Employer approval ratings for online educational programs and degrees have improved over the years, but there are still problems. Diploma mills have raised the specter of fraud in the classroom, which can be difficult to eradicate from the online learning landscape. But there are ways to determine if the online school you're interested in will deliver the goods or not.
Accreditation is one of the biggest determiners of a school's credibility, both among other learning institutions and to employers. It's an assurance that a school is legitimate, as well as a stamp of approval.
The process of becoming accredited can be complicated. Accreditation isn't awarded by the federal government or even by individual state governments. Instead, independent agencies work with trusted colleges and universities to develop baseline standards. They then perform evaluations of schools that have expressed an interest in becoming accredited and provide approvals based on those standards. Although the specifics can vary, the goal is to make sure schools, whether they are virtual or brick-and-mortar, provide quality education and training [source: Peterson's].
The U.S. Department of Education does take an interest in the accreditation process, though. An accrediting agency may apply to the department for formal recognition and undergo a review by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Recognition by the Department of Education is an indication of the solid weight behind an agency's accreditation process for schools that offer postsecondary education, career programs or faith-based learning. Accreditation by a Department of Education-recognized agency can determine whether or not a school is eligible for financial aid and whether its class credits will transfer to another institution at full value. A school's accreditation may also be important for reimbursement from an employer for a specific course of study [source: U.S. Department of Education].
There are other ways to help determine if a school is reputable. Ask industry insiders if a specific school has a good reputation. This is also a good approach to decide between two schools that seem similar.
If you're in high school, another way to get information on online schools is to discuss your future goals with a career counselor and ask for a few online learning recommendations. Inquire about the retention rates, job placement figures and other salient data for specific schools.
If you suspect a school is providing misleading information, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) can be a good resource. CHEA works in concert with the Department of Education and offers its own agency accrediting service. It maintains a list of participating Department of Education- and CHEA-recognized accrediting organizations. Although there may be some exceptions, qualified agencies are likely to appear on one or both lists [source: Haynie].