Back when Lauren Marrett wanted to be an art major, she didn't care much about whether her school was accredited or by whom.
It was the quality of her art portfolio that mattered, she thought, not the reputation of her college.
She enrolled in a for-profit online college lacking regional accreditation. But six months into her schooling, she started to get nervous about how employers would view her school.
"I started to think, 'Art is a competitive field and I need a backup plan,'" says the 23-year-old, who eventually transferred to the University of Illinois--Springfield, a college with solid academic credentials. "I wanted to go online and have it be a legitimate school."
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With a little bit of Google research, Marrett got to the bottom of a problem that plagues many online students: how to determine whether a school has recognized accreditation - verification by an outside, legitimate authority that a college or university provides an education that meets certain standards.
Discovering whether your school has a stamp of approval can be a painstaking process, but it's an important one, experts say. Many colleges and universities won't accept transfer credits from schools without recognized accreditation and employers often won't pay for their employees to attend them.
"When searching for a university that offers online courses, students must inquire about accreditation," says Susan Aldridge, a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Accreditation doesn't guarantee quality, but does provide more assurance that there is oversight regarding the instruction and their authority to issue degrees."
During the typical accreditation process, a nongovernmental body conducts reviews and site visits to assess faculty, student support services, finance and facilities, curricula and other factors. There are so many so-called "accreditation mills" - groups that will accredit schools using minimum standards - out on the Internet that it can be particularly easy for online students to get involved with schools that lack legitimacy, experts say.
"They have very misleading names. They sound like they are these wonderful institutions but they are not," says Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA. "This is especially a problem for international students. We take our complex higher education system for granted. Someone will see something called 'U.S. University' and assume it's okay, but it's not. It's just a degree."
To see whether an accrediting agency is legitimate, students should check to see if it's recognized either by the council or the U.S. Department of Education.
Both groups investigate accreditors to ensure they are using appropriate standards when they are evaluating schools. But students can only receive federal student aid from schools accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. government.
The council, a private sector group, publishes a list of accrediting organizations recognized by both it and the federal government.
The federal government recognizes seven regional accreditors, which evaluate schools in certain parts of the country, while the council recognizes six.
Both groups also recognize fewer than a dozen national accreditors, such as the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation and the Distance Education and Training Council Accrediting Commission, which evaluate faith-based schools or career-oriented programs. Many religious institutions have regional accreditation as well.
Students who take courses from nationally accredited universities may have difficulty transferring their credits to regionally accredited schools, since most regionally accredited universities do not accept transfer credits from those schools, according to Aldridge.
"State universities and private nonprofit universities are regionally accredited," says Aldridge. "This is the most desirable accreditation because students taking courses at one regionally accredited university will be more likely to transfer their credits to another similar institution."
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Students should also check the council's list to see whether reputable professional associations accredit their specific program, says Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, which advocates for effective technology use in higher education.
Industry groups such as the American Bar Association, the American Dental Association and others offer specialized accreditation for individual programs, he says.
If students don't check their programmatic accreditation, he says they run the risk of not getting hired after graduation.
Finally, online students should beware of schools touting "international accreditation," since the council and the federal government don't recognize any international accrediting bodies, Eaton says.
Schools often list accreditation on their websites. If they don't list their credentials, experts suggest students call and ask.
"I think the information is there, you just have to have the motivation to go find it and back yourself up," says Marrett, the University of Illinois--Springfield student. "You don't want to walk into a job interview and get laughed out of the room because you went to a joke of a school."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.