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Use Special Strategies to Evaluate Online Education


More and more institutions are offering online programs using the Internet and other electronic technologies. Online opportunities add options for learning in flexible, varied, and personalized formats.


The Internet, however, also offers new ways for educational scams and diploma mills to reach out to people who are looking for genuine innovations in education. It is not always easy to identify phony operations from a casual look. A website can include elaborate efforts to deceive even to the extent of posting pictures of ivy-covered buildings when the entire operation consists of a post office box. If a school promises a degree for little or no work, it's probably not legitimate.

An online institution should provide a mailing address. This allows you to check with the higher education consumer protection authority in its home state to see whether it is operating legally under state law. Accreditation from a recognized accrediting agency is another sign that an online program is legitimate.

Online education programs may be subject to state consumer protection, but the ability of states to protect you through regulation is more limited than with classroom instruction. It is easy for operators that do not offer legitimate programs to set up a website and collect money without any external oversight. Sites may operate offshore and be out of reach of all U.S. authorities.

For more information on diploma mills and legitimate online learning, see Guides to Distance Learning.

Most of the questions you should ask any school also apply to online education. If the school has both on-campus and online students, try to get information that specifically reflects the experiences of online students since their experiences may differ from those attending traditional classes.

You should be able to find the answers to many of these questions from the school's website. If the information you need is not available on the website, call, write, or e-mail the school.

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