Ready to start researching online degree programs? Besides academic requirements, program reputation, and tuition costs, it's wise to put accreditation on your research checklist. Choosing an accredited institution and program is important to make sure your degree is worth more than the piece of paper it's printed on. In other words, accreditation is how you can find out whether you're enrolling in a degree program that meets the standards of the U.S. education system and of employers you may want to apply at in the future.
Let's discuss what accreditation is; the different kinds of accreditation; and how you can find out if your school is accredited.
What is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a process that U.S.-based institutions have been using for over 100 years. Simply put, it's a stamp of approval for schools. For a school to become accredited, it must be evaluated by an outside organization to ensure that it meets a specific set of educational standards. This is usually a very involved process. It's not a "once in a lifetime" occurrence, either; a school must continue to maintain these standards, or else it loses its accreditation.
In addition, accreditation has tangible benefits for students. Certain state or federal financial aid sources are awarded only to students attending accredited schools. It is also much easier to transfer credits from one accredited school to another, should you decide to transfer schools. Accreditation even continues to be beneficial after graduation -- many employers are likely to look more favorably at a candidate who attended an accredited school, and some employers may only hire applicants from accredited schools.
Question: Is Accreditation Different for Online Schools?
Accreditation is almost identical for online schools as it is for on-campus schools. The process is the same, the benefits are the same, and the importance of attending an accredited school is the same too! The biggest difference is that online programs may be accredited by different accreditation agencies than similar on-campus programs. This means it's important to know what different kinds of accreditation you might see for different programs. Let's take a closer look at that.
What Kinds of Accreditation are There?
If you look at a school's accreditation page, you may be hoping to find a simple "Yes" or "No" answer. However, instead, you are likely seeing a long list of complicated organization names and terms. That's because there are a number of different accreditation types, and hundreds of accrediting bodies that award them.
What does it all mean? Well, we can't list out every single accrediting body in the United States, but we can at least explore what the different terms are trying to tell you about your school. Here's a look at the different types of accreditation.
This is the "gold standard," the most rigorous type of accreditation that an institution can have. If you want to find out if your potential online school is regionally accredited, see if one of the following six regional accrediting bodies is listed:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools: Accredits schools in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges: Accredits schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont
- Higher Learning Commission: Accredits schools in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges: Accredits schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Accredits schools in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Accredits schools in California and Hawaii
Although regional accreditation is the most widely accepted designation, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes some national accrediting bodies as well. These organizations usually cover for-profit, career-focused and/or technical education institutions, as well as distance learning colleges and universities. If your online school of choice doesn't list any regional accreditation, check if it lists any of the following instead:
- Distance Education & Training Council
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
In addition to a school's accreditation, different degree programs might be evaluated by industry organizations. For instance, law, medical, business and engineering professional programs typically have their own accrediting bodies. These add another layer of credibility if you're choosing from among several degree programs.
National faith-related accreditation
If you plan to attend a religiously-affiliated or doctrinally-based institution, there are also accrediting bodies that specialize in these type of degrees.
How Can I Tell if My School is Accredited?
With so many different accrediting organizations, some particularly underhanded institutions have claimed to be accredited in the past, simply by listing a bunch of official-sounding fake organization names on their accreditation page. Even if a school isn't making their accreditation up, sometimes accreditation can be pending or suspended, which can muddy the waters. Because of this, it's vital not to take any school's word for it that they are accredited. If you're not sure whether or not your school is accredited, here's how to find out:
Step One: Go to the school's website and look for an accreditation page
Every institution should list their accreditation status. Finding written proof of their accreditation status is the first step. Even if it claims accreditation, though, it's still up to you to make sure that it's accurate and up-to-date. To do this…
Step Two: Cross-reference their claims
Head to the websites for CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education. Not only is there a list of recognized accrediting agencies, but you can explore a database of institutions and programs to see which ones are accredited and which aren't. However, if you have multiple schools that are accredited, does that mean they're all of equal importance to you? Not necessarily, which is why you may want to…
Step Three: Learn what the top accreditations are in your field of interest
Once you know that a prospective school is accredited, you can go further to see if your degree program of interest is recognized within the industry. For instance, if you're pursuing a nursing degree, you may want to find out if the nursing program offered at your school is accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.
When you're investing a lot of time, money and hard work into a degree program, it only makes sense that you want it to count. Degree mills and diploma mills have become less common, since their tricks have become better known, but there's no need to take chances. Take the time to confirm that you're choosing from among accredited online colleges so that once you earn your degree, you can feel confident that your hard-earned accomplishments will be recognized by others.