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Avoiding the Online Diploma Mill

Online degree

Military spouses often consider taking classes online when returning to school.

And for good reason: Attending an online institution can help you balance the stresses of military life and academia. You can study from anywhere. Your academic options open up when you are not forced to attend whatever school is closest to your military installation. Military spouses, rejoice!

But how do you find a program that is actually a good investment?  How do you avoid "diploma mills" that take your money without giving you good training or the ability to get a job?

"I attended a school you see advertised on every commercial break," says Michelle, an Army spouse in Florida.

"I didn't put a lot of thought into it. I should have. I just signed up because I knew the name of it and I knew I could use my benefits there. It wasn't a good program though, and I had a hard time getting hired after."

Michelle ended up attending another program just to make her resume stand out.

"People treated my degree like it wasn't worth anything," she says. "It was a waste. I worked hard, and it meant nothing to people because they didn't think it was a 'real school.' "

With the explosion of online academic programs, what happened to Michelle isn't news. But you don't have to let the stigma of the online "diploma mills" happen to you.

Here's how to find an online program that's actually worth it:

Step One: Choose the Right Kind of School

Online academic institutions are divided into two different categories: Schools that are only online and then programs that are the online arms of brick-and-mortar institutions.

Perks of an entirely online school? All of their programs and resources are built around online learning.

Because online classes are the entirety of their business model, online learning is something these schools have down to a science.

Teachers are used to interacting with students online, and all of the kinks that could come by trying to do an education entirely on the Internet have been worked out already.

Perks of a brick-and-mortar institution with online classes? The school's reputation will extend to your degree, even if you never set foot in the library.

More important, you will benefit from the kind of collaborative academic history that happens at physical schools: Faculty meetings, course lectures that have been tried-and-true in front of students for years, major institutional infrastructure that will aid your class and degree.

"Someone's going to tell you your online school isn't as good," says Crystal, a Navy wife in California. "No matter what you do, someone will say it. It's up to you to prove them wrong."

Crystal has taken classes at two different online schools and each time, she was surrounded by critics.

"Someone actually told me after graduation my diploma was completely worthless," she said.

Luckily for Crystal, she didn't need a good comeback. Instead, she had a good job lined up.

"I could have never gotten this far from our local community college," she says. "Never. You could never tell me that school would have been better than this."

Crystal learned that facing people's stigma head-on was the only way around it. "If you think an online program is worthless, and you're just some friend or family member, whatever. I think employers care a lot more about how well you did and your GPA and how polished your resume is. Whether or not you actually learned anything, that's what matters. Class is class no matter where you take it. What sets you apart is what you make of it."

Step Two: Class is Just What You -- And Your Peers -- Make of It     

That old joke from Good Will Hunting that you can get the same education at the public library that you get at Harvard is almost the truth. The only thing that makes the difference is the other people in the classroom.

"Talk to the school about who else goes there and what kind of students they are," Crystal recommends. "Ask to see how their courses work. Are there forums? Are there Google Docs for conversation? Blackboard? If you don't see students talking about class, you could basically do the whole thing yourself. That's how you wind up with a degree that doesn't mean much. Why would you go to school for something you can do yourself?"

Crystal is right. Active participation is the hallmark of a good learning environment. It is also indicative of a teacher who has fostered a conversation worth having -- proof that the teacher is worth his or her salt, too.

If you are looking for a degree to take your career to the next level, surround yourself with others trying to do the same thing, too. They'll make for good classmate -- and good networking opportunities later.

Step Three: Consider Programs Just for Military

They really do exist! The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University is a repository of free courses and certifications both you and your service member can enjoy. 

Programs in human resources, computers and information technology, and professional development are offered alongside a bevy of certification programs that can really up your professional ante.

Six Sigma Black and Green Belt certification programs are perfect for the person pursuing a career in business. IT software and structure accreditation and much more are offered to military spouses, service members and veterans completely free.

All the classes are taught by the university's top-notch faculty and come with a diploma you never even have to go to New York to retrieve.

Because they are free to military spouses, the programs at IVMF are worth checking out before you send your tuition check anywhere else -- just in case you can get the same program for free.

Step Four: Look At Their Career Services

While job opportunities may be what launched your decision to attend school in the first place, talking about careers with your perspective school might be low on your list of questions.

"If you are going to school to get a better job, talking to them about jobs should be the highest thing on your list," says Mary, a Marine Corps wife in Maryland.

Mary wanted to go back to school to study early education and start her own preschool, but she had a hard time finding a program that worked with her family's many PCS moves.

Online programs provided the perfect solution, as long as they came with a strong career counseling component.

"Instead of focusing on what they offered financially for me upfront, I focused on what they'd offer financially for me down the road -- networking opportunities, partnerships with alums, mentor programs. That kind of thing. I wanted to know if they had a database of alumni that I'd actually be able to call and say hey, we went to the same school, and I want to do what you do. Can we talk more?"

Mary says that schools were surprised by how interested she was in their career efforts for new graduates and alumni.

"I think they thought it was funny, but I think it makes sense. I thought of it this way: I'm not interviewing with them, they're interviewing with me, and I have to find out if they're good enough"

Step Five: Talk to Alums

When it comes to making serious, personal choices, nothing beats the shoe-scuffing research you can do yourself. Once you think you have found a few programs that might work for you, take the opportunity to speak with other students who are either doing them or have done them.

"Schools' Facebook pages are a good place to connect with other students," says Alycia, a Capella University graduate at Fort Hood. "You can find people there to talk to and ask them how they liked the program. Also LinkedIn. Just message them and ask them to talk to you about the school. If they loved it or hated it, they'll tell you."

If you are shy about reaching out to people online, you can also contact the admissions office and ask to speak with current students and alums about their experience.

While these opinions will be biased -- the school will only refer you to people it thinks will speak highly on its behalf -- it is still a great way to talk to people who have actually done the program for insight.

Ask them how challenging the classes were, whether their peers were engaged, what they thought of the professor. Was he or she around for career guidance later? Would he or she be a reference for a job or be willing to speak on your behalf? Does the school help you pursue your career goals, and does the career counseling office actually help?

Never be afraid to ask these questions. The answers are the ones that will help you ensure you are spending your time and money in the right place.

"When you talk to other students, you can get a sense of what the school is actually like," Alycia explains. "Will it help you learn? Will it help you grow? Will it help you get a job? If it's not going to do that, it's not good enough."

Whatever fit you're looking for, chances are high that you will find an online program that meets the mark.

But to avoid the diploma mills and to make sure you find the program that's right for you, you have to be proactive. Finding a school that will help you succeed is simple as long as you put in a little elbow grease up front. 

With these five steps, you can be confident you've found the online program that is right for you, even if you never see the school in person.

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