Employers didn’t take online degree programs very seriously when they first came about in the '90s. Students paid tuition and clicked through checklist curriculums to quickly land degrees only to find out they were barely useful in the market place.

That landscape has now completely changed with the advent of new technologies and the rollout of online degree programs by major universities. Institutions like Duke, MIT and Stanford now offer online programs, and many employers are holding some of these degrees in the same regard as they might from a 4-year institution.

Some working professionals find it more convenient to pursue online degrees while balancing a career and family, and are also enrolling in a growing array of online graduate programs.

While online programs now offer a high level of credibility with employers, students still must evaluate the programs carefully. The FTC warns consumers at its website about signs a school might be a "diploma mill." Some of these warning signs include advertising a flat fee for the degree, a short completion time, pushy advertising tactics and accreditations from phony agencies.

Consumers should ensure the program is accredited, as this establishes legitimacy and requires the schools to undergo a rigorous review of their educational programs. Prospective students can search for the school in the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

"If you use a so-called 'degree' from a diploma mill to apply for a job or promotion, you risk not getting hired, getting fired and possible prosecution," the FTC said.

Fortunately, the growth in online degree programs has given rise to organizations and publications that rank these programs. U.S. News' Best Online Programs ranks more than 1,300 online degree programs on such factors as faculty credentials and training, student engagement, student services, technology and peer reputation.

The 2017 rankings placed Embry-Riddle, Temple University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Oklahoma and Arizona State University near the top for bachelor's degree programs.

Prospective students should consider their career goals, the type of credentials that are most important, their financial situation and their time constraints. If the student is taking online courses with a mix of on-ground courses, it's also essential to ensure courses will transfer and meet degree requirements.