7 warning signs an online degree is a scam

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How to Select an Online University

For prospective online students, searching for a degree program can sometimes feel like being adrift in the wilderness, with no map and no way of gauging the intention of approaching strangers.

Students have so many online programs to choose from – some with promises of quick, effortless degrees that seem too good to be true. Unfortunately, they sometimes are. And students who are duped by the schemes are left with a hole in their wallet and no legitimate credential.

While anyone can fall prey to an online degree scam, international students and first generation college students can be particularly vulnerable to degree mills, says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, a group dedicated to advancing the quality of online learning. "If you don't know what you don't know, it can seem like a really intricate maze," she says.

Below are several signs that an online program may not be legit:

1. Accreditation status is murky. When students start looking for a program, they want to know the information they are seeing on a website is trustworthy, says Tim Willard, spokesman for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA. For students looking at U.S. programs, "a good place to start is to determine if the institution is accredited," he says.

Of course, not all accrediting groups are equal. To make sure the accrediting organization is legitimate, students should make sure it is recognized by either CHEA or the U.S. Education Department.

If prospective students suspect a school is falsely claiming accreditation, they can always contact the accrediting agency and ask, says Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which accredits online programs. She says her group gets calls regularly.

Students looking into non-U.S. distance education programs should start by contacting the ministry of education in the country where the program is based to ask about its accreditation or authority to operate, Willard says. They can also visit CHEA's international directory for a list of quality assurance and accreditation bodies and ministries of education around the world. Granted, every country may have different quality standards for its programs.

2. The name seems prestigious, and vaguely familiar. Sometimes programs will "steal a renowned name and modify it jut a little bit," Matthews says. Some even fabricate faculty names and credentials.

If a student comes across, for example, a professor Joe Smith at a school with a name like Harvard Technological University, he or she might want to do more research.

3. Earning a degree seems fast and easy. Prospective students should hear warning bells as soon as they are told they can get a degree without much time or effort, experts say.
"If you are able to earn this degree with just a resume review, it's a clear red flag that this is not a legitimate degree granting institution," says Pedersen. "Any legitimate institution is going to require that you complete a certain number of credits at their institution."

4. There's no​ evidence of student services. Legitimate online programs should have a host of resources available to students, including technology support, advising and library services, Pedersen says. If prospective students don't see evidence of those resources, or if they can't speak to other staff members, then they should be suspicious.

"Poke around a little bit on the website to ensure that it isn't just a movie set where it's just the front and that's it," she says.

5. An address is hard to pinpoint. Students are right to raise an eyebrow if a program won't provide any information about a campus or business address and relies only on an email address, Willard says. On a related note, Matthews, says, most legitimate online operations in the U.S. have websites that end with "edu."

6. There's a lot of pressure to enroll.​ Another sign that a program may be a degree mill: the salespeople will not leave you alone. "If one of these outfits is being really aggressive and you are feeling uncomfortable, that's when you say, 'I need to stop and think about this and be in touch,'" Matthews says. "Don't let yourself get pressured into enrolling – that's never OK."

7. The program requires a lot of money upfront. "I would be highly suspicious of a program if it requires a substantial upfront financial commitment," says Pederson with OLC. "With most legitimate academic programs, you pay for the courses you are taking that term or that semester. That's a sign for me. I would dig a little deeper."

Israe Berateo, a Michigan-based nurse who is looking for an online master's in nursing program he can pursue while being closer to family in Lebanon, admits looking for an online program can be very overwhelming. His advice to fellow prospective students: If​ you're having problems vetting a degree, let another source do it for you.

"Go to companies or magazines who have done the work and done the research," he says. "This is the most important thing." ​

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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