Guide to Accredited Online Colleges

Enrolling in an online class or school seems to be a straightforward way to earn a degree. After all, you can do all of your class work on your own time from home, which is a luxury for students who have to juggle working and taking care of their families. However, choosing the right school has always been a very research-intensive process. One of the most important things a student must consider when investigating a school is the quality of their academic programs. Many traditional schools throughout the United States have decades of history to prove their quality, but that may not be the case for newer schools that offer online programs. With so many schools offering degrees of all levels, how can you tell if the school you're considering is a respected institution? The answer is accreditation.

What is accreditation?

For starters, students can find a list of accredited online colleges from various sources, including that website and the U.S. Department of Education's database tool. Accreditation is the affirmation that a school's programs are of a high enough quality to be approved by the education world, according to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSACS), a U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting agency. The accrediting process is, in part, a self-assessment that examines how the parts of an institution work together to meet the needs of students. The overall goal of accreditation is to show that an institution is critically evaluating its vision, strategies, programs, and resources to improve a student's education experience.

Why is accreditation important?

It's no coincidence that the rapid improvement in technology has increased participation in online education. In fact, more than 6.1 million students enrolled in at least one online course in the fall 2010 semester, which was an increase of 560,000 students from the previous year, according to the Sloan Consortium, a non-profit organization that advocates for online education. In addition, 65% of higher education institutions consider online courses a critical part of their long-term strategies.

Accreditation is important because it shows a school meets or exceeds a certain standard of quality, it helps students determine if a school is acceptable for enrollment, it helps other institutions in determining if they'll accept transfer credits, and it shows employers if a job candidate is qualified, according to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). Those who receive a degree from an unaccredited university may have a difficult time using their degree to get a job or to pursue more advanced degrees because their credits may not be recognized by another institution. Graduates of certain degree programs may also need to sit for certification exams, and they are only eligible to do so if they have a degree from an accredited university. For example, this is the case for those enrolled in nursing programs who need to take the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN to gain nursing licensure. Additionally, federal financial aid is only given to students who attend accredited colleges or universities, according to ACICS.

However, a school may say it's accredited, but it may not meet the standard of education that other accrediting agencies require. Some online institutions that claim they're accredited even confer degrees for life experience or allow people to buy a degree outright, though such practices are hardly legitimate. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) calls these institutions "diploma mills," or schools that offer degrees without the proper credentials. In some cases, these schools say they're approved by an accrediting agency, but that agency may be bogus, according to the BBB. All accrediting agencies must be approved of by the U.S. Secretary of Education. To avoid a diploma mill, the BBB suggests you watch out for schools that have names similar to other more well-known universities, and just because a school's website ends in ".edu" doesn't mean it's a legitimate school. Finally, if you're unsure, ask a registrar at another university to see if credits from the school you're looking into will transfer.

It's important to note that an unaccredited school may still offer high-quality educational programs. If a school is new, it may have not had enough time to complete the accreditation process. Some theological schools may also be qualified for accreditation, but decline it because of religious reasons.

How can I check the accreditation status of a school?

One of your best resources is the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) website, which allows you to search by the institution. In a school's profile, you'll find its address, whether it's a private or public university, graduation and retention rates, and its accreditation status. The website will also show you what accrediting agency approves of the institution, how long it has been accredited for, and if the school holds specialized accreditation for any of its academic programs. The NCES only lists accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. However, if you wanted to investigate further, you may be able to check the accrediting agency's website to see if it has a list of accredited schools. You can find a database of nationally recognized accrediting institutions at the U.S. Secretary of Education's website.

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