- Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Accessed December 2017, http://www.chea.org/
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S Department of Education, Accessed December 2017, https://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/
- Accreditation, Universities and Higher Education, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed December 2017, https://www.ed.gov/accreditation
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.
Here, we've broken down how to properly research an online school's accreditation status before you enroll.
What is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a process that U.S.-based institutions have been using for over 100 years. Simply put, for a school to become accredited, it must be evaluated by an outside body to ensure that it meets a specific set of educational standards. This is usually a very involved process, but once accreditation is awarded, it means the institution has achieved a stamp of approval of sorts. A school must also continue to maintain its rigorous standards in order to keep its accreditation.
Having accreditation also makes it possible to secure financial aid through state or federal sources, helps to ease the credit transfer process (should you ever decide to change schools), and tells the world that you've earned a degree that should prepare you for work in your field of study.
In short, accreditation matters not only for individual students, but also to keep the entire higher education system accountable.
What Kinds of Accreditation are There?
Take a look a school's accreditation page and you will usually find not just a "yes" or "no" answer, but a long list of names and terms. That's because there are a number of different accreditation types and hundreds of accrediting bodies.
Here's a look at the different types of accreditation.
This is the "gold standard" and 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
- 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
Although regional accreditation is the most widely accepted designation, CHEA recognizes some national accrediting bodies. 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 considering a school that is lesser-known, be sure to do some digging to make sure that the accreditation claims are real. Here's how:
- 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…
- Cross-reference their claims. Head to the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education's websites. Not only will you find 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 value to you? Not necessarily, which is why you may want to…
- 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 will want to investigate 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.