With the rising tide of layoffs and unemployment, a lot of people are looking to shore up their career skills to improve their chances of landing a job. Online education is an ideal way to prepare for satisfying work. And for people with arthritis, learning online can be a godsend. You attend “class” at your computer – without the hassles of commuting to campus, finding a parking spot and racing to your desk before class begins.

Additionally, many online courses are geared toward home-based careers and professions that can free you from the emotional – if not physical – stress of a 9-to-5 schedule.

To help you evaluate the options and narrow down your search, here are five factors to consider.

Accreditation

Accrediting agencies ensure that the course content, faculty and instructional quality consistently meet a set of high standards. As a starting point, visit the Council For Higher Education Accreditation Web site to learn about legitimate accrediting organizations. Then, check out which organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Or, simply check to see if your school is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which accredits online schools nationwide. According to the DETC, more than 130 million Americans have studied at DETC member institutions since 1890. Among them are such familiar figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter P. Chrysler, Walter Cronkite, Barry Goldwater, Charles Schulz, and many others.

Career Training vs. College Courses

Accreditation applies to schools that offer college degrees as well as those that offer career training courses leading to certification or a career diploma. If you’re looking to complete an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree program, keep in mind that many schools won’t accept transfer credits that are more than five or 10 years old, and some credits may not be transferrable.

Online career training courses are efficient because you can upgrade your skills while holding on to your current job. And some hold promise for steady work and good pay, such as paralegal and medical transcription courses. Others may open the door to home-based businesses such as wedding consulting, tax preparation and Web design. But beware: Earning a career diploma isn’t enough to put you in business. Fields such as teacher’s aide, private investigation, real estate appraisal and home inspection may be regulated by state or federal licensing agencies, and may require that you have apprenticeship experience, take an exam or become certified before you can practice professionally.