Online bachelor's degree programs can certainly have their perks: They let students study when they want, where they want and help them balance school, family and career.
But while online programs are designed to make it easier to get an education, enrolling in the wrong program can make you question your investment.
"I've heard very concerning stories about well-known universities that are rushing to get online programs out there and quality is not what it should be generally," says Jonathan Hill, associate dean at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. "It's a really exciting time out there, but it's also buyer beware."
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Students often feel frustrated when an online degree program isn't living up to their expectations, but they shouldn't feel helpless, experts say. If students are proactive about changing their circumstances, they have a chance of receiving the education they deserve.
Nonresponsive instructors are the No. 1 complaint students have about their online programs, says Vicky Phillips, founder of GetEducated.com, a website that ranks online degree programs based on student reviews, affordability and public perception. Phillips surveyed 1,000 students in verified online education programs between April 2009 and June 2012 and asked them about their experiences.
The others, in order, are poor customer service and advising; a dislike of group work; bad overall quality control; and subpar course design.
Too often, Phillips says, online students who try to voice their concerns about their courses find their institutions are poorly equipped to handle the complaints.
"The culture of many colleges is not very customer-oriented," she says. "Students are now older and nontraditional and they have more of a consumer approach. That expectation is coming up against a culture where traditionally there is not a lot of accountability."
Most students were happy with their online programs, according to the survey, but those who reported concerns tended to encounter the same problems.
Students who find themselves frustrated with various aspects of a program should take initiative and advocate for themselves, experts say.
The first step in that process would be to reach out to a human being – an assigned mentor, a teacher's assistant or a faculty member.
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If students are having issues with a particular course, experts suggest they first contact the instructor directly and clearly state their concern.
"My first response would not be to email the department chair," says Carlos Campo, president of Regent University in Virginia. "Any faculty member would take umbrage at that as a first step. Let the faculty member know you would like to get a response by a certain time, and then if you don't then you may talk to the program head."
If the faculty member is not responsive, Campo suggests continuing to move up the chain of command until you find someone who is.
Students seeking academic assistance but not getting feedback from an instructor should turn to other resources, Campo recommends.
"Look beyond the faculty member to the writing center, to the library," he says. "And always look for peers. I am stunned to see how much peer-to-peer learning is happening in the classroom."
Of course, experts suggest that students investigate the quality of their online bachelor's program before enrolling. Those who missed the warning signs and find themselves in lackluster programs should take quick action, they say.
By law, universities that accept federal aid are required to refund students up to a certain point, experts say. The longer students postpone their decision to withdraw from a course or program, the less likely it is that they will get their money back.
Students planning to withdraw from a course or a program need to locate what is essentially the school's terms of service as fast as possible, says Phillips, of GetEducated.com. Dropout policies are typically outlined in the school's catalog, which is often online, she says.
If students can't find the right person to help, they should contact the financial services or bursar's office, she says. That person is likely to know the process for getting reimbursed.
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Once students have found the correct contact, Phillips suggests putting withdrawal requests in writing so that they can document when they started the process. Faxing is fine, she says. Emailing is not, because often the messages get lost in someone's inbox.
"People tend to think of colleges in a positive way; we tend to trust them," she says. "Students don't think the way they would if they bought a bad car, but yet they might be paying three to four times more for the degree than for the car."
Campo, of Regent University, echoes Phillips' recommendation that students feeling unsatisfied with their courses act fast. From the studies he's read, he says it seems most students can sense a poor quality class right away.
"You don't want to spend time or money in a relationship that isn't rewarding," he says. "Have an exit strategy."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.