Online colleges and universities are fast becoming the favorite choice of students who need to fit their education in where it works for them. While this level of flexibility can make earning your degree easier, it's important to understand how and by what agency the online school you're considering is accredited or else you may risk earning a falsely accredited online degree that renders your education worthless to your career.
Simply put, accreditation is a formal and legal statement issued by an accreditation agency that validates the quality and legitimacy of a college or university. Generally, the accreditation criteria used by these agencies to make that determination include course and instructor quality and a careful evaluation of the school's educational standards.
The process of accreditation isn't formally regulated in the United States and the participation of colleges and universities in the process is on a voluntary basis. Unfortunately, the lack of regulation--accreditation agencies are privately owned and operated--has led to a number of accreditation agencies that aren't legitimate.
It takes a good amount of work to determine if that accredited online degree program you're looking at is valid, but it's time well spent. The first step is to find out which agency accredited the schools you're looking at and then crossing any off your list that aren't recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or other well-established educational councils.
The Accreditation Process
Any school that wants accreditation, including online schools, applies for it with an accreditation agency. If the accreditation agency believes the online school is legal and legitimate, it enlists a team--usually made up of academics of accredited institutions--to evaluate the online school based on the agency's accreditation criteria.
The process is far from short and some accreditation agencies continue to observe the online school's operation for a couple of years before accrediting it. Accreditation is all or nothing--an online school either has it or they don't, although they may be labeled by an accreditation agency as a candidate for accreditation.
If the online school you're considering offers federal student aid, then you know the school is properly accredited, as accreditation from a recognized accreditation agency is a requirement of the federal student aid program.
While there are general guidelines for online school accreditation, it's not a formally regulated process. The guidelines aren't national, typically vary from state to state and are often discipline specific (e.g., criteria for medical programs differ from business administration). Before you register for online school make sure you've done your accreditation homework. Not all accreditation agencies are legitimate.
The best way to determine the legitimacy of prospective online schools' accreditation is to look at the accreditation agency that provided it. Generally speaking, you want the online school's accreditation agency:
- To be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council on Higher Education or, you're applying to an international online school, by the country's national education agency
- Have the list of schools it accredits listed in publications like the International Handbook of Universities, the World Education or Country Series and/or the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook
- Evaluating Online School Accreditation
Once you've determined that your online school is accredited by a legitimate accreditation agency, you need to know whether the online school's degree program you intend to pursue will further your career once you've completed it. Just because an online school has an excellent academic program and legitimate accreditation, it doesn't mean your credits will be transferable to other schools, whether it's another online school or not; that bachelor's of administration in business you just earned may not qualify you to move onto a master's degree.
If you're pursuing studies in a specific discipline, like medicine, your online school and its accreditation may need to be approved by your state's licensing agency or exam board. If these entities exclude online schools, you'll need to make other plans to continue your education or change your career goals.
Finally, if an online education program is recommended by a professional licensing board, then the online school's accreditation is valid and the program is worth your time, effort and money.