If you are exploring your options for accredited online colleges, the first question you should ask is whether a school or program is accredited. Accreditation is a way for schools to be evaluated for their standard of education and student assistance — to earn accreditation, schools must meet requirements set by the accrediting agency to guarantee the quality of their faculty, administration, student support services, and educational programs.
According to The Higher Learning Commission’s core values for accreditation, the primary goal of accredited online colleges is to teach students, as opposed to simply making a profit. Thus, in some ways, the accreditation authorities are advocates for students because they do the research to determine the level of quality a college provides.
Online learning is becoming more mainstream, and traditional institutions are also exploring and developing online degree options. Because the requirements for accreditation are the same for all schools, you can expect the same high standard of education from an accredited program whether it is traditional or online.
Why Accreditation Matters
Not only does accreditation help ensure that a school is providing a well-rounded education meeting the standards of the accrediting agency, it is often a necessity for employers and continued education as well. Accreditation can impact students in the following ways:
- 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 credits: While no school is officially required to accept transfer credit from any other school, accreditation is often a big factor in the process. Most institutions will only consider transfer credit if it was earned at an accredited institution. Students enrolling in courses with the expectation that they will transfer those credits at a later date should closely examine the accreditation status and guidelines of both their current and prospective transfer schools.
- Finding a job: Employers may view graduates of accredited online colleges as more valuable than graduates of unaccredited schools. Accreditation offers employers assurance that the program maintains high academic standards and prepares students with the relevant knowledge and skills in their field. This may also be required as part of the 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 online students who completed their undergraduate programs at accredited online schools, and in many cases will consider it a prerequisite for their graduation application and enrollment.
Avoiding Diploma Mills
Verifying that your school is accredited is a good way to ensure you’re not enrolling in a “diploma mill” that offers a sub-par education experience versus one offered by genuine accredited online colleges. A diploma mill is an organization posing as a school, but offering little to no relevant education or skill growth. Often, diploma mills will exist only to take payment from would-be students in exchange for a “degree” that has no value for other schools or employers.
The fraud of diploma mills can also extend to fake accrediting agencies. 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 allegedly accredited online schools 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.
Recognized Accrediting Agencies
Prospective students should be aware that not all accreditation is equal. There are accrediting agencies at both the national and regional level, and other agencies that focus on specific kinds of institutions or academic disciplines. In fact, some programs or accredited online schools are accredited by more than one type of agency. The different types of accreditation are explained below.
There are several agencies that grant accreditation to schools across the country. The U.S. government itself does not provide accreditation to colleges; however, the Department of Education maintains a list of recognized accrediting bodies. Some of the most well-known national agencies that also accredit online colleges 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. An accredited online college is free to earn that accreditation from any accrediting agency, and the process of review is similar regardless of how a program is delivered. Many accredited online universities are accredited at the national level.
There are six recognized accrediting agencies in the U.S. 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. Regionally accredited online colleges are often perceived as more prestigious because regional accreditation is preferred by most traditional colleges and universities. While it is also regarded as the most rigorous form of accreditation, additional research is required to determine the ideal accreditation type or agency for 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 within accredited online colleges, 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 Online Colleges
Navigating the many different kinds of accrediting agencies can be overwhelming, whether you are searching for national or regionally accredited online colleges. Fortunately, there are several simple ways to find the accreditation status of the online colleges or programs you are considering. Before enrolling in a new program at an allegedly accredited online college, use the resources listed below to find out whether it is genuinely 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 online universities and programs by field of study, location, and accrediting agency.
- Directory of Recognized Organizations: Another resource from CHEA, this list can be used to determine if a specific accrediting agency has met the organization’s particular standards.
- College Navigator: This popular college search tool from the National Center for Education Statistics includes school profile pages for accredited online colleges that indicate accreditation status and granting agencies, along with a variety of additional school 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 current accreditation status, and many regional accreditation agencies maintain lists of their regionally accredited online colleges.
- 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 an admissions representative at the online colleges you’re interested in for more information.
How Schools Earn Accreditation
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) describes accreditation as “both a process and a status.” Earning accreditation 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 these online colleges to meet such goals, thus attracting the best students to enroll into their programs.
Here’s a breakdown of the basic steps in the institutional accreditation process, whether for nationally or regionally accredited online colleges:
- Self Study: This is a written self-assessment prepared by the school seeking accreditation. The self-study is an evaluation of the institution’s operations, which the school measures 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.
- Peer Review: Guided by the accrediting agency, a committee from various other schools — sometimes including other online colleges — 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.
- Site Visits: This usually takes the form of a series of meetings where the accrediting agency talks directly to faculty, administrators, and students to learn more about its operations.
- 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.
- 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 an accredited online college 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.
After earning institutional accreditation, program-specific accreditation is just as rigorous a process for accredited online colleges, though the steps tend to vary depending on the granting organization. For example, institutions pursuing accreditation for accounting programs by the AACSB must engage in a lengthy process that involves submission of an eligibility application, a mentor visit, an initial self evaluation report and ongoing updates, a final self evaluation report, and a peer review team meeting. Likewise, nursing programs of both traditional and online colleges seeking accreditation by the CCNE require a similar procedure; candidates must submit a comprehensive application and schedule a site visit within two years to earn initial accreditation for baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs.