How do I avoid a diploma mill or substandard online degree?
The key word is accreditation. Most diploma mills will have some kind of accreditation. Unfortunately, they are accredited by their own associations or companies, rendering the accreditation as useless as their degrees.
You will want to find a school with an accreditation from a recognized agency. The Council for Higher Education has oversight of the genuine accrediting agencies. You can find them at www.CHEA.org.
When you hear the words "regional accreditation board" when checking out your list of possible online degree programs, this is good. The United States has six geographical areas covered by these boards:
New England Association of Schools & Colleges
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Middle States Association
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
If your school is accepted by one of these associations, then all of the six will recognize your degree. For instance if you get your degree from Babson, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and want to apply to Stanford in California for graduate school, Stanford will recognized the degree from Babson. You still may not get in, but it will have more to do with GREs and GPAs than your school of origin.
The Distance Education and Training Council or DETC is another accrediting agency widely recognized, and it specializes in distance learning. You could also find a stellar school with an accreditation from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools or ACICS.
If your school claims it is accredited by one of the above agencies, make sure you don't take their word for it but get accreditation information from CHEA or the other agencies mentioned above.
Just because a college frequently shows up on a search engine for keywords "online degree" does not mean it is legitimate...only that they have spent money advertising with that search engine.