When you're researching online degree programs, it's likely that you are aiming to earn credentials that will help you launch a new career, or advance in the one you have. As such, it's important to choose an accredited online school.
"Accreditation means that the school has met certain key standards (such as curriculum, governance, assessment, etc.) that the accrediting body considers critical for a degree-awarding institution, such that students graduating from that institution are well equipped to succeed in their chosen field," explains John O. Omachonu, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
Being accredited by a legitimate organization is also what qualifies an institution and its students to be eligible for federal and state financial aid programs. That's because the accreditation process is rigorous, subjecting the school to close examination and peer review. Going to an unaccredited school could not only affect your access to financial aid, but it could also mean that your academic credits won't be transferable, and that your courses won't count toward professional licensure programs. After all the hard work you put in, you want your degree to be accepted as credible and meaningful by professional schools - medicine, law, engineering, etc. - as well as future employers, says Omachonu.
In other words, accreditation matters! You may be asking yourself, "How do I know if a college is accredited?" Here, we've broken down how to properly research an online school's accreditation status before you apply.
To help you find legitimate, high-quality accredited colleges, start by using our Top Online Colleges Tool.
Your Accreditation Research Checklist
Step 1: When researching an online school's accreditation status, start with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education.
Both of these bodies list recognized accrediting agencies, while CHEA maintains a massive database of 8,200 institutions and 20,000 programs, and each one's accreditation status. It's a good place to cross-reference your schools of choice to see if their accreditation claims match up.
Step 2: Inquire about regional accreditation - the highest standard.
According to GetEducated.com, more than 85 percent of all colleges in the United States are regionally accredited by one of the following six regional accrediting bodies:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
"Regional accrediting groups will have on its website a list of schools that it accredits," explains Omachonu.
That being said, it's very easy for a school to come up with an official sounding accrediting body name to list on its website, so don't be too trusting, says Dr. Anne Hewett, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Online Master of Healthcare Administration at Seton Hall University. "If you don't recognize the name of the accrediting body, think twice," she says.
Step 3: Investigate other types of accreditation.
While regional accreditation is the most widely accepted credential, there are also national college accreditation agencies that are recognized by CHEA. Among the most common ones include:
- Distance Education & Training Council
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
Another thing to look for is programmatic accreditation if you're researching a specific program of study. For example, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs would accredit programs in physical therapy and business, respectively. "Seek out schools and programs that are also approved by a professional organization," says Hewett. "This credentialing or accreditation status demonstrates that the program has been recognized by a national or international group of peer institutions as meeting a gold standard."
Step 4: Take your research beyond accreditation status.
Hewett suggests doing a little more digging to see if a school offers the quality education you're seeking. "Look carefully at statistics of number of students enrolled and the length of time it takes a student to complete an average course of study. Reputable schools have this information readily available," she says.
You could also ask to speak with a current student or recent alumni, says Hewett. "The school should be very willing to link you someone who can provide a true perspective of the program."
Taking the time to thoroughly research online colleges can potentially save you a lot of headaches down the line. You're not only making a financial investment, but you will be putting in a lot of time and effort, so be sure that you're getting a return on your educational investment in the form of a degree that holds weight.
1. Council for Higher Education Accreditation, chea.org
2. Dr. Anne Hewett, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Online Master of Healthcare Administration at Seton Hall University, interviewed by the author via email, July 22, 2014
3. John O. Omachonu, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Middle Tennessee State University, interviewed by the author via email, July 21, 2014
4. Regionally Accredited Online Colleges vs. Nationally Accredited, http://www.geteducated.com/regional-vs-national-accreditation-which-is-better-for-online-colleges