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...BUT IS IT REAL? Five Ways to Tell An Accredited School from the Impostors

So, you think you've found the right online college for you. It fits your budget, seems to suit your needs, and promises you in and out of the program faster than you can say "diploma mill!" But is the school really what it's cracked up to be? How can you tell a real accredited college apart from a scam that will leave you high and dry a year and a good chunk of paycheck later? Here are the top five things that set accredited schools apart from the phonies.

1.Accreditation

This would be the big one. What have all accredited schools got that unaccredited schools haven't got? Authenticity by objective national agencies to ensure a school's meeting of proper standards and provision of a quality education, of course. Sadly, you can't always trust an unaccredited school to own up to their status; to make matters even more complicated, there are different tiers of accreditation ranging from local to state to national (the latter being the kind that really counts).

2.Any Faculty Whatsoever

Real schools pride themselves on putting together enviable teams of staff and administration, and are not hesitant to post at least a sampling (with a nice cross-section of majors) on the school's website. If the school you're looking into can't be bothered to show you who will be providing your education, then they probably aren't really there at all and you would be well-advised in not bothering to attend.

3.Full Time Faculty

Some unaccredited schools boast a faculty fully of professionals currently practicing in their field, giving you the advantage of learning from soldiers in the metaphorical field. The down side to this is that working professionals are often too busy working on their professions to give their students the same kind of one-on-one time and commitment as faculty members devoted to teaching.

4.Physical Address

Does your school have a street address? It should. Online school or not: every legitimate accredited school has physical headquarters for its students and faculty to visit. Any school that can only be reached by P.O. Box or e-mail - or, worse still, an e-mail form built into the site with no discernible address to trace back - is hardly a school at all, and certainly not worth your time or money.

5.An Education

You're supposed to be in college to learn new things, but many fake schools offer diplomas in mere days or weeks, based on assessments of previous life experience. At a flat fee that's often marginally less than accredited college fees, you may be tempted to think that you're saving a wealth of time and money, and sure you are - that is, until you find out that the diploma is little more than a $500 piece of paper with no more professional credibility than a supermarket receipt and you're suddenly back at the starting line.

So, what to do in the face of such uncertainty?

Your best course of action is to get the jump on the imposters, and do a little outside research of your own. Visit a campus if possible. Check into tuition. (Flat fees for diplomas are red flags for sure, as real colleges charge tuition by semester or per class.) Check things out online - the U.S. Department of Education, for example, has a great comprehensive resource page complete with a link to a list of valid national accrediting agencies. Lastly, call up the Better Business Bureau if anything feels at all uncertain. They have the scoop on diploma scams, and it's their business to keep you safe - and when it comes to your education, "better safe than sorry" was never a more appropriate term.

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