Pursuing an online degree

By Jennie Bragg, CNN producer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- When the economy turns south, folks head back to school to beef up their credentials and safeguard against layoffs.

But whether you are looking to earn your MBA or simply take some online classes to bolster your resume, most students fall victim to the same mistakes. Don't let these common online pitfalls cost you time or money.

Check accreditation

Before you choose an online college, the first step to take is to check out the school's accreditation.

"If you attend an online college or any college that's not accredited by a federally approved agency, you can't get federal financial aid like loans and grants," says Kim Clark, writer for U.S. News and World Report and creator of financialaidletter.com. "Other colleges won't consider that transfer credit, and of course, employers aren't really that interested in it."

Trade and technical institutions should be nationally accredited, whereas most other schools will receive regional accreditation.

In order to be considered legitimate, the school must be accredited by an agency that is recognized by The Department of Education or The Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Head to chea.org to search a database of over 18,700 accredited programs.

And ask your employer or prospective employer about which online higher education programs have provided employees with the best results in the past.

Budget your time

Your may save time on your commute by choosing to study online versus at a bricks and mortar institution, but an online course will usually require just as much study and prep time as a class you would take in a lecture hall with a professor.

"I think a lot of people sign up for online courses thinking, oh, it's online, it'll be easy," says Kim Clark. "The teachers I've talked to say, at the minimum, you have to budget 10 hours a week for class time and study. And the best courses, 15 or 20 hours. And don't think you can take a vacation in the middle. A lot of these classes require you to post something two or three times a day."

Flexibility is one of the great advantages of an online education. However, it is important set aside ample time during the week for assignments.

And remember, although you may never see your professor or another student in your class face to face, that doesn't give you permission to sit in the back of the class and snooze.

Participation may factor into final grades, so be sure to speak up during online discussion forums and chats with professors.

Tech savvy

If you don't have the necessary tools to make your online classes simple -- from set-up to assignment completion -- stop where you are and do not enroll.

Enrolling without the proper technology can be the biggest mistake of all.

Make sure your web browser is up to date and you have purchased any software necessary for the class before the start of the semester.

"If you're a technophobe or you have an unreliable connection, or you're relying on the libraries' computers, obviously it's going to be difficult for you to complete an online course," warns Clark.

And check out professors before you enroll.

You want to make sure the teacher is comfortable with the technology too.

"Teaching an online course is just like anything else and people get better at it with practice," says Clark. "It's a new field, so a lot of professors are just entering into this and are not so good at it."

Check out potential professors and read about their online teaching experience and ratemyprofessors.com and MyEdu.com.

Talkback: What is your experience, good or bad, with taking an online course? To top of page

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