Online College Accreditation

There are thousands of traditional and online schools across the country. Most of them offer a degree program in the subject you want to study. But there are no guarantees—how can you tell which schools offer a program that will provide you with the basic knowledge you need to get a job in your industry? How do you know the school you’re choosing offers a rigorous program that provides you with the basic skill set you need?

There is no united governing body that inspects schools and ensures that curriculums measure up to academic standards. There is, however, a network of accreditors in the U.S. that assure basic standards are met in both traditional and online institutions.

How Accreditation Works

Accrediting agencies—usually comprised of a network of participating colleges, academics, or professionals in the school’s industry—set basic academic standards that colleges are expected to live up to. This independent body reviews the school’s teaching methods, curricula, teacher credentials, and other factors to ensure the basic standards are met. If the school meets the standards, the accrediting agency issues a certificate of accreditation.

That certificate allows all other schools, employers, and the world at large to know that this institution is academically rigorous. Accredited schools will often accept transfer credits from each other, and employees see degrees from accredited schools as a reliable indicator of certain skills. Without accreditation, there would be no way to tell whether the online school offers a thorough grounding in the necessary subjects.

Accrediting the Accreditors

There are hundreds of different accrediting bodies in the United States. Most are perfectly legitimate. However, some are non-legitimate: they don’t uphold rigorous academic standards, and often they don’t investigate schools before issuing accreditation certificates. These agencies are typically formed to lend credence to diploma mills, which can pose as legitimate schools both in online and traditional academic settings.

There are two agencies in the U.S. that sort the legitimate accreditors from the scams. One is the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). While the U.S. government does not take an active hand in accrediting schools, it does maintain a list of recognized accreditors known to be authoritative in setting and evaluating academic standards.

The other is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a group of over 3,000 universities acting as a regulatory agency overseeing accreditors.

Both of these agencies maintain lists of legitimate accreditors; you can find the USDE’s here and the CHEA’s here. An accrediting agency may be on one or both of these lists to be legitimate. If you have doubts about a school’s accreditation, be sure to check it against these lists for verification.

Types of Accreditors

Regional accreditors. There are six major regional accreditors in the United States, and each is recognized by both the USDE and the CHEA. Their standards typically include a solid grounding in the humanities, and they accredit entire universities rather than individual programs or departments within schools. These accreditors are the most widely recognized in academia, and their certification carries the most weight. They accredit both online and traditional schools.

These accreditors certify schools within their geographic area, regardless of type or subject. Following is a complete list:

• New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)

• Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA)

• Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC)

• Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC-ACSCU)

• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

National accreditors. National accreditors recognize schools and specific programs or departments based on professional criteria applicable to certain industry standards. Because of this, they are sometimes referred to as career, professional, specialized or private agencies.

Because they are usually focused more on practical than academic standards, they are typically not as universally accepted as regional accreditations—although they can carry significant weight within their industries. Still, a regionally accredited school may not accept transfer credits from a school with only national recognition. To get around this, many schools have regional accreditation for the entire organization and national accreditation for certain individual programs.

National accreditors certify schools located anywhere within the U.S., unlike regional accreditors. There are hundreds of national accrediting agencies for a wide variety of industries, and they are monitored and certified by the USDE and CHEA.

Religious accreditors. Some schools with a strong religious affiliation believe that regional or national accreditation standards are incompatible with certain tenets of their religious teachings. Specialized accreditation agencies serve to ensure faith-based schools meet academic standards without compromising religious beliefs. Regional accrediting agencies may not accept transfer credits from schools with a religious accreditation.

Following are the four religious accrediting agencies recognized by the USDE, CHEA or both:

• Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Commission on Accreditation

• Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)

• Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS)

• Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) Accreditation Commission

Accreditation assures the validity and rigor of academic degree programs, both online and in traditional settings. Many online schools have regional accreditation, ensuring they live up to the same standards traditional schools comply with. Look for this or a national or religious accreditation from your school, or it may not offer a legitimate degree.