2. Explore your options: Before you commit to a for-profit online program, make sure you've spent plenty of time looking at alternatives, experts say.
"You have a lot of options," Deming says. "A lot of community colleges offer online or partially online programs. You don't want to just go with the place you see advertised on the subway. You want to do your homework."
When you're looking at different schools, be sure to compare career services departments and ties to the industry in which you hope to work. It's also smart to check how many graduates of the proprietary college you're considering are employed after graduation, experts say.
Deming suggests reviewing the U.S. Department of Education's gainful employment data to learn more about your likely financial outlook after graduation.
3. Check for accreditation: To help ensure that the for-profit school you are considering is reputable, experts suggest checking to see whether it is regionally accredited.
"Accreditation is the way the higher education industry determines whether an education is valid," says Albany's Kinser.
If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of the accreditation agency, make sure it is recognized by one of two authorities on the matter: the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education. The latter has a College Navigator tool allowing students to verify the accreditation of any school they may be considering.
Melton, the University of Phoenix graduate, says he's pleased he did his homework and found the right program for him. Today, he's happily employed at a nonprofit in South Carolina.
"I encourage people considering [an online degree] to take a comprehensive view," he says. "Consider the for-profits and nonprofits, and think about what works for you."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.