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How to Tell Which Online Colleges Aren't Worth It

Comparing reputable online colleges versus degree mills that aren’t worth the money.

$576 billion—that was the market size of America’s higher education industry last year, measured by revenue. With that much money up for grabs, it’s no wonder everyone wants to break into the education business! Unfortunately, that includes plenty of shady online operations posing as legitimate institutions of learning.

A (Very) Brief History of Online Learning

Distance or remote learning is a fantastic and legitimate option for many students. The concept has been around for centuries, with students taking correspondence courses as early as the 1700s. But it was the 1980s and the rise of the web that revolutionized the industry, prompting a digital gold rush as entrepreneurs launched convenient educational programs that students could access from computers. Subsequently, hundreds of private, for-profit online schools and programs cropped up over the ensuing decades—many without any sort of accreditation.

Meanwhile, for many years, established brick-and-mortar colleges and universities shunned the notion of offering courses online, much less entire programs. Mired in the past, they clung to the traditional routes, requiring students to learn—and often live—on their campuses. But as computers became cheaper and the Internet grew faster, students increasingly bought into the idea of online learning. With so many students flocking to the Internet for their college classes, eventually, the older institutions were forced to sit up, take notice, and get with the times.

The State of Online Learning Today

Today, the vast majority of colleges, even the Ivy Leagues, offer at least some online courses and programs. Many feature entirely online versions of their traditional schools, such as Harvard University’s Harvard Online and Harvard Business School Online, which feature curricula and educational experiences on par with those received by on-campus learners.

Without a doubt, many schools offer a rigorous, reputable online education, which helps remove barriers to access by students who need more flexibility. However, a fair percentage of online schools are far less credible. For example, they may lack any sort of institutional or programmatic accreditation. While accreditation is voluntary, not going through accreditation processes leaves schools and programs at high risk of following behind the curve.

Many such schools are known as degree mills (or diploma mills), which the Higher Education Opportunity Act partially defines as, an entity that offers “degrees, diplomas, or certificates,” but lacks accreditation. The Department of Education notes that “Diploma mills are schools that are more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education” and advises that consumers protect themselves accordingly.

Degree mills typically can’t (or don’t try to) meet the same standards as accredited options, which is why many graduate schools, employers, and states require applicants in certain fields to be graduates of accredited programs. After all, would you want a surgeon operating on you if they didn’t go to an accredited medical school? Would you feel comfortable flying on a plane designed by aerospace engineers who graduated from schools that weren’t accredited by ABET?

But reduced employment viability isn’t the only problem with going to a degree mill. Students may be ineligible for student aid in some cases, credits may not be transferable, and undergraduates may not be able to use their degrees to apply to accredited graduate programs. In addition, after graduation from a degree mill, job seekers may be unable to obtain professional licensure.

Signs of a Degree Mill

We’re not trying to scare anyone away from applying to online schools! There are countless great online options out there, and, as noted by Forbes, “77% of academic leaders believe online education is equal or superior to learning in the classroom.” Clearly, many online colleges are worth the money! The trick is to simply use a little caution.

The Better Business Bureau lists red flags to watch out for when assessing a potential school. While none of the below signs is a guarantee that a school is a degree mill, the more signs you notice, the more caution you should exercise!

  • Overemphasis on “how fast you can finish”

  • Inferring accreditation, but not actually being accredited by a Department of Education-approved organization

  • Unrealistic emphasis on granting college credit for “real-world experience”

  • Tuition is charged as a lump sum “per-degree basis” (versus paying per credit hour, per course, or per semester)

  • Little or zero interaction with actual instructors

  • School names that sound very similar to those of established schools

  • No physical address listed

A few other ways to distinguish between a reputable online school and a degree mill include:

Rankings - There are numerous college ranking websites that students can consult, but even with those, it is wise to stay wary. Some feature sponsored listings or they manipulate metrics to ensure certain schools rank higher than they probably should!

Faculty qualifications - One thing a school can’t fake is the quality of its faculty. Pay attention to who the professors are. Read their bios and learn about their awards and accomplishments.

Student support and career services - Degree mills play a numbers game. They have little interest in student success. Reputable schools do care and offer support services like academic advising, tutoring, tech support, library resources, mental health services, military/veterans support, etc. They also offer career services such as resume writing, mock interviews, internship opportunities, job fairs, and similar offerings.

Graduation and employment statistics - Great schools have high graduation rates and proudly post their graduates’ employment rates. If you don’t see that information, maybe the school doesn’t want it public.

Credit transferability - Degree mills want any students they can get. To entice students with lower GPAs, they may take any and all transfer credits. That might sound enticing, but there are reasons why accredited schools won’t always take everything. Some credits don’t carry much value; others are expired or not applicable.

Note, degree mills might take all your transfer credits…but their own credits may not transfer anywhere else!

Alumni network - Does the school feature information about its alumni? Do they have a large, well-organized, and active network of high achievers…or is it just one webpage featuring old photos of students who graduated years ago and who don’t keep in touch?

Tuition rates - It is common for degree mills to target particular populations, such as economically-challenged groups, working older adults, military members who receive tuition assistance, and veterans with G.I.Bill benefits. They might advertise themselves as “friendly” to the groups they’re marketing to—but their tuition rates don’t always reflect that. Degree mills believe their ideal students don't care how much tuition costs because they’re receiving financial aid anyway.

High-pressure sales tactics - All schools invest heavily in marketing but degree mills are particularly aggressive when it comes to pestering prospects. In addition, they make exaggerated promises or dubious claims regarding outcomes. No legitimate school tries to guarantee what will happen after you graduate!

It’s not hard to find sites that feature lists of degree mills, but we advise caution even when reviewing these. The information on such sites could be outdated or misinformed, so it is vital to do additional research before drawing any conclusions. When possible, try to talk with students who are attending or who graduated from the schools you’re interested in!


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