Complete Guide to Online College Accreditation: What to Look For and What to Avoid

Here's our guide to accredited online colleges.

Source: Flickr user 42106306@N00 .

One of the first things that many people will tell you when you begin to research and consider going to school online is that you need to look into accredited online colleges. This is because the accreditation and accrediting body tell you a great deal about the reputation of a degree-granting institution and what you can expect after completing your degree program. So here is your complete guide to understanding accredited online colleges. That includes red flags to look out for, and how to determine legitimacy if you’re unsure.

What is accreditation, and why does it matter?

According to Merriam-Webster, “accredit” is defined as: “to recognize (an educational institution) as maintaining standards that qualify the graduates for admission to higher or more specialized institution or for professional practice.”

That recognition leads to a better reputation, which will ultimately directly impact the way future employers or graduate programs view your degree.

We will get into the specifics of all of the many types of accreditation shortly. But, the important thing to know is that the accreditation an institution receives can greatly affect your future.

If your program is not with accredited online colleges by a recognized accrediting body, many employers and especially graduate programs, will not accept your degree as much more than a very expensive piece of paper.

So how do you know if the accreditation your program is claiming is not only reputable but real?

Research the Accrediting Body

Accrediting bodies are private agencies.

This means that anyone is able to set up shop and say that they are an accrediting body. Luckily, it is pretty easy to determine legitimacy. Both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), an organization that accredits accreditation agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) have lists of which accrediting bodies they recognize.

If you can’t find the accrediting body that the institution you are looking into on one of these websites, you need to do more research into the institution to determine its reputation and credibility.

Regional vs. National Accreditation

There are two main types of accrediting bodies–national and regional. As the names imply, this classification refers to  the jurisdiction of the accrediting body:

  • Regional accreditation agencies generally offer accreditation to all kinds of institutions within a geographic region
  • National accreditation agencies generally offer accreditation to a specific kind of specialization of an institution around the country (e.g., nursing or technical programs)

Regional accrediting bodies are usually more reliable and reputable than national accrediting bodies.

This partially has to do with the fact that students generally transfer between schools within the same geographic region. Regional accrediting agencies insure that requirements are similar enough to one another. This is so transferring students aren’t too heavily penalized. Also, regional agencies are also better able to keep track of the programs they accredit. They have fewer institutions in their region than a national accrediting agency.

Don’t count out a nationally accredited school.

You just need to take a look further into their accreditation. Check to see if the USDE recognizes the accrediting agency. It is one of the best ways to determine if the program is legitimate.

It is also important to remember that most regionally accredited colleges and universities (such as larger state universities) often do not accept credits from nationally accredited schools.

If you are looking to further your education after this degree, or are considering transferring, it may not be worth the time and money to attend a nationally accredited school as opposed to a regionally accredited school.

Specialized vs Programmatic Accreditation

Some programs require specific accreditation because they pertain to a specific area of study — like nursing or law

This is a type of accreditation, called “specialized” or “programmatic” accreditation, is given to a specialized professional or graduate program. This is largely because of the specific requirements for graduates from these programs. For example, many nursing programs are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) which is a national accrediting body specializing in nursing programs. Other examples include the American Bar Association (ABA) which accredits law programs or the American Dental Association (ADA) which accredits dental programs.