Online Degree Programs: How to Tell the Good From the Bad

Students need to be savvy consumers to ensure they enroll in a reputable online degree program.

Checking accreditation and statistics such as graduation and student loan default rates can help students choose a reputable online degree program.

Checking accreditation and graduation rates can help students choose a reputable online degree program.

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"If you're having a hard time ... getting information about what it would be like as a student at that school, that's going to tell you a lot about what your experience would be," Johnson says. "If you can't get a hold of anyone about to ask about their academic counseling or career placement services, I'd say that's a big red flag."

Another red flag: pushy financial aid counselors.

Students should make sure they fully understand their financial aid package before signing for any loans, and be wary if schools pressure them to take out loans for their online degree program—particularly private loans, Johnson adds.

[Learn more about paying for an online degree.]

"Access to financial aid counseling is very important, and students should be very leery if they don't have the information they need, or feel like their questions aren't being answered," she says.

Statistics: Numbers such as graduation rates or student loan default rates can tell students a lot about a school, says Moore, with the Sloan Consortium.

A low completion rate could indicate the program doesn't have strong academic support for students, and a high student loan default rate may be a signal of poor financial aid advising.

Low employment rates for graduates might raise a red flag about a school's career services department, or lack of one, and might also hint at a larger problem: diploma mills. These institutions churn out graduates with degrees that carry little weight with employers because of low-quality curricula or lack of legitimate accreditation.

Retention, success, and default rates will separate the good schools from the bad, Moore says. "The difficulty is getting people to buckle down and do that research ahead of time."

Searching for an online program? Get our complete rankings of Top Online Education Programs.