Whether you are considering online or on-campus programs, the first question you should ask is about the school’s accreditation. Accredited online colleges and campus-based programs are periodically evaluated for program and institution quality. This review is conducted by peers from other accredited schools in a process that compares what’s happening in the programs against a set of established standards addressing areas such as institutional mission, administration, effectiveness, educational programs, faculty, support services, and learning resources.
As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” Accreditation is not, however, a guarantee. It’s also not automatic or required. Schools choose to engage in the accreditation process, and must meet the standards to be approved as “accredited.” And it’s helpful to know that the process of achieving accredited schools is the same for online and on-campus programs and institutions.
The issue of accreditation is an important one for both students and schools. For students, knowing that a program or institution is accredited is a form of assurance that basic elements of quality are in place, to ensure a worthwhile academic experience. For schools, accreditation is a crucial part of being recognized as a legitimate institution and achieving eligibility for federal financial aid as one of the many accredited online colleges.
The Accreditation Process
Time frames vary for institution and program level accreditation reviews, usually ranging from every two to every 10 years. What has to take place in order for a school or program to achieve and maintain accreditation? Here are the basic steps in the process:
- Self Study: This is a written report prepared by the school that provides a self-assessment of the institution’s operations as compared to the accrediting agency’s standards. This document may also include a detailed review of goals and objectives, as well as any challenges faced.
- Peer Review: A committee of individuals from schools other than the one being reviewed work under the guidance of the accrediting agency to review the curriculum and course materials, and evaluate school resources.
- Site Visits: This usually takes place in a series of meetings that can include faculty, administrators, and students.
- Decision: The accrediting agency ultimately decides whether or not the school has met the standards. The final decision may include recommendations for continued monitoring.
- Periodic Review: Once accreditation status is awarded, and a an institution is part of the accredited online colleges, additional reviews are conducted to further verify that the standards are being met, as well as to identify additional areas for improvement.
Achieving accreditation status is not an easy or quick process, especially for institutions seeking initial approval. And it is beneficial not only for students, but also the schools, which are increasingly in competition with one another to attract the best students, be one of the best accredited online colleges, and held accountable to provide valuable education and career preparation experiences.
What Accreditation Means for Students
Prospective students should take some time to compare the programs they are considering, making sure that they know what to expect once they enroll. Accreditation can help with this comparison process by setting some expectations for the student.
CHEA describes accreditation as “both a process and a status.” If a school or program has achieved accreditation status though the rigorous process set forth by a reputable accrediting agency, students can expect that the program was reviewed by a third party, providing some oversight on a range of aspects including academics and student support, and found to have a basic level of quality.
In addition to assurance that there are adequate resources to support their learning and solid academic programs, students should also be aware of the additional implications of enrolling in and completing a program from an accredited institution:
- 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.
- Transfer 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.
- Employment: Employers may view graduates of an accredited school or program 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.
- Continued 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.
As described in The Higher Learning Commission’s core values for accreditation, schools that hold accreditation have demonstrated that teaching students is their primary focus and goal. In a way, accrediting authorities are advocates for students, doing the research to determine the level of quality provided. Prospective students can then use this information to inform their enrollment decisions and make the best choice from accredited online colleges.
Types of Accreditation
It is possible that some programs or schools will have more than one kind of accreditation. There are accrediting agencies on the national and regional level, and others that focus on specific types of institution or academic disciplines. The U.S. government does not accredit schools and programs, but does maintain a list of accrediting bodies that are recognized by the Department of Education.
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), and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
The regional accrediting system does predate the national system, and is often perceived as more prestigious due to the fact that it is the one used 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.
There are additional recognized agencies that accredit institutions across the country. Those listed by the U.S. Department of Education 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, and Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).
While there are accrediting agencies, such as the DETC, that monitor only online programs and schools, online programs do not have to be accredited by these agencies. Accreditation is accreditation – the process of review is similar regardless of the delivery format (i.e., online, in person, or blended). Many online higher education institutions are accredited nationally.
Most regional and national accrediting agencies conduct their reviews at the institutional level. There are additional agencies that focus on specific academic disciplines. Examples include the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), American Bar Association (ABA), Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), and 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.
Online Learning and Accreditation Mills
Unfortunately, online education has been linked to poor accreditation practices in the past. While this situation is improving overall as online learning becomes more mainstream, traditional institutions explore and develop online degree options, and more options are made available by accredited online colleges, prospective students should be aware that not all accreditation is equal.
CHEA recommends asking questions like the ones listed below to determine whether or not an organization is an accreditation or degree mill – offering products and services with little or no value.
- Does the organization allow accredited status (or degrees) to be purchased?
- Are few, if any, standards for quality published by the organization?
- Is the organization’s name similar to those used by recognized accrediting agencies?
- Does the organization make claims for which there is no evidence?
- Are there few requirements for accreditation (or graduation)?
Organizations like CHEA monitor accrediting agencies to ensure that they provide adequate reviews of programs and schools.
Finding Accredited Online Colleges and Programs
Understanding the many types and requirements of accreditation can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there are several ways for prospective students to find out more about the accreditation status of the schools and programs they are considering and make an informed decision of choosing a accredited online college:
- The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs: This site is maintained by the U.S. Department of Education and allows users to search for accredited schools by name and location, as well as 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.
Before enrolling in a new program, take the time to research accreditation status and cross check any schools under consideration with the resources listed in this guide to ensure you are in an accredited program or attending an accredited online college.