Online colleges are really tempting to try out. They challenge the very definition of what college is to most people. As the name suggests, you can get a degree without even leaving the privacy and comfort of your own home. While it is true that there are a lot of scam artists who set up fake colleges that have zero accreditation, there are a good number of respectable institutions who have taken their academic community online.
Unfortunately for the few online colleges that actually have legitimacy in them, both the academic and the corporate world may already be prejudiced that online degrees are often ridiculously easy to get, and may not always be a good measure of academic competence or mastery of a subject matter. This is an unfair stereotype that the legitimate and accredited online universities are trying to clarify. Perhaps it's because of traditional views of some academic institutions, or the prevalence of fly-by-night operations that lead to this mindset.
Traditional schools - There are traditional schools that actually have a physical presence in the non-virtual world, but who have gone with the wave of information technology and offer a college education online. It would probably surprise you that such a respected and high profile school like Stanford University has already explored this option and has ongoing online courses. The University of Carolina also has similar programs. Signing up with well-respected names gives you the advantage and prestige associated with the name of the school.
Online schools - Some schools operate on a purely online basis. This does not mean they have lower quality than the traditional schools. It's best to check whether these have national or regional accreditation, to verify the legitimacy.
You can check with the Department of Education to check if the institution that you wish to enroll in is, in fact, accredited and officially registered as a center for education. Many websites have been known to cheat and fake their documents and accreditation to lure unsuspecting applicants though so it's good to do a background check. If possible, interview someone who has experienced studying under the institution and inquire about his employment status and history.
How to check - Oftentimes, you may be fooled by the fact that a website uses a .edu top-level domain. While .edu domains are reserved for educational institutions, you may not necessarily be assured that a website running on a .edu domain is legitimate. The first place you should check is the Department of Education's list of accredited institutions at ope.ed.gov. For regional accreditation, the list is maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at chea.org.
In some cases, it's not really a question of whether or not your online degree is legitimate or not. It might be more of a question of whether or not potential employers would see it as legitimate. Sometimes, employers will have an issue with the fact that you have attended an online school rather than a traditional one. Whether you've attended a traditional university or college, or an online program, what matters is you are able to perform your job efficiently and productively. This is one way of proving the worth of online courses.