With more than 7,021 colleges in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, choosing a school is overwhelming. For online students, who aren’t limited by location, narrowing down your choice of schools can be even more difficult than it is for traditional students. Since you may never set foot on campus, you it is difficult to determine for sure whether or not an online college is even legitimate, much less respected. However, doing a little homework before applying can help you make sure that any online college program you choose will offer you the kind of quality education you deserve. After all, you’re investing time, money and plenty of effort into earning a degree. You need to know that the education you will receive is worthwhile.

School and Program Accreditation

One of the first factors you should look at when you begin considering different online degree programs is accreditation. If your school doesn’t have institutional accreditation by one of the recognized regional accreditation agencies, then it likely doesn’t meet the high standards these organizations set. There’s a risk that your credits wouldn’t transfer to another institution, if you were to choose schools, and that prospective employers might not respect your degree as much as they would if you earned it from an accredited college.

When you decide what degree program you want to pursue, you should make sure that the program has attained specialized accreditation from a professional organization in the field. Otherwise, you might run into problems attaining certifications and licenses. If your education doesn’t qualify you to sit for credentialing exams or to apply for professional certifications, then that degree you worked so hard to earn can be little more than a piece of paper.

Consult School Rankings

Institutional and programmatic accreditation demonstrate that your online college meets the minimal requirements to make your degree valuable, but how do you compare the quality of one school to another? One way is to consult published lists of school rankings. Every year, U.S. News & World Report publishes various school ranking lists that are available to the public. Distance learning students at various levels will find the following lists helpful:

In addition to consulting U.S. News & World Report’s lists, you can use other lists like Best Colleges Online’s Most Affordable Online Colleges to determine which schools offer a great education at a great value.

When you enroll in an online college, you’re not just seeking a degree, but a quality education. The best way to make sure you’re getting a great education is to research the schools you are considering and see what credible sources have to say about their quality and value.