Unfortunately, diploma mills do exist — they simply sell degrees to whomever is willing to pay for them, and it is sometimes surprising who's willing to pony up the cash. There are frequent stories in the news about public officials who are found to hold phony degrees. Such schools advertise that they grant "life experience" degrees — in other words, the student can earn a degree without doing any actual work. Those who obtain degrees in this manner are risking their employment and their reputation by doing so.
Legitimate distance learning schools are accredited by one of the regional or national accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). A quick look through CHEA's database will tell you if a school holds legitimate accreditation.
This depends upon the student, the program, and the school. If a brick-and-mortar school offers both on-campus and distance learning programs, the course work will be the same, just delivered in a different manner.
According to the book, "The No Significant Difference Phenomenon" by Thomas L. Russell and and its accompanying Web site, numerous research reports, studies, and academic papers suggest there is "no significant difference in student outcomes based on the mode of education delivery (face to face or at a distance)." In other words, it's not how students learn that is important, but what they learn.
Again, this depends upon the program and the school. Many distance learning institutions hold "class" via webcams and chat rooms, enabling students to listen to course lectures by instructors and interact with other students. In fact, some distance learning schools mandate that students post to a message board for their class a certain number of times a week. If they don't, they risk getting a lower grade. Group work involving a number of students is also built into the curriculum of some distance learning programs, and the students are graded on their group project. (You might be worried that group work will be too difficult at a distance, but, luckily, we've addressed tactics to succeed at online group projects.)
By comparison, class sizes at many brick-and-mortar institutions are growing. Some classes hold several hundred students, and the classes are increasingly being taught by graduate students, not professors. This certainly reduces the amount of classroom interaction between students and instructors.
Distance learning students are from all walks of life. In fact, many distance learning students are adults who have already earned an undergraduate degree or credits through classroom learning and have just gone back to school via distance learning to upgrade their skill set or earn a graduate degree. To see what we mean, head over to student profiles where you'll meet 70 real, current and former eLearners with stories as diverse as their passions.
Distance learning courses and programs have prepared many students for graduate studies and increased job opportunities. While some distance learning schools have "open enrollment," many others have the same enrollment requirements as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
Degrees earned through distance learning are gaining wider acceptance by employers all the time. Many employers offer tuition reimbursement to their employees knowing full well that the degrees are being earned online or through other distance learning methods. These include some of the largest corporations in the United States.
According to a 2004 study by the Sloan Consortium, nearly one-third of corporate tuition reimbursements went to online or blended programs. Employers benefit from these programs because they gain a more skilled workforce, and their employees do not have to quit work to pursue higher education. A 2005 survey conducted by Vault.com revealed that 86 percent of employers would be willing to accept a job applicant with an online degree.
Credit transfer is always left at the discretion of the receiving institution. When considering an online degree program, students need to understand the difference between national and regional accreditation.
Distance learning schools have their own unique expenses. Whereas campus schools pay for landscaping, building maintenance, and sports facilities, online schools often pay extra money for student support services and graduation coaches. Both types of colleges regularly raise tuition rates. State colleges and universities usually offer cheaper price tags for in-state residents. But if your state college or university offers online programs too, the price is usually similar for on-campus and online degrees. Some online schools will tack on "technology fees" and proctored examination fees. These are both legitimate expenses that allow students to complete their studies in a convenient format. It's also important to consider the cost savings that online programs allow. Online students pay zero commuting costs, zero parking fees, and zero childcare costs because they don't have to leave home to attend class.
As discussed earlier, brick-and-mortar schools which also offer distance learning programs use the same curriculum and admissions standards whether a student is learning at a distance or not. When issuing degrees or transcripts, those schools don't specify whether the courses were taken online or on campus, because they are the same courses. Schools that are accredited are expected to adhere to certain education standards. If classes or instructors are not up to par, schools risk being put on probation, or worse—losing their accreditation altogether. Moreover, institutions like Harvard and Cornell offer distance learning courses, and these are universities renowned for the quality of the education they provide.
Distance learning is definitely not for everybody. Earning a few credits or an entire degree via distance learning can be extremely challenging for some people. Before considering a distance learning course, consider the following:
If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you may want to rethink the distance learning option. While distance learning programs have made great strides to deliver personalized, engaging lessons, it's up to the student to stick to a study schedule, meet their course deadlines, and do large amounts of work independently. Some students find distance learning courses are a very comfortable fit for their lifestyle, while other students need the kind of structure a classroom provides.
There are numerous distance learning programs available today, and students should easily be able to find one that meets their needs. For most employers, the name of the school is irrelevant; the accreditation of the school is what really matters. Many state universities and colleges now offer distance learning programs, so if name recognition is a concern for you, locate a program at a school in your state.
Some very well-known and prestigious colleges and universities now offer distance learning courses and/or programs of some kind, including New York University (NYU), Boston University, George Washington University, Northwestern, UMassOnline, and University of Southern California (USC), to name a few.