When students select an online college, they want to know they’re getting a high-quality education that will prepare them for future jobs and educational opportunities. Accreditation is one way online colleges demonstrate their commitment to providing students with quality learning experiences.
A school’s accreditation status can impact many aspects of a student’s educational experience, including financial aid eligibility, the ability to transfer credits or apply for further study at other institutions, and post-graduation employment opportunities.
This article breaks down what online college accreditation is, how online colleges earn accredited status, and why choosing an accredited online college is essential.
What is Online College Accreditation?
College accreditation is an evaluation process conducted by an independent agency to ensure that a post-secondary institution provides students with an educational experience that meets specific quality standards. It’s optional for post-secondary education institutions in the U.S. to be accredited, although there are numerous benefits to having this status.
The U.S. Department of Education oversees accreditation for post-secondary institutions, although it does not accredit schools itself. Instead, independent agencies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) review schools and award accreditation to those that meet their established standards.
According to CHEA, the accreditation process consists of three steps:
- A self-study by the college based on the accrediting agency’s quality standards,
- A peer review to gather evidence and confirm the college’s self-study findings and
- A decision rendered by the accrediting agency to confer accreditation status, which may or may not include certain conditions.
To ensure that they continue to meet the criteria for accreditation, schools must undergo an accreditation review process at regular intervals, anywhere from every three to 10 years.
While each accrediting body sets its own accreditation criteria, it typically evaluates schools on similar metrics, including expected student achievement, student outcomes, curriculum, faculty, financial capacity, and student services and academic support.
Institutional vs. programmatic accreditation
CHEA oversees two specific types of accrediting bodies — institutional and programmatic.
Institutional accreditation refers to accreditation for a brick-and-mortar and online college entity. It confirms that the school’s overall practices and outcomes meet the quality thresholds set by the accrediting agency. Schools can have regional or national accreditation (more on this distinction below). Prospective college students should focus their search on institutionally accredited schools.
Meanwhile, programmatic accrediting bodies review and recognize specific degree-granting programs within institutions. Programmatic accreditation assures that a particular curriculum meets professional standards for education within that field. Students should note that not all fields have corresponding programmatic accreditation, and the necessity of attending an accredited program can vary by industry.
Who Accredits Online Colleges and Programs?
A vast network of agencies accredits online colleges and programs in the U.S.
Regional accreditation is generally considered the gold standard of college accreditation in the U.S., based on the rigorous quality standards schools must meet to receive this status. Approximately 85% of post-secondary institutions in the U.S. have regional accreditation. These institutions include traditional two- and four-year colleges, state-run and state-affiliated public nonprofit institutions, and many private nonprofit universities.
Students should note that, because of their rigorous standards, regionally accredited institutions only accept college credits and degrees earned at other regionally accredited schools, which can be a factor for students transferring to colleges or applying to graduate degree programs.
The regional accrediting agencies recognized by CHEA are:
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (SACSCOC)
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
Approximately 15% of colleges in the U.S. are nationally accredited. Typically, schools that have national accreditation cater to niche student groups and include career, technical, and vocational schools, religious-affiliated colleges, and industry-specific institutions. Nationally accredited schools are more likely to be for-profit, have lower admissions standards, and charge lower tuition fees than regionally accredited schools.
Because national accreditation standards may be more lax than regional accreditation criteria, there are some considerations students should keep in mind. Regionally accredited institutions don’t accept credits or degrees from nationally accredited schools. Students attending these institutions will be limited to transferring or applying to other nationally accredited schools. Additionally, employers may favor applicants with degrees from regionally accredited schools, as they’re more academically rigorous.
National accrediting agencies include:
- Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation (ABHE)
- Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies (AIJS)
- Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS)
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission (TRACS)
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
Programmatic accreditation exists to confirm that specific degree-granting programs meet the necessary educational standards for the related industry. Some areas of study, like business, counseling, education, and healthcare, have multiple relevant programmatic accrediting agencies, while others have none. Depending on the industry, students may be required to earn a degree from an accredited program to receive the necessary licenses or certifications.
CHEA also maintains a database of recognized programmatic accrediting bodies. Popular areas of study with programmatic accreditation include:
Why Attending an Accredited Online College is Important
Attending an accredited online college provides several benefits to students during and after enrollment.
Quality of education
Online college is a significant investment, and students have every right to expect a quality education that equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in their chosen field. Accreditation processes mean there are baseline standards for the quality of education institutions and programs offer students and that there’s accountability if they fall short of those standards. When reviewing schools, accreditors look at expected and actual student outcomes, curriculum, financial viability, infrastructure, available student resources, and more. Without these guardrails, students can find themselves at institutions that don’t meet their basic needs or provide a quality education.
Financial aid eligibility
A school’s accreditation status is critical to whether it can receive and distribute federal and state financial aid, including loans, grants, and work-study. Unaccredited schools aren’t eligible for Federal Student Aid (FSA) programs, leaving students to pay out-of-pocket or find other methods of paying for their degree.
Future educational opportunities
As previously mentioned, a school’s accreditation status, as well as the type of accreditation it has, will affect future educational opportunities for students.
Regionally accredited schools only accept transfer credits and degrees from other regionally accredited schools. Therefore, if a student attends an unaccredited or nationally accredited school and decides to transfer to a regionally accredited college, their previously earned credits would not be recognized at the new school, and they would have to repeat those courses.
Similarly, if a student earns a bachelor’s degree at an unaccredited or nationally accredited school, they would not be eligible for a master’s program at an institution with regional accreditation.
Job and professional criteria
Many employers also prefer candidates with degrees from accredited schools and, in some cases, accredited programs. This requirement reassures employers that the individuals they consider have received quality education in the appropriate areas. Additionally, in certain professions, such as education, counseling, and nursing, students must attend accredited schools (and programs) in order to qualify for the professional licenses or certifications they need to work in their fields.
How to Check an Online College’s Accreditation Status
Schools typically publish their institutional and programmatic accreditation statuses on their websites and marketing materials. Students can also speak directly to an admissions counselor or program representative to get this information.
However, it’s always a good idea to confirm a school’s or program’s current accreditation status with an outside source if a school provides inaccurate information.
CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education maintain comprehensive, searchable databases of accredited institutions and programs. Individual accrediting agencies also typically provide directories showing the current accreditation status of schools or programs under their jurisdiction.
Students should also confirm that the accrediting agencies are legitimate to avoid accreditation mills that present themselves as valid accrediting bodies without actually reviewing or overseeing institutions. Some illegitimate accrediting bodies seek to mislead students with names similar to those of recognized agencies. So, it’s always a good idea to check with CHEA or the Department of Education to confirm that the agency accrediting your school or program is legitimate.
How to Choose the Accredited Online College That’s Right For You
Accreditation status is a key factor to consider when researching online colleges. Still, there are several other metrics students need to assess to find the right school and program for them.
The first step in choosing the right online college is clarifying your educational and career goals. Determine what major or area of study you want to focus on so you can seek out online colleges that offer the appropriate accredited degree programs. Consider if you will transfer schools or pursue graduate study, as this may influence whether you choose a regionally or nationally accredited online college. Are you seeking an undergraduate degree to prepare you for entry-level positions, or are you a professional ready to further your education with a master’s or doctoral degree?
While accreditation confirms a school’s quality of education according to the standards set by the accrediting agency, students should ensure that the school meets their own individual criteria. Students can ask the following questions to help them evaluate whether the school will meet their needs:
- Who are the faculty, and what are their qualifications?
- How do online students interact with faculty and classmates?
- What support services are available for online students, including tutoring, technical support, counseling, and library resources?
- What type of networking opportunities are there for online students?
- Can the program be completed entirely online, or are there in-person requirements such as labs, internships, or clinical rotations?
There are also practical considerations that will help students select the best fit. Students should decide whether a synchronous or asynchronous curriculum meets their needs and learning preferences. They should also determine whether they will enroll full-time or part-time and set a budget, including any available financial aid resources.
Find the Tools You Need to Get Started on Your Degree
Confirming that an institution is accredited before applying is just one of many considerations students must consider when embarking on a degree program. Students may also have questions regarding whether they should attend college online or in person, how to transfer previously earned credits to a new degree program, and what their financial aid options are. Intelligent.com has expert advice and resource guides to help students navigate these and other concerns.