As an online student, you place a lot of trust in a school where you may never set foot on campus. It’s important to choose an ethical, legitimate online college with an accredited program, but this is often easier said than done. There are often ways you can avoid a misleading program or school – but if you do find yourself being taken advantage of, state consumer agencies may be able to help you get the refund you deserve.

Evaluating the Ethics and Legitimacy of an Online College Program

One way to make sure an online program is legitimate is to be aware of potential red flags. For example, does the school promise you a degree in an unreasonably accelerated amount of time? Online courses make earning an education more convenient, but they shouldn’t skip the important knowledge you need. If the school isn’t regionally accredited or the specific program isn’t accredited by the right professional organizations, enrolling there is risky. If you begin your studies but find you don’t actually have much work to do, chances are that your degree won’t be worth much.

There’s another way to find out how legitimate your program is. Ask questions – a lot of them – and don’t settle for vague or unclear answers about your program.

Rare Cases of Refunds

Sometimes, no matter how hard you tried to make sure that an online college degree program was legitimate, you might learn that you were wrong. While rare, there have been situations in which schools have had to refund their online students’ tuition because their degree programs were found to be misleading.

In July 2015, for example, nearly 300 former education students in Iowa received refunds from for-profit school Ashford University, according to local news source Channel 13 WHO-HD. These students had invested years of their time and hard work and thousands of dollars completing the four-year online education program, only to discover at the end that Iowa Department of Education had never approved the program. They couldn’t achieve certification to teach in the classroom, and for many students, the hard-earned degree was essentially useless. With the help of the state Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, students were able to receive at least some of their money back in refunds that ranged from $1,000 to $55,000. In all, the school had to pay back $5.2 million to misled students, according to WHO-HD News.

The fact that some states are cracking down on misleading colleges and degree programs is good news for students. While laws and agencies that protect the rights of online students do exist, though, it can often take years to get back your money, and you can never get back your time. The best way to protect yourself from diploma mills and misleading programs is to always check for both institutional and programmatic accreditation by legitimate accrediting bodies and to ask plenty of questions about the program you’re pursing.