10 Facts About Accreditation in Online Degree Programs

Consider Whether a Program Is Accredited

Accreditation is a process conducted by an outside authority to ensure a school and degree program -- whether online, on campus or blended -- meet certain standards of quality. Though it's voluntary, accreditation has many benefits and tells employers and other institutions a program is legitimate.

Here are 10 facts to consider about accreditation when selecting an online degree program.

1. There are two levels of accreditation.

Prospective online students should usually confirm that both a program and the university have specialized and institutional accreditation, respectively, experts say. Specialized, or programmatic, accreditation is for particular degrees, departments or schools, while institutional applies to an entire university.

Not every program, however, has specialized accreditation. That varies depending on the university and industry standards.

2. Accreditation status is generally published online.

A program should be accredited by agencies recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, experts say.

Accreditation status is typically published on a program's website, Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, a group aiming to improve online higher education, told U.S. News in 2016. Prospective online students can double-check through the department or the council, or by contacting the school.

3. Not all programs are accredited.

Accreditation is important for online students given the number of fraudulent programs on the internet. If something seems too good to be true -- abnormally low tuition, for instance -- check the accreditation, experts say.

Prospective online students should also avoid so-called "accreditation mills," or groups that accredit schools under minimum standards, by confirming the accreditor is recognized by the DOE or CHEA.

4. Programs at reputable schools are usually accredited.

It's usually safe to assume an online program at a respected, well-known university will have both institutional and specialized accreditation, experts say, but it's still a good idea to confirm before applying.

While it's not common, "Even good schools sometimes do things, or have things happen, that may jeopardize their accreditation," Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships for OLC, told U.S. News.

5. Employers might verify a program's accreditation.

Especially for lesser-known schools, many employers will verify that a candidate's online college has accreditation, recruiters say. Regional accreditation is usually preferred over national accreditation, which is often a less rigorous process, one expert told U.S. News.

While accreditation doesn't guarantee quality, it ensures "there is oversight regarding the instruction and their authority to issue degrees," Susan Aldridge, now president of Drexel University Online, told U.S. News in 2013.

6. Accreditation helps ensure credits transfer.

Choosing a school with regional accreditation, which includes most state universities and private nonprofits, also increases the likelihood that credits will transfer to other similar institutions, Aldridge said.

That's particularly important for online students, who often enroll with some education already completed, experts say.

7. Many for-profits are nationally accredited.

For-profit, online programs are more likely to have national rather than regional accreditation -- though that's not the case at some major for-profits, Kevin Kinser, professor and head of the education policy studies department at Pennsylvania State University, told U.S. News.

"I think it's fair to say, if schools are not regionally accredited, it's because they couldn't get regionally accredited, and so they're only nationally accredited," Kinser says.

8. Accreditation may affect online students' financial aid.

Like those on campus, online students can receive federal financial aid -- if their school has institutional accreditation, Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities, told U.S. News earlier this year. In most cases, grants, loans and work-study are available for online students.

9. Accreditation is rigorous and continuous.

Accreditation usually involves a self-review and a site visit by faculty or administrators at similar universities and practitioners in the field. For online programs, evaluators might access online classes and interact with students virtually, says Mathes of the Online Learning Consortium.

Agencies then monitor programs and institutions to ensure they continue to meet standards, and programs are typically re-accredited every several years.

10. Online and on-campus programs are held to the same standard.

Expectations aren't lower just because a program is online; however, an accreditor might take extra steps to ensure a program meets online students' specific needs, Mathes says.

For example, she says, they might determine how well students and faculty interact in the virtual classroom and how student services function for remote learners.

Learn More About Online Education

Find more advice about accreditation and how to choose an online degree program on the Online Learning Lessons blog, and get our complete rankings of the Best Online Programs.

For additional tips and information on how to navigate online program admissions, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter or Facebook.

Jordan Friedman is an online education editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at jfriedman@usnews.com.

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