Accreditation of Online College Degree Programs: What to Know

When it comes to pursuing an online degree, it’s important to select a legitimate program offering marketable credentials.

A key indicator of legitimacy, experts say, is accreditation, a process conducted by an outside authority to ensure that a school and specific degree program — whether on campus, online or blended — meet certain standards of quality. Though it’s voluntary, accreditation has several benefits and typically validates a program to other colleges and universities as well as employers.

Schools must also be accredited by a “nationally recognized” accrediting agency for students to receive federal financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

[Read: Financial Aid for Online Programs: What to Expect.]

Accreditation is all about “quality assurance,” says Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities.

“The key point is that by an institution being accredited, it’s not just that it becomes a link to federal financial aid for that university and the families and students, it means that there have been professionals that have evaluated it and it’s gone through a certain review process to assure that it’s a quality program,” she says.

Here are some key facts experts say prospective students should know about accreditation of online degree programs.

Why Does an Online Program’s Accreditation Matter?

Most employers — especially those unfamiliar with online learning — will want to verify that a job candidate’s online degree comes from an accredited program, experts say. In addition, transferring credits is common among online learners, experts say, and credits earned in accredited programs are more likely to be accepted by other schools.

The consequences of earning a degree from an unaccredited institution can be costly. Certain professions won’t grant licensure or certification if a degree is not from an accredited school, Gellman-Danley says. Legitimate online degree programs are accredited by agencies recognized by either the Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation, known as CHEA.

Discerning the legitimacy of a program should be top of mind for prospective students, says Terry Brown, vice president of academic innovation and transformation at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“If students are looking for an online degree program, that should be their No. 1 question,” Brown says. “What is the accreditation agency? And then, beware that it’s not an alphabet soup, that these are indeed reputable higher education accrediting agencies.”

There are more than two dozen institutional accrediting agencies recognized by CHEA and the Department of Education, with many more programmatic accreditors.

Accreditation may not be as vital for a student seeking a “micro-credential,” which is a short, focused credential for experience in in-demand skills, says Jennifer Mathes, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, which helps institutions identify quality standards for online learning programs. Those students should still ensure that their courses lead to a legitimate credential or certification, she says.

“If they want a full degree, then it’s incredibly important to make sure that their program is accredited, because that is then recognized by employers,” she says. “If an employer sees that the degree is from a diploma mill, they’re not going to accept it as a legitimate degree. I think that is critical.”

[Read: How to Make the Most of Virtual College Tours.]

How Do Programs Get Accredited?

Accreditation is a “collegial process based on self-assessment and peer-assessment,” says CHEA president Cynthia Jackson-Hammond. It often involves a self-review, requiring institutions to provide evidence that they satisfy set standards, and a site visit, generally by a team including faculty and administrators from similar institutions and practitioners in the field chosen by the accreditor to check those claims, experts say.

Schools are then evaluated on a number of criteria, including but not limited to factors like teaching and learning; job placement of graduates; the school’s finances and facilities; the quality of individual programs and faculty; faculty-to-student ratio and how the school is governed. Accreditors also look to see if schools have a mission and strategic plan and whether or not they’re following them, experts say.

All of these factors are analyzed to determine whether institutions are delivering “quality experiences for student success,” Jackson-Hammond says.

Accreditors monitor programs and institutions continuously to ensure they continue to meet standards, expert say. Programs are re-accredited every several years, depending on the accrediting body. Additionally, accreditors must be re-accredited by the Department of Education every five years, Gellman-Danley says.

“We voluntarily participate in this accreditation process,” Brown says. “It’s very important that that process has integrity and it remains in the hands of the institutions rather than be monitored by some external agency. We participate in our own accreditation process.”

What Are the Different Kinds of Accreditation for Online Programs?

Online learners should ensure that a program has both institutional and programmatic accreditation, Gellman-Danley says. Institutional accreditation applies to the entire university, while programmatic or “specialized” accreditation focuses on particular degrees, departments or schools — including those offered as online programs.

Not every program at a university has programmatic accreditation, however — it depends on the school and industry standards for the discipline. Students should look for programs that are accredited as well as the institution, Gellman-Danley says.

Experts say expectations about quality aren’t lower just because a program is online.

“It’s important to understand that when an institution offers an online program, it must meet the same academic qualities and standards, whether or not it’s online or face-to-face,” Jackson-Hammond says.

However, there are steps an accreditor takes to ensure that these programs meet the specific needs of online learners, Mathes says. They might look at how student services function and how students and faculty interact.

[READ: 10 Affordable Online Colleges for Out-of-State Students.]

How Can I Tell if an Online Program Is Accredited?

Prospective students shouldn’t assume that just because an institution “presents a good face online” it means they’re accredited, Brown says. Accreditation information is often listed on an online program’s website — a good place to start researching, experts say. “Put in the keyword ‘accreditation,’ and it will come up whether or not they are accredited,” Jackson-Hammond says.

Experts also say to beware of so-called “accreditation mills,” or online groups that accredit schools under minimal standards. Confirm the accreditor is recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education.

Prospective students can search CHEA’s directory of accredited universities or the Department of Education’s list. Students shouldn’t hesitate to ask school officials about accreditation as well, experts say.

Prospective students should also be aware of any warning signs that might indicate the school is not legitimate or might be in danger of losing its accreditation. Schools that are at risk of losing accreditation are typically required to publish that information on their website, “so prospective students should always investigate before applying,” Mathes says.

She says students should also be cautious of schools that seem “predatory in nature” and are more focused on making money than on the students, because those could be a scam. Most accreditors are looking for that as well, she says.

Students in specialized programs like nursing or other medical fields should ask about placement rates for clinicals and practicums, Mathes says. Schools that have a hard time placing students would be “a huge red flag that the school is in trouble,” she says, “because even the community does not respect the school.”

It’s rare for schools to lose accreditation, experts say, and they’re often given plenty of warning to fix any issues before that happens. But experts say prospective students should still be vigilant when vetting their potential school and aware of any potential red flags.

“For many institutions, the signs are there,” Gellman-Danley says.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. NewsPaying for Online Education center.

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