The Definitive Guide to Online College Accreditation

By Theresa Donahue
February 17th, 2010

Say that you spend four years in college, then discover that your degree is — basically — worthless. This situation could happen if you attend a college that is not accredited, or a college that is accredited by an unrecognized accrediting agency. You may discover have wasted time and money on a degree that will not allow you to obtain a higher degree, or that may prohibit you from obtaining a high-paying job. How do you know when a college is accredited, and what is that accreditation worth?

Accreditation ensures a level of quality within an educational institution. Accreditation also means that your degree is recognized for its value. The problem is that any school might claim that it is accredited, because the use of that word is not regulated. Additionally, a school may claim and hold accreditation, but that accreditation may not be recognized.

This value placed on education through accreditation is an American concept, as other colleges throughout the world often are operated by governments. Colleges and universities in the U.S. are privately owned, therefore a desire for accreditation is important to show potential students that this college or that college offers the best in education. This becomes even more important when you consider less-well-known universities. For example, everyone should know that an institution like Northwestern is accredited. However, a less-known college like Western International University must place more emphasis on their accreditation. It is important to realize that accreditation is entirely voluntary, and that accrediting agencies — like colleges — are run by private, nongovernmental agencies.

The lack of control over accreditation, then, makes this process very risky for the student. For instance, there are no significant national standards for accreditation. What is considered credible in the south may not be credible in the north, and what is credible in one state may not pass muster in another state. Additionally, since accreditation is a voluntary effort for the college, some great schools may need to bypass accreditation because it is an expensive process. Or, they may have applied for accreditation, but may not receive approval until well past your graduation date.

Accreditation may take from six to ten years to complete, as some accrediting agencies want to watch the college’s progress to make sure that the college maintains certain educational standards. The college, once accredited, must maintain its standards or increase the value of education over time. The reason behind this effort is that, once a school is accredited, teams of inspectors visit that school at infrequent intervals to see if that school is keeping up with that agency’s standards.

You might understand why schools would claim accreditation when none is offered, or why they might use an accrediting agency that hands out accreditation like candy. An accredited school usually entices more students than a school that is not accredited, since accreditation means that a degree is worth the time and effort a student puts into it. A school that is not accredited, or one that is accredited by an unrecognized agency, is often suspected as a diploma or degree mill. While you might want this latter type of degree, it won’t get you very far if you want to pursue a higher degree or if you want to obtain a competitive job position.

Since this accreditation situation can prove to be a nightmare, how can you learn if the college of your choice is accredited? And, how can you know if the accrediting agency is worth its salt?

The following resources can help you learn more about the accreditation process as well as provide you with resources to learn more about the schools of your choice. With the use of these resources, you can learn whether or not your choice of college is telling the truth about their educational standards.

  • A concise history of accreditation: This article contains a very condensed but understandable history on accreditation in the U.S. You might learn, from this article, why accreditation can be so confusing.
  • Accreditation in the United States: The U.S. Department of Education provides an overview of accreditation in this country. This table of contents also provides links to resources such as nationally-recognized accrediting agencies.
  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation: The CHEA is about as close as you’ll come to a reliable source of information about colleges and accrediting agencies. They list both reputable agencies and colleges that are accredited by those agencies and supply plenty of other information about accreditation as well.
  • Diploma Mills and Accreditation: Resources and Publications: The U.S. Department of Education provides resources on accrediting and licensing, with information on how to avoid diploma mills.
  • U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education: Use this database to learn if a college is accredited and recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The following information is about the regional accreditation agencies. The U.S. is divided into six geographic regions, and each agency below represents one of those six regions:

While regional accreditation usually is acceptable, you may decide to attend a local college that cannot nor will not find the funds for the cost of a regional accreditation. In some cases, you may find a college that is accredited by an agency that covers junior colleges, private colleges (such as a Christian college), institutional or specialized schools.

If you are unfamiliar with the accrediting agency, however, and it is not listed as one of the regional organizations shown above, or if it is not included in any governmental list — such as the one listed at the U.S. Department of Education for Specialized Accrediting Agencies — then, be wary.

You also can check with the school you might want to attend in the future to learn about the students they accept. You might be surprised at where the students come from — not all MS and PhD degrees come from Ivy-league schools, nor do they garner all the high-paying jobs. Most colleges are happy to share the names of the colleges where students come from, and these lists might help you choose a smaller college to begin you college career.

But, what about online degrees? The recognized accrediting agency for online and distance learning is the DETC, or the Distance Education and Training Council. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS) provides another resource for online degree information. Additionally, any one of the regional accrediting agencies may apply their nod of approval for an online degree, depending upon the source. Other resources include:

  • eLearners: This site offers a way to find online degrees, colleges and on-campus degree programs.
  • Online Education Database (OEDb): This site provides information about online degrees and accreditation. They supply information only about accredited colleges.

No matter where you look to learn more about your chosen college and its accreditation, be sure to check often to learn more about whether that school’s status or the accrediting agency’s status has changed. Your work on the front end will pay off in the long run, when you earn a degree from a college that prides itself on the quality of its education.

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