If you are exploring your options for higher education online, the first question you should ask is whether a school or program is accredited. Accredited programs, whether they are online or campus-based, are periodically evaluated to make sure they’re meeting high standards of education and student assistance.
Search through our comprehensive database of accredited online colleges and universities, and narrow your search based on what type of school you want to attend, and what kind of degree you’d like to earn.
Schools have different personalities, and you’ll want to get to know them before you choose the one that’s right for you. Read up on the online schools you’re curious about – and even some you haven’t considered before – and learn about degree programs, history, online learning platforms, and accreditation. Where you go to school is important — let us help you make the right decision.
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Accreditation is a process that colleges undertake to become recognized as legitimate, trustworthy institutions. To become accredited, campus-based and online colleges must meet a set of established standards for the quality of their faculty, administration, student support services and educational programs.
Schools that are accredited have proven that their primary goal is to teach students (as opposed to just making a profit), according to The Higher Learning Commission’s core values for accreditation. In one sense, the authorities in charge of accreditation are advocates for students — they do the research to determine the level of quality a college provides.
In the past, online education has been criticized for having poor accreditation practices. However, as online learning becomes more mainstream, this situation is improving overall. Traditional institutions are exploring and developing online degree options, and accredited online colleges are making a wider variety of programs available. And it’s important to know that the requirements for getting accredited are the same for both online and on-campus programs. That means if you enroll in an accredited college, you can expect the same high standard of education whether your program is traditional or online.
Why Accreditation Matters
As a prospective online student, you may have spent some time comparing different online schools and programs. Knowing the accreditation status of each school you’re interested in can help you to make the best choice from online programs in your chosen field of study.
You should also be aware of a few other reasons why it’s important to enroll in and complete a program from an accredited institution:
- Getting Financial Aid: For students interested in pursuing federal financial aid (e.g., Pell Grants, Perkins Loans) the U.S. Department of Education requires that schools participating in these programs be accredited. This is also the case for some state aid programs.
- Transferring Credit: No school is required to accept transfer credit from any other school, but accreditation can play a role in the process. Most institutions will not consider granting transfer credit if it was earned at a non-accredited institution. Students enrolling in courses with the expectation that they will transfer those credits at a later date should closely examine the accreditation of the current school and the guidelines provided by schools they may want to transfer to in the future.
- Finding a Job: Employers may view graduates of accredited online colleges as more valuable than graduates of unaccredited schools. Accreditation offers some assurance that the program maintains high academic standards and prepares students in terms of knowledge and skills. Accreditation may be required as part of licensure or certification procedures in some fields.
- Continuing Your Education: Similar to the expectation of employers, graduate school admissions offices may look more favorably on students who completed accredited undergraduate programs, and in many cases will consider it a prerequisite for application and enrollment.
Avoiding Diploma Mills
Verifying that your school is accredited is a good way to make sure you’re not enrolling in a diploma mill that offers sub-par education. But it’s also important to make sure the agency that accredits your school is legitimate.
Organizations like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) monitor accrediting agencies to ensure that they provide adequate reviews of programs and schools. CHEA defines accreditation mills as “dubious providers of accreditation and quality assurance that offer a certification of quality of institutions without a proper basis.” Below is a list of questions that CHEA created to help you determine whether an agency (or school) is legitimate:
- Does the organization allow accredited status (or degrees) to be purchased?
- Are few, if any, standards for quality published by the organization?
- Does the organization make claims for which there is no evidence?
- Are there few requirements for accreditation (or graduation)?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” for a given organization, it may be an accreditation mill or degree mill. If you suspect that a school is a degree mill or is not accredited by a trustworthy agency, it’s important to do more research before enrolling. You can use the resources in our guide to find accredited online colleges or verify the legitimacy of an accreditation agency.
Prospective students should be aware that not all accreditation is equal. There are accrediting agencies on the national and regional level, and other agencies that focus on specific kinds of institutions or academic disciplines. In fact, some programs or schools are accredited by more than one type of accreditation agency. The different types of accreditation are explained below.
There are several agencies that accredit schools across the country. The U.S. government itself does not accredit online colleges; however, the Department of Education maintains a list of recognized accrediting bodies. Some of the most well-known national agencies are:
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
While there are accrediting agencies that monitor only online programs and schools, such as the DETC, online programs are not limited to getting their accreditation from those agencies alone. Online schools are free to choose any accrediting agency of their choice, and the process of review is similar regardless of whether a program is delivered online or in person. Many online higher education institutions are accredited nationally.
There are six recognized accrediting agencies in the United States that review schools within specific geographic areas:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA)
- Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
The regional accrediting system predates the national system. It is often perceived as more prestigious, because it is preferred by most traditional colleges and universities. It is also considered the most rigorous form of accreditation; however, additional research is required to determine the preferred accreditation type or agency in a specific area of study or industry.
Most regional and national accrediting agencies conduct their reviews at the institutional level. On the other hand, specialized agencies focus on specific academic disciplines, and review individual programs rather than entire institutions. Examples include:
- National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes more than 40 specialized accrediting agencies in the following categories: arts and humanities, education training, legal studies, community and social services, personal care and services, and healthcare.
Find Accredited Programs
Navigating the many different kinds of accrediting agencies may seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there are several simple ways to find the accreditation status of online colleges or programs you are considering. Before enrolling in a new program, use the resources listed below to look it up and find out whether it’s accredited.
- The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs: Maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, this site allows users to search for accredited online colleges by name and location, or by accrediting agency.
- Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organization: A project of CHEA, this site also features searchable lists of accredited schools and programs by field of study, location, and accrediting agency.
- Directory of Recognized Organizations: Another resource from CHEA, use this list to determine if a specific accrediting agency has met this organization’s standards.
- College Navigator: This popular college search tool from the National Center for Education Statistics includes school profile pages that indicate accreditation status and agencies, along with a variety of other helpful information.
- Accrediting agency websites: Look for lists of accredited colleges and universities published by the agencies themselves. For example, the Higher Learning Commission provides a Directory of Institutions with details about status.
- College websites: Information about accreditation can usually be found on individual school websites. Search the site using “accreditation” as a keyword and check for accreditation details in sections labeled “About us” and “Academics.” When in doubt, ask admissions representatives for more information.
How Schools Earn Accreditation
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) describes accreditation as “both a process and a status.” Getting accredited is neither quick nor easy, especially for institutions seeking approval for the first time. But while the main purpose of accreditation is to protect students, schools themselves gain important benefits through accreditation. Online colleges are increasingly in competition with each other to provide valuable education and career preparation, and to be considered a top-ranking college. Accreditation helps them to meet those goals, and therefore to attract the best students.
So what has to take place in order for a school to achieve and maintain accreditation? Here’s a breakdown of the basic steps in the process:
- 1. Self Study: This is a written self-assessment prepared by a school seeking accreditation. The self-study is an evaluation of the institution’s operations, measured against the standards of the accrediting agency. The self-study may also include a detailed review of the school’s goals and objectives, as well as any challenges it has faced.
- 2. Peer Review: Guided by the accrediting agency, a committee from various other schools evaluates the curriculum, course materials, and resources of the school seeking accreditation. The committee compares the school’s operations against the accrediting agency’s standards for institutional mission, administration, effectiveness, educational programs, faculty, support services, and learning resources.
- 3. Site Visits: This usually takes the form of a series of meetings where the accrediting agency talks to faculty, administrators and students.
- 4. Decision: After the initial evaluation process, the accrediting agency decides whether or not the school has met its required standards. The final decision may include recommendations for continued monitoring.
- 5. Periodic Review: Once a school gains accreditation, the accrediting agency conducts regular reviews to make sure that the school continues to perform well; periodic reviews also allow the agency to identify additional areas for improvement. How often a school is reviewed varies depending on the type of institution and level of the degree program; time frames range from every two to every 10 years.