For prospective online students, searching for a degree program can sometimes feel like being lost in the wilderness.
The ubiquity of online education programs comes with promises of quick, effortless degrees that seem too good to be true. Sometimes that's exactly the case, and students who are duped by the schemes are left with a sizable hole in their wallet and no legitimate credential.
The growth of online education in recent years has led to more opportunities for legitimacy and transparency, says Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which works to provide quality assurance in higher education. Despite the growth of online education, scams and diploma mills still persist on the web.
Below are seven signs that an online program may not be legitimate:
-- Accreditation status is murky.
-- The name seems prestigious and vaguely familiar.
-- Earning a degree seems fast and easy.
-- There's no evidence of student services.
-- The address seems fishy.
-- There is pressure or incentives to enroll.
-- The program requires a lot of money upfront.
Accreditation Status Is Murky
"For any kind of degree or certificate or diploma, you want to make sure that the accreditation status is recognized through the Council for Higher Education or the U.S. Department of Education," says Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which works to ensure quality in affiliated online education programs.
If prospective students suspect a college is falsely claiming accreditation, they can always contact the accrediting agency and ask, says Matthews, adding that her group receives such calls regularly.
CHEA also provides searchable databases for students to find accredited programs. "If a school is not accredited, find out why," Eaton says.
With the growth of alternative credentials -- such as badges and certificates -- some training programs may not be accredited. Such options may include online coding boot camps or other skills-based training offered by a business. Eaton says that company training programs and sponsored boot camps have "added more complexity" to online education. To gauge the legitimacy of such alternative credentials, consider the benefits offered through the program sponsors.
"Businesses and companies offering training courses probably have a pathway to either employment at that company or advancement," Matthews says, noting that entry into a job at the sponsor organization may be what a student is after.
The Name Seems Prestigious and Vaguely Familiar
Sometimes programs will "steal a renowned name and modify it just 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 to ensure the program is legitimate.
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. One example is schools promising college credit for experience in the military or workforce. While prior learning assessments are used at many accredited colleges and universities, credit doesn't come without work.
"Many accredited, public and private universities use these options. But the key is they still require effort, there's going to be some type of exam or portfolio or credit-hour enrollment required as part of gaining credit," says Lynette O'Keefe, director of research at the Online Learning Consortium, which promotes digital education options.
Experts note that a college's prior learning assessment options should be recognized by the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, a nonprofit organization that aims to help colleges serve the nontraditional student population.
There's No Evidence of Student Services
Legitimate online programs should have a host of resources available to students, including technology support, academic advising and library services, experts say. 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.
"That's a huge red flag," O'Keefe says.
The Address Seems Fishy
Students should check both the physical and web address of an online institution to gauge its legitimacy. Most colleges and universities will have a URL ending in .edu, experts say, so pages with other domain extensions should raise flags.
"A .edu web address is not always for certain a legitimate thing, but it's a good place to start," O'Keefe says. If a supposed college's physical address is difficult to find or a P.O. box is listed, that may be another warning sign, she adds.
There Is Pressure or Incentives to Enroll
Prospective students should watch out for high-pressure sales pitches from recruiters.
"If the advisers or counselors sound more like salespeople who are more interested in pressure for enrollment than discussing academic programs and outcomes, that's a red flag," O'Keefe says. She adds that students should be wary of recruiting tactics that ask for only a resume or a credit card and offer a quick admissions process with those materials.
The Program Requires a Lot of Money Upfront
Experts say that one sign of a shady online operation is demanding money upfront.
"Do the research before you make a financial commitment," Matthews cautions.
That financial commitment may be offset with the promise of a lucrative salary, but students should be skeptical.
"I think it's really important for consumers to gather as much evidence as they can if they are looking at the claim that some kind of online credential is going to lead to a lucrative position," Matthews says.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.