How Financial Aid for Online Degrees Works

Sorting Through the Legit and Bogus Online Degree Programs

In the world of online degrees, you'll encounter for-profit and nonprofit institutions. While the for-profit schools include the most familiar names in online teaching, such as University of Phoenix, the nonprofit programs actually offer the greatest percentage of online degrees -- 95 percent -- explained Vicky Phillips in a 2009 U.S. News and World Report article on different paths to a college degree.

Phillips, a consumer advocate for online students and the founder of the Web site, says that the nonprofit University of Wisconsin may want fewer than 100 students in its online undergraduate business program, while the University of Phoenix, a for-profit business, is trying to recruit thousands upon thousands of students [source: Frey]. Both schools are accredited, offering students a solid education, but many are not.

Phony online colleges, also known as degree or diploma mills, litter the Internet. In addition, most of these diploma mills are accredited by bogus agencies. What's a legit learner to do?

College accreditation, or a review of the quality of the education program by a recognized authority, ensures that there's a public record of the institution, which is acceptable to employers, professional associations, and other colleges and universities. It's worth the effort to make sure the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the accrediting body.

CHEA also maintains a directory of contact information for more than 450 accrediting organizations and ministries of education in 175 countries, which have been authorized by their respective governments. You can track international online college accreditation through the International Association of Universities.

Aside from accreditation, some other tip-offs that an online program might be fake include the following:

  • Admission depends solely on your having a valid credit card.
  • You "graduate" and receive a diploma within 30 days of applying, that is, paying some flat fee.
  • You don't need to go to school after all. Your faxed resume and career experience is enough to grant you a degree.
  • You search the site for faculty and can't find any, or the faculty listed has attended schools accredited by bogus agencies.
  • [source: Phillips]

Now that you've sorted the (online) wheat from the chaff, let's talk about getting you some financial aid.