The U.S. Department of Education's website features a student portal with information for all types of college preparation, financial aid and general education resources. Students interested in researching online education opportunities may want to start here, to find out what kinds of tuition assistance will apply to their distance education, get advice on selecting career colleges and technical schools vs. traditional programs, and picking out an online school that best meets your needs and your plans for after graduation.
Even though students who choose to get an education from an online school do not have to worry about moving to a new city, finding housing, setting up meal plans or uprooting their entire schedule for school, selecting an online school is still incredibly important and requires thorough research. The U.S. Department of Education cautions prospective students against picking a school too hastily and not considering important factors like accreditation, transfer credits, student services and career placement assistance may get you into trouble after it's too late.
Perhaps the most important thing to find out during your initial search for an online school is accreditation. If the school you're researching is not accredited, it may be very difficult, if not impossible, for you to find a job after graduation. Other schools and employers look for accreditation status as a way to verify a school's quality. To become accredited, an institution needs to meet the standards set forth by an approved accrediting agency. For help understanding which accrediting agencies have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education, visit this page on ED.gov, which explains how and where the Secretary of Education lists these groups. The top six accrediting agencies to look for are the regional accrediting agencies. If your school has been determined to meet the standards of a regional accrediting agency, the school's website will state that it has been accredited by one of the following groups: the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Not all online schools are accredited by one of these agencies, but that doesn't mean they aren't qualified to award degrees. Other accrediting agencies you may come across include the Distance Education and Training Council and the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools.
Besides ensuring an institution's quality, accreditation protects students against diploma mills. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that students educate themselves on diploma mills so that they know how to spot them and avoid being scammed by the fraudulent organizations. Diploma mills pose as fake colleges, universities and technical skills. After taking students' tuition money, they may send out fake assignments and class work, tricking the student into thinking he or she is working towards a degree. Diploma mills, however, are not qualified to award any type of degree or certificate, and the diploma that the student receives is totally worthless. To find a list of diploma mills and unrecognized accrediting agencies, ED.gov lists several resources connecting students to sites that uncover these illegal or unqualified organizations.
The U.S. Department of Education also aims to help online students pick a school by providing resources about researching the benefits of career or technical schools. Many online schools fall into this category, and it is important for prospective students to understand the type of education they will get by attending a vocational school rather than a liberal arts or more traditional type of college. To learn what kinds of questions you may want to ask yourself during this search, turn to this page on ED.gov. Examples include "What preparation do you need for a particular job?" and "Will employers accept the training as preparation for employment?"
Before enrolling in an online program, students should also consider their particular learning habits and capabilities. Since online programs are mostly self-driven, students who are prone to laziness or procrastination may find it hard to succeed in this type of environment. They may also want to consider the extra costs they will accrue, including extra software programs and computer equipment.