What makes a school credible?

The majority of schools, colleges, and online education programs claim to offer some version of the same results: Better opportunities. Career advancement. Financial stability. The future you’ve always dreamed of.

These are all worthwhile pursuits, and the right education is an important stepping stone to achieving those goals. But how can you figure out who’ll actually deliver on these promises, versus who’s just pouring money into marketing? Or worse: How can you spot scams or degree/diploma mills? How can you make sure that future schools and employers will accept the degree you put so much effort into earning?

Before you enroll somewhere, it’s crucial that you dedicate time to double-checking your prospective schools and programs for their credibility. Your education is important, and where you receive it does make a difference, both while you’re in school and after you graduate. But where do you even start when it comes to screening schools? We have some ideas.


Explore your employer’s catalog of learning programs

Good news: We’ve done a lot of this work for you! We screen all the schools and options before they’re added to your employer’s catalog of learning programs to ensure credibility and a proven record of student success, positive student outcomes, and more.

Your employer’s catalog includes options in a variety of high-growth career fields, from business and technology to healthcare and beyond. We also offer programs across a range of levels. Whether you’re looking to earn a college degree, certificate, or something else, you have choices that meet you where you are in your education.

If you find a program that’s right for you in your employer’s catalog — great! However, we understand that:

  1. You might already be enrolled or interested in a school or program not found in your employer’s catalog.
  2. You might be searching for programs in a subject not found in the catalog.
  3. You might like the options you see in the catalog, but want to do your own research or fact-check us. (This is awesome! We highly encourage this dedication to your education.)

If this is you, but you’d still like to take advantage of your education benefits, then keep reading — we have some suggestions for finding the right program for you and ensuring its credibility.


Make a list of what you need

We verify certain, nonnegotiable aspects about schools before we add them to the catalog. If they don’t meet the requirements, they don’t make it onto our list. Creating a similar list, curated to your own needs, can be helpful in weeding out untrustworthy institutions and narrowing down your options to the programs most closely aligned to your goals.

Feel free to copy from the below list of suggestions when crafting your own list of nonnegotiables — and then add anything else you’re wanting to see or avoid:

  • Programs built for working adults and their needs and schedules. Going to school as a working adult with a packed schedule isn’t the same as going to school as a teenager. Your institution should recognize this difference and implement specific strategies that tailor their programs to your needs.
  • Flexibility. We’re talking flexible start dates, flexible course loads, flexible class times…basically, your education should fit into your schedule, not be so rigid that you have to mold your life around attending school.
  • Proven record of student success. How are the majority of a school’s students doing? If retention and graduation rates are low, or if reviews of a school’s environment are negative, the school isn’t putting in the work necessary to ensure students can be successful in their classes.
  • Student support. Returning to school comes with challenges. Does the school offer support and make sure students can get assistance when needed? This may include academic advising or tutoring, technology help, math or writing centers, and other student services.
  • Student outcomes and career advancement. You have specific goals in mind when going back to school, often tied to your finances and career. Schools should understand that the future of work is changing and provide students with the knowledge they’ll need to meet these changes and thrive. Programs should be geared toward helping you reach your goals. Are graduates from this school finding employment and financial success?
  • Accreditation. This is a big one, and it’s got a lot of elements — so we’re giving it its own section below.


Check for accreditation

Accreditation is a process ensuring that an institution or program attains and maintains a specific, predefined standard of quality. Many education institutions and employers check for accreditations when making admissions or hiring decisions, so make sure your credits and degrees come from an accredited and recognized school.

To check for accreditation, you’ll want to:

  1. Browse the institution’s website to see what accreditations they list.
  2. Make sure the institution or program actually holds these accreditations. You can determine this using:
    The U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
    College Navigator, a tool on the National Center for Education Statistics website
  3. Verify that the institution or program is accredited by a legitimate agency (or agencies). There are fake accrediting agencies out there (remember degree/diploma mills? There are accreditation mills too — yikes), as well as organizations that don’t have a wide stamp of approval. Verify the accreditor’s legitimacy using:
    The U.S. Department of Education
    The Council for Higher Education Accreditation
  4. See if an institution or program had any disruptions in their accreditation history. This could indicate potential trouble, or uncover areas you might want to research further before making a decision. You can start looking for this information using:
    The U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
    College Navigator
  5. Understand what type(s) of accreditation an institution or program has. Options include:
    Institutional vs. specialized/programmatic accreditations — Institutional accreditation applies to the whole college, while specialized/programmatic accreditation applies to a specific program, department, profession, or discipline. For most circumstances, you’ll want to attend a school with an institutional accreditation. Career fields involving licenses, such as nursing and law, often require specialized/programmatic accreditation.

    •Regional vs. national accreditations — Regional accrediting agencies operate in one of six accreditation regions in the United States, while national accrediting agencies operate throughout the United States. Whether you’ll want to enroll in a regionally or nationally accredited school depends on your goals and needs. When deciding between them, look into:
    a) How well the school and its programs align to your education goals.
    b) The ability/difficulty of transferring credits. Should you want to switch schools or pursue further education after graduation, keep in mind that it’s not always possible to transfer credits between regionally and nationally accredited institutions.
    c) What accreditations current or potential future employers recognize and value.

Whew! This is a lot of information — remember that Guild’s Education Coaches are available to answer questions and help you find credible programs that match your goals.


Do some research

Behind every big decision is (or should be!) a good amount of research. Now that you have your list of nonnegotiables, it’s time to verify whether the schools you’re eyeing actually meet your demands.

Here are a few places you can check when researching schools to establish their fit and credibility:

  • The institution’s website and social media accounts. These are good places to look to get to know the school, their program options, their values, and their personality. Just keep in mind that these platforms are built by the institution, so will only reveal information they’ve chosen to display. (Psst…don’t forget to check comments on social media posts! Sometimes you can find information worth exploring further — both positive and negative — there.) 
  • The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Confirm accreditation status, find resources to help you with education planning, and keep up to date on new information about education in the United States.
  • College Navigator and the National Center for Education Statistics. College Navigator is an awesome research tool which allows you to view lots of information on a school all at once — retention and graduation rates, student outcomes, accreditations, enrollment and admissions statistics…and beyond! The National Center for Education Statistics has even more valuable information, research, and statistics to peruse and use in making your decision.
  • Reviews and ratings for schools, professors, courses, and so on. Everyone has an opinion, and with the internet, it’s easier than ever to share it. Use that to your advantage, and scroll through reviews to develop a better understanding of a school’s atmosphere. Remember: A small handful of bad reviews does not necessarily raise a red flag, but if many people are reporting issues? That’s something to consider.
  • Web searches and news articles. Search the internet and news outlets for your school’s name paired with words like “review,” “scam,” “student outcomes,” or anything else you might want to know more about. (For example: Maybe you’re interested in the computer science program. If so, you could search the school’s name plus “computer science.”)
  • The expert coaches at Guild. Connect for free with an Education Coach. During your personalized conversations, you can discuss your education and career goals, what you’re searching for in a school or program, and any questions you may have.


Watch out for these warning signs

Unfortunately, there are scams, illegitimate operations, and disreputable or untrustworthy schools in the education world. Avoid wasting time, effort, and money by doing diligent research before paying a dime. And don’t worry — there are also plenty of resources ready to help you recognize and evade school scams and fake degrees!

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it does provide a few common things that may signify an institution isn’t credible.

Watch out for:

  • Super fast degrees. Some high school diploma and certificate programs can be completed in a few months. But if a school advertises that you can earn a degree in a few days, weeks, or months, chances are you’ve stumbled upon a scam.
  • Low (or no) effort credentials. Earning a degree, diploma, certificate, or the like will always require you to put in effort, engage with instructors, study, and complete coursework. Anything that claims you can earn a credential without taking some or all of these actions is almost certainly a scam.
  • Earning credentials solely through “work or life experience.” Many schools and programs do offer a certain, limited amount or type of credits for relevant work experience, internships, and so on. However, you’ll still have to complete coursework, engage with instructors, and more to earn a legitimate degree. If a program claims you can earn credentials entirely from work or life experience, it’s likely a scam.
  • Names that sound similar to well-known institutions. Scammers sometimes take the names of respected schools and change them slightly to capitalize on their prestige. If you come across something that feels familiar, double-check that the school, program, or professor is actually from the legitimate institution you’re thinking of.
  • Places asking for payment up front. Legitimate institutions charge tuition per credit, course, or semester. So if your school is asking for the entire cost of a degree up front, definitely do some more research to be 100% sure of its legitimacy and reputation before handing over any money.
  • A lack of student services, support, or ability to speak with staff. Your school, whether in-person or online, should have resources and people in place to assist you throughout your education — from advisors to tech help and more. If there are no support systems evident and you can’t communicate with anyone at the school, this is a major red flag.
  • Unsatisfactory student outcomes and poor retention and graduation rates. Are the vast majority of students returning semester after semester, or are they dropping out? What percentage of students graduate? What does life look like after graduation for students at this school — are they securing opportunities, jobs, and promotions? While unimpressive student outcomes and low retention and graduation rates don’t necessarily indicate a scam, they do reveal big issues which affect student success and should be taken seriously.

Above all, trust your instincts. If something seems suspicious, proceed with caution and get additional information from a reliable source before you make a decision or commit to anything.


Understand credibility and career goals

Confirming an institution’s credibility before enrolling is vital. However, it’s also important to make sure that a school and program will meet your education needs and set you on the path to achieving your career goals. But if your career goals are a little fuzzy, how will you be able to tell whether a program is worthwhile or not?

If this sounds like you, it’s probably time to better define your career goals. Check out this blog post series on planning and growing your career to learn how you can start (or continue!) thinking about your career, and how to put your learning to work — literally.

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