep/about.html).
5 Pay attention to pricing. Accredited schools charge by credit hour, course or semester. Diploma mills often list prices for certain degrees and promote discounts if you pursue more than one degree at a time. They also frequently promise to award a degree very quickly.
6Make sure the school has an actual street address. Another red flag for a diploma mill is an address for school headquarters that only includes a post office box number or a mail-drop box.
7 Do some sleuth work. If a program sounds too good to be true, have the institution's background checked by the Better Business Bureau ( www.bbb.org) and the state attorney general's office where the school is based. To find information for attorneys general, visit the Web site of the National Association of Attorneys General ( www.naag.org).
8 Ask questions. Make sure you fully understand how a given online educational program works: Can the entire program be completed online? Does some of it have to be done in person? How will you communicate with the instructor? With other students? What will be expected of you, and with what sorts of deadlines?
9Find out about resources you'll be able to tap. Legitimate distance-learning programs typically give students access to librarians, library and reference materials, online indexes and full-text databases. Ask about these issues and find out how quickly you can expect to receive materials and librarian assistance if needed.
10Consider legitimate options that are close to home. Maybe you've thought of attending school in the Tampa Bay area but worried you wouldn't have the time to commute to classes. If that's the case, you can earn all sorts of degrees and certificates through the eCampus programs at St. Petersburg College ( www.spcollege.edu/ecampus) and the University of South Florida ( www.ecampus.usf.edu), to name just two examples. Check the Web sites of other brick-and-mortar schools that interest you to explore distance-learning possibilities.
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at laura@ tentips.org.
Sources: Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org); U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov); Minnesota Office of Higher Education (www.ohe.state.mn.us)