Learning online….how great is that? Earning a degree when you want, where you want, without the traditional boundaries of time and place.

It's a concept that has been around since the 90s and is growing more popular every year.

Today, more than 7.1 million college students are enrolled in at least one online class. That's more than twice the number reported in 2006.

But if you think all programs are created equal, think again. Some online degree programs simply don't make the grade.

So what should you look for in an online program and what should you avoid? Consider these do's and don'ts to find the program that's right for you.

1. Do look for a program that is regionally accredited.

Regional accreditation, the highest form of institutional accreditation, is the gold standard for any degree program. It lets students know a program has met certain academic standards, and tells prospective employers that graduates of the program are likely to be prepared for the workforce.

Some schools, such as trade schools, career schools and for-profit universities focused on a specific field of study may be nationally accredited. Keep in mind, however, regionally accredited schools usually do not accept credits from a nationally accredited school.

2. Don't enroll in a program that offers taped instruction.

The best online learning programs are engaging, rigorous and challenging and stand up to or exceed the best traditional classroom programs. As an online student, you should expect to use a variety of technologies and methodologies, from discussion boards and multimedia presentations to web conferencing to virtual group projects.

3. Do find a program that provides academic support services.

Much like you would check out a traditional college, you should check out an online program before enrolling. You can begin by exploring the institution's website. Is tutoring available and accessible online? Will you have full access to the same library and research resources, including library staff, as on-campus students? Is there a 24-hour help desk for technical support?

4. Don't overlook the importance of a student advisor.

As an online student, a student advisor could likely be your most important resource. Be sure to look for a program that assigns you a student advisor who can assist you with everything from deciding on a major and selecting courses to developing a long-range academic plan and monitoring your academic progress.

5. Do check out the program's faculty.

The quality of instructors can make or break your online learning experience. Look for a program whose instructors are part of the institution's core faculty and are committed to its mission. Check out the credentials of instructors in your field of study and ask about accessibility. Do the instructors have office hours when they can easily be reached by email or telephone? What is the program's student/faculty ratio? Do the instructors have real-world experience in their fields?

6. Don't forget about making connections.

Even with an online degree program, it's important to connect with other students and faculty to make the most of your learning experience and ensure success. Look for opportunities to connect through social networks, clubs and organizations, and peer mentoring. And find out what type of students will make up your virtual classroom. Are they adult learners? Where are they located? Remember, diverse perspectives spark deeper learning.

7. Do look into financial aid and financial aid counseling.

Financial aid and scholarship programs are available to online students. Be sure to ask about access to a financial aid counselor to understand what aid may be available to you and how to access that aid. If you are a member of the military or a military spouse, ask about special programs and discounts that you may be entitled to.

8. Do be concerned about reputation.

When it comes to online programs, reputation is key. Find out how long the institution has been in business. Is it part of or affiliated with a traditional brick-and-mortar facility? Where does the program stand in national and industry rankings? What do graduates have to say about their experience?

And above all…..

9. Do your research.

Whatever your reason for pursuing an online degree, it pays to ask questions first. Earning a degree is a significant investment of time and money, so it's important before you enroll to be sure the program you choose will meet your educational and career goals. The College Navigator tool on the Department of Education's website can help you verify an institution's accreditation and check on important information such as graduation rates, retention rates, programs and majors and more.

For more information, check out Saint Leo's free e-book, Are You Ready For Online Learning?

Other posts you may be interested in:

Grads Share Secret To Success In Online Degree Programs

Online Degree Programs | Find The Right Fit For You

How To Prepare For Online Learning