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Image: Oreo the cat
Kelvin Collins
Oreo sure is cute, but can she read the newspaper she's using as a cushion? That detail didn't matter to the online diploma mill that granted the tuxedo kitty a "high school diploma."
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 1/5/2010 4:50:25 PM ET 2010-01-05T21:50:25

Remember Oreo, the cat who made headlines over the summer for successfully earning a “high school diploma” online ? It’s one of those stories that elicited plenty of chuckles and finger-wagging — as well as shudders of worry among many who are out of work and thinking about retraining.

Here’s why Oreo’s accomplishment is so unnerving: Plenty of people are living on unemployment checks right now. And plenty of them are wondering whether it makes sense to devote some of that precious unemployment money to training for something new.

Online educational opportunities abound, of course, and their convenience can be unparalleled for adults who have lots of responsibilities to juggle. But how can you make sure the program you’re considering is both legitimate and worthwhile? The following tips can help.

1. Look for proper accreditation. The institution you choose should be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Sometimes a legitimate regional accrediting organization — such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — will be cited; just make sure it's recognized by the two national resources listed here.

2. Find out the word on the street. Particularly if you're switching career fields — but even if you're not — do some networking with workers and hiring managers and find out which kinds of certificates and degrees truly mean something in their universe. Ask them whether they've ever heard of such-and-such an institution, and find out whether that institution's credentials would boost your resume. (Side note: This process can help you accomplish some networking with a purpose and can result in your standing out as highly self-motivated.)

3. Avoid diploma mills like the plague. Fraudulent educational institutions are becoming ever-more common, and in some cases their distance-learning opportunities can seem so real — even though the degrees and certificates they’re cranking out aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. (Oreo the cat received her “diploma” from one of these places!) Recognize that an official-looking Web site just isn’t enough.

4. Get proper — not bogus — credit for career and life experience. One sign that you may be dealing with a diploma mill is the promise of degrees given out on the basis of “life experience” with little or no work on the student’s part. That said, many legitimate colleges and universities allow older students to trade in their career experience and other skills for college credits after going through a formal process, so check into this and see what’s involved. You also can earn college credits passing inexpensive College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests.

5. Examine the school’s pricing structure. Accredited schools charge by the credit hour, the course, or in some cases, the semester. Diploma mills often list prices for certain degrees and sometimes promote discounts if you pursue more than one degree at a time. They also frequently promise to award a degree very quickly — in just days, weeks or months, for example.

6. Determine whether the school has an actual street address. Another red flag for a diploma mill is an address for school headquarters that only includes a post office box number or a mail-drop box.

Image: Woman at laptop
Mike Kemp  /  Getty Images stock
Fraudulent educational institutions are becoming ever-more common, even though the degrees and certificates they’re cranking out aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

7. Do a little sleuth work. If a school program sounds too good to be true, have the institution's background and complaint history checked by the Better Business Bureau and the state attorney general’s office where the school is based. To find contact information for attorneys general around the country, visit the Web site of the National Association of Attorneys General.

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8. Ask lots of questions. Make sure you fully understand how a given online educational program works so you can determine whether it’s right for you. Can the entire program be completed online? Does some of it have to be done in person? How will you communicate with the instructor? With other students? What will be expected of you, and with what sorts of deadlines?

9. Inquire about resources you’ll be able to tap. Legitimate distance-learning programs typically give students access to librarians, library and reference materials, online indexes and full-text databases. Ask about these issues and find out how quickly you can expect to receive materials and librarian assistance if needed.

10. Consider legitimate options that are close to home. Maybe you've thought of attending school in your area but worried that you wouldn't have the time to commute back and forth to classes. If that's the case, you can earn all sorts of degrees and certificates through the eCampus programs offered by hundreds of well-established colleges and universities across the country. Simply check the Web sites of established brick-and-mortar schools that interest you to explore online and distance-learning possibilities.

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