Guide to Accredited Online Colleges

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Intro | Accredited Online Colleges by State

What is Accreditation?

In short, accreditation ensures that an institution or degree program meets certain standards, and guarantees that students who attend an accredited school or complete an accredited program receive a high quality education. Despite popular belief, the accreditation process is not run by the U.S. Department of Education; instead, it is operated by several private accrediting agencies. These agencies establish a type of “grading rubric” that must be satisfied in order for a school or program to be accredited. Schools are not required to become accredited, but if an institution applies for accreditation, its school or programs are reviewed and evaluated by an accrediting agency based on several factors, including the state of the campus (if applicable), the training and knowledge of the faculty, and the methods by which education is delivered. Schools that meet the accrediting agency’s standards are given accreditation status. Due to the “stamp of approval” that all schools receive when they become accredited, we recommend that anyone looking to go to college make sure the institution and/or program they choose is accredited to ensure that they receive a higher quality education.

It is important to note that even campus-based colleges receive accreditation. In fact, the same accrediting agencies that accredit traditional schools like the University of Texas and Harvard University also accredit online institutions. But while every school or program that is accredited has been evaluated and approved, this does not mean that every one of these has the same kind of accreditation. There are two main types of accreditation: institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation applies to the entire school, whereas specialized accreditation only applies to specific programs that are offered by an institution.

Institutional accreditation is offered either as national or regional accreditation. National accreditation is reserved for specific types of schools, such as trade schools, religious schools, and online schools that share a common theme. Therefore, national accreditation allows nontraditional schools to be compared with other similar schools. The U.S. Department of Education provides information on all of the approved national accrediting agencies. Regional accreditation, on the other hand, is based on the geographical location of the school. When a college or university applies for regional accreditation, they are evaluated by the agency covering the region of the country the school is in. For example, schools in southern states like Texas and Florida are regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, whereas schools in northeastern states like Massachusetts and Connecticut are regionally accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides information on the six regional accrediting organizations in the U.S.

But accreditation is not limited to the United States. In fact, many accrediting agencies evaluate schools in other countries as well, including Puerto Rico and Canada. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “Although many recognized agencies carry out accrediting activities outside the United States, these actions are not within the legal authority of the Department of Education to recognize, are not reviewed by the Department, and the Department does not exercise any oversight over them.” This means that the process of accrediting schools in other countries is not necessarily held to the same level of regulation as it is in the U.S.

Institutional accreditation, in addition to ensuring high quality, enables the students of the accredited college to receive federal financial aid. Therefore, if a school is not accredited, the students who choose to enroll there cannot receive any federal financial aid. This is a major incentive for schools to gain accreditation because the lack of federal financial aid can be a deterrent for numerous potential students who need that form of tuition assistance.

But schools can also receive specialized accreditation as a replacement for institutional accreditation, or seek it as an addition to their school-wide accreditation. Specialized accreditation is based on specific fields of study or individual programs that are offered by an institution, such as nursing, accounting, and law. This accreditation evaluates a program and ensures that a student who completes the program will have received all the necessary information and training, and be prepared to work in the industry or field in which they were studying. The Department of Education also provides a list of the approved specialized accrediting agencies.

Accreditation also helps a college or university determine whether or not to accept the transfer of credits from another institution. If a student is attempting to transfer credits that were earned from an accredited institution, the school receiving the transferred credits knows that the institution and/or program from which the credits were earned have been evaluated and approved by a recognized accrediting agency. But if the credits are coming from an unaccredited institution, the school has no way of determining the quality of the school’s curriculum and therefore may not allow that credit to transfer over.

Determining a school’s accreditation status is best way to make sure that the education a student receives by attending an institution or completing a program is of high quality. Therefore, we recommend that all students research the school or program they are considering, and ensure that it is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.

Why Accredited Online Colleges Matter

Several aspects deserve consideration when students begin mulling over the myriad colleges and universities to choose from. There are more choices than ever, as students can opt to attend brick-and-mortar campuses or online schools. Prospective students must ask themselves a series of questions: Do they prefer online, hybrid, or traditional programs? Do their schedules demand the flexibility and accessibility that are the core advantages of online programs, or do they crave the in-person interaction with professors and peers that only the classroom can provide? While all of these questions are significant, there is one factor that demands consideration before any other. Before students begin answering questions about program and class preferences, they must ensure that their schools of interest are accredited by legitimate accreditation bodies.

What is Accreditation?

Accrediting agencies, which are regional or national educational associations, assess the quality of education that schools provide. As reliable authorities, they develop evaluation criteria and conduct evaluations to assess whether schools uphold certain academic standards. All accredited online colleges and brick-and-mortar schools have met a national or regional agency’s criteria, and are therefore accredited by that agency.

Accreditation is entirely voluntary, but students who attend accredited schools can rest assured that their learning institution is meeting at least the minimal standards of quality. While the U.S. Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions or programs, it does maintain a list of accrediting agencies and accredited institutions. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also maintains a database of more than 7,800 degree-granting and non-degree-granting institutions. You can search CHEA’s database for accredited institutions or programs by school name, state, or institutional accreditor. Students should research a school’s accreditation status before enrolling in a degree program. Accreditation protects students, ensuring that they receive a legitimate and recognized education.

However, accreditation is not only a tool for prospective students. It also lets institutions monitor, assess, and improve the quality of the educational instruction they provide. Since accreditation must be renewed and the standards used to measure educational quality are constantly evolving, schools must set goals to strive for self-improvement; it is possible for a learning institution to lose accreditation. As part of the accreditation process, a school may be required to submit to an institutional examination, peer reviews, visits by the accrediting council, curriculum critiques, and faculty evaluations. A school or program has to be accredited for students to receive federal and state aid, including some grants and loans, as well as for students in certain professional fields to take state licensure examinations.

Why It Matters

Although the review process is detailed and often complicated, unaccredited schools that do not apply or fail to receive accreditation status should serve as a red flag for students. First, employers likely will not look kindly upon a degree from an unaccredited college or university. Accreditation provides much-needed assurance to employers that students actually earned their degree by completing required course work. While it may not matter to some employers, most candidates are likely to be hurt by possessing a degree that came from an unaccredited university.

For students who plan on pursuing further education, holding a degree from an accredited university is essential. Most colleges and universities will not accept transfer credits from a school that is not accredited. Students who take a few classes at an unaccredited institution and then transfer to another school may not be able to transfer those hours. This also applies to students who obtain an associate degree and plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree, as well as students with a bachelor’s degree who want to attend graduate school. In some cases, regionally accredited schools will not accept students who previously attended nationally accredited schools, based on the rationale that regionally accredited schools meet higher academic standards. But check with your prospective schools first because this is not always the case.

However, a school or program that is not accredited might not be completely devoid of any academic value whatsoever. Students who seek classes for vocational training or personal enrichment may not need to value accreditation so heavily. There are many types of enrichment programs that provide quality information and enhance skill set. These types of programs can cover a wide range of areas, including technology, writing, and photography. In short, individuals who do not plan to transfer credits, earn a widely-recognized degree, or pursue a career that requires a license to practice may enroll in unaccredited programs that are beneficial in other ways. In addition, some perfectly legitimate schools may not hold accreditation because they are still new or for religious reasons.

Beware of Diploma Mills

Aside from unaccredited institutions, students should also avoid diploma mills. Also known as degree mills, these “schools” operate without the supervision of state or professional agencies, granting diplomas that are fraudulent and worthless. They offer students degrees for a fee without requiring them to complete any real course work. Some simply mail students fake degrees, while others require students to complete an insubstantial amount of course work to earn their degree. Students should beware of schools that grant degrees for “work or life experience,” do not require attendance, offer degrees overnight or in a very short period of time, charge a flat fee, or advertise through spam and pop-ups. Keep in mind that a fake degree is not only a waste of money, but will not get anyone very far in the career and professional world, as stated by the U.S. Department of Education. Students can protect themselves against diploma mills by finding out as much about an institution as possible before committing to enroll with a learning institution.

How to Know If a School Is Accredited

You know accreditation is important – it helps distinguish legitimate programs from ones that, in the worst-case scenario, are fly-by-night operations that sell you a meaningless diploma. But how do you know if a school is accredited? And, even if it’s not accredited, if it’s still a program worth pursuing? There are several ways to find out. You just need to do your homework.

Checking a school’s credentials is more important than ever. With the rise in online education opportunities, providing more and more people with access to higher education, there’s also unfortunately been a rise in diploma mills as well. These are institutions that literally sell you a degree, diploma, or certificate, and offer the allure of a quick, easy degree in a matter of days or weeks. The problem is that they offer no real education, rendering the degree you receive completely worthless. Some claim that you can earn a degree based solely on “life experience.” In addition, there are ones that, as the Higher Education Opportunity Act notes, lack accreditation by a recognized accrediting agency. These are often the most deceptive diploma mills, as they can convincingly pose as legitimate schools to trick prospective students. But no matter the scenario, any degree or certificate you receive from a degree mill will not be recognized by other schools or employers.

Accreditation is often associated with online schools, but it is an important detail to know for both online and brick-and-mortar educational institutions. And, thanks to the Internet, finding out a school’s accreditation status takes just takes a few clicks of the mouse. The most obvious place to look first is the school’s website. Any reputable school will have an area that discusses its credentials, including the agency it’s accredited by and when it was last accredited. Good schools aren’t going to hide this information, so if you can’t find it, that should raise a red flag. Similarly, if a school claims to be accredited, but doesn’t reveal who did the actual accrediting, that’s another warning sign.

Even if a school tells you it’s accredited, it’s never safe to assume that is the case – the school could simply be lying. To find out for sure, we recommend confirming a school’s credentials against the website of the accrediting agency the school is citing, as well as using the U.S. Department of Education (USDE)’s database of accredited institutions, where you can search for accreditation information by inputting the school’s name or the name of the accrediting agency.College Navigator, another USDE-operated site, is another excellent resource where you can research accreditation status by school, state, and program. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), an association of degree-granting colleges and universities that recognizes accrediting organizations, also provides a database of institutions and programs accredited by U.S. accrediting organizations it has recognized. If a school is accredited, you’ll find it on these sites.

If you still have your doubts about an institution’s credibility, we recommend consulting the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general’s office to make sure the school is operating legally, and if anyone has filed a complaint. We also recommend checking that your school of choice has proper state or federal licensing to operate. The National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools lists contact information for state licensing agencies.

Lastly, once you determine a school’s accreditation, it’s important to check that the accrediting agency itself is also legitimate and not an accreditation mill or simply made up. For that, you can use both the USDE’s List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies, or the CHEA’s online database of recognized regional and specialized accrediting agencies. If the association comes up on either or both sites, it’s legitimate.

But even though accreditation is important, an important thing to keep in mind is that in some cases, there may be reputable institutions that choose not to be accredited. To help sort the reputable schools from the diploma mills, the USDE recommends these Better Business Bureau warning signs:

  • Be wary of schools that promise degrees that can be earned in a few weeks or short months. Real college programs will require much more time and effort.
  • Be wary of schools that offer college credits for life experience. While some reputable institutions may offer 2-4 credits for life experience for those who have been working in the field for years, good schools will not offer any more than that because they still expect you to earn your credits through your courses.
  • Be wary of schools if tuition is paid on a per-degree basis. Reputable institutions charge by credit hours, course, or semester.
  • Be wary of schools that offer little or no interaction with professors. While you won’t ever have face-to-face contact with your instructors in an online class, you will receive emails and other communication from them. Don’t trust a school that doesn’t allow this.
  • Be wary of schools that have names similar to well-known, reputable universities. This could simply be a trick to make students think they are enrolling in a good school.
  • Be wary of schools that have addresses that are P.O. box numbers or suites. Even online institutions should have a real, physical office address.

Sometimes, legitimate institutions offer similar perks as diploma mills, such as allowing you to get credit for life experience, but these perks come with much more restrictions. For instance, to earn life experience credits in a good school, you must have extensive documentation. However, if you are looking at a school that raises several of the red flags mentioned above and it lacks accreditation, we recommend that you think twice about whether or not to apply.

The Process of Earning Accreditation

Contrary to what many people think, the U.S. Department of Education does not actually accredit schools. Instead, the accreditation of colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning is handled by private accrediting agencies, or “private educational associations of regional or national scope,” according to the Department of Education. These accrediting bodies are comprised of committees that conduct a peer review process to determine whether the schools applying for accreditation meet standards of educational effectiveness. The members of these agency committees usually have extensive professional experience working for esteemed public and private schools, education associations, or consumer advocacy initiatives. They review the school’s campus and buildings (if applicable), faculty experience, educational delivery system, and more.

Among the several accrediting agencies currently operating in the United States and abroad, five of them grant accreditation to general professional programs at institutions of higher learning on a national scope. These five agencies are the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), theAccrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools(ACICS), the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSC), the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET), and the Council on Occupational Education (COE). For a school’s accreditation to be legitimate, it must be recognized by not only the Department of Education, but the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as well. Both organization’s websites contain searchable databases with up-to-date, comprehensive lists of accredited institutions.

Among the aforementioned general, national accrediting bodies, the following steps are common for earning accreditation:

Application. An institution pursuing initial accreditation must submit a completed application form and any fees for each facility under review. Some accrediting councils, such as COE, require that an institution first qualify for candidacy before proceeding. Such qualifications may include possession of any mandatory state licenses of operation, or that the institution has been in operation for a specified amount of time prior to applying for accreditation.

Self-evaluation. The school must complete a self-evaluation report or a readiness test detailing its effectiveness and compliance with the agency’s accreditation standards. Examples of effectiveness and readiness compliance include the school’s retention rates, level of graduate satisfaction, and graduation rates. Applicants must also demonstrate the following:

  • Disclosure of its governance and corporate organization, including names of its trustees, directors, administrators, and officers.
  • Integrity through competence, responsibilities and ethical practices. Professional experience of directors and administrators must also be exhibited.
  • Evidence of financial stability.
  • Evidence of professional degrees of faculty members and staff.
  • Standards of ethical relations with students in addition to an availability of guidance services, extracurricular activities and educational programs consistent with the institution’s mission.
  • Admissions, recruitment and credit transfer regulations that adhere to the institution’s mission.
  • Program curricula published in an institutional catalogue with indicated prerequisites and information about credits. Schools should also have a continuous evaluation process in place for curricula, courses and faculty.
  • Measures in place for instruction goals, guidelines, and procedures.
  • Availability of adequate library resources and services.
  • In some instances, institutions are expected to offer institutionally financed grants, scholarships and loans that are legitimate and readily available to students.

On-site evaluation. During the on-site evaluation, students and faculty members are surveyed and curricula guidelines are reviewed. Usually, each member of the on-site evaluation team will provide an individual report of the school’s compliance with the accreditation agency’s standards. Once everything has been reviewed, the accrediting agency will either grant the institution accreditation or deny it. If a school is trying to renew its accreditation, the agency will renew it, withdraw, or suspend it. If accreditation is withdrawn or denied, the institution usually has 30 days to file an appeal in response to the on-site evaluation team’s findings. Team members can respond to the appeal with notes, and those, in addition to any notes from the institution, are taken into consideration by the accrediting agency.

Workshop attendance. In most instances, the institution seeking initial accreditation must have a director or appropriate representative to attend an accreditation workshop or seminar. Often, this will be required before the application is submitted, as is the case with ACCSCT and DETC guidelines, or it can be during the evaluation process, as it is with ACCET’s procedure.

Earning accreditation can take between one and two years, usually dependent on the accuracy of information presented in the initial application. The length of time for the accreditation is up to the discretion of the accrediting agency, but can range from one to six years.

The Process of Losing Accreditation

If your school loses its accreditation while you are enrolled, the consequences can be far-reaching. Attending a school with no accreditation can render your degree worthless to employers, eliminate your eligibility for federal financial aid, and make it difficult to transfer your credits to another school. To avoid this, we recommended that you research an institution’s accreditation prior to enrollment. Also, check into when the school received its accreditation and when it will expire. If you are unable to find this information on the school’s website, it can be found on the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website.

But just how can a school lose its accreditation? Once an institution of higher learning has received accreditation, it is regularly monitored by the accrediting agency. According to the Department of Education, each accredited institution or program is monitored “throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the agency’s standards.” Furthermore, public complaints against an institution that are brought to its accrediting council will be considered, provided the complaint is against the institution’s practices (and not an individual grievance), and the specific standards or criteria that are being violated are detailed in a formal complaint.

There are two types of instances where accreditation can be withdrawn: revocation and suspension. Prior to either course of action, the accrediting body will notify the institution in writing of the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal. In some instances, the accrediting agency can issue the institution a show-cause directive, giving the school an opportunity to disprove in writing why suspension or revocation is unnecessary, or how the offending action resulting in possible suspension or revocation has been corrected. A review by the accrediting council will determine whether or not the directive will be lifted.

Most accrediting agencies, such as the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training, will review any pertinent documentation provided by both the institution and the council’s on-site evaluators. After the review, the council will decide on one of the following courses of action:

  • Determine that the matter is resolved and no further action is required.
  • Request that the institution provide additional information.
  • Issue an order to the institution to show cause as to why its accreditation should not be withdrawn.
  • Withdraw accreditation.

Revocation cannot be appealed, and can occur when an institution ceases operation, fails to pay necessary fees to the council, fails to file a renewal application, or fails to challenge a suspension within 10 days. Another reason for withdrawal may involve failure to report any new changes to business practices or the way the school operates.

The less severe penalty of suspension occurs when an institution fails to meet agency standards and criteria, makes a significant change without notifying the agency, or fails to respond to or cooperate with an on-site evaluation. Unlike revocation, a suspension can be appealed. The process for suspension consists of the following steps:

  1. The accrediting agency must provide written notice prior to proceedings detailing the charges and the standards by which the institution will be judged.
  2. The institution has a meeting before the agency regarding the issues surrounding their suspension.
  3. A decision on the record is made, including a statement detailing the reasons for the decision.
  4. The institution can then file an appeal, in which case the appeal is reviewed and the suspension is either affirmed or withdrawn.

When notified in writing that its accreditation is being revoked, an institution must immediately inform all prospective and enrolled students that its accreditation has been withdrawn. Additionally, the school must remove and delete all references and claims of their accreditation from catalogues and marketing materials within the first 30 days of revocation. Many accrediting agencies, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, will notify the U.S. Department of Education and issue a press release when an institution has lost its accreditation.

Most accrediting bodies, such as Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, have a specified window of time before a school can reapply for its accreditation, while other councils, such as Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, will have a probationary period that will only be lifted once the institution has demonstrated that all issues leading to probation have been corrected.

As a student, it is wise to be wary of any institutions with vague or outdated information about accreditation. If you are suspicious about a school’s accreditation status, contact the accrediting agency associated with your institution for a list of schools currently under investigation or on probation.

Who Accredits the Accreditors?

Accrediting agencies evaluate and set standards for institutions of higher education, helping to reduce fraud by weeding out the diploma mills from legitimate degree-granters. But the field isn’t immune to similar deception, and, as a result, accrediting agencies themselves are regularly evaluated to determine legitimate accreditors from so-called accreditation mills.

Since starting more than a hundred years ago, accreditation has become the norm in higher education and a stamp of approval for those looking to spend their time and money on a legitimate, reputable school. Accreditation mills – associations that are unauthorized or have few (if any) standards – have cashed in on the practice by selling accreditation through the mail, without any rigorous investigation of a school, often offering higher fees for higher ratings. Or, they’re the creation of degree mills themselves looking to make their schools appear reputable. As a result of both practices, students may spend a large amount of money and time and receive neither an education nor a useful degree.

It’s not a lost cause, though, as much like accrediting agencies monitor schools to see if they meet set standards, government and non-profit organizations monitor accrediting agencies to make surethey’re meeting set standards. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are the only two groups that officially recognize accrediting agencies.

Just like accrediting, getting recognition for an accrediting agency is a voluntary process. The USDE’s main focus is to assure that federal student aid funds are being spent on quality courses and programs, so it grants recognition based on an accrediting agency’s attention to an institute’s recruitment and admissions practices, fiscal and administrative capacity, and facilities. The CHEA’s primary purpose is to strengthen academic quality and ongoing quality improvement in courses, programs, and degrees, so it grants recognition based on standards that advance academic quality and encourage needed improvement. The majority of institutions the agency accredits must also be degree-granting.

Fortunately for consumers, these groups don’t keep the names of recognized accrediting agencies to themselves. In fact, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of the accrediting agencies that he or she determines to be reliable, with regional and national institutional accrediting agencies, and specialized accrediting agencies all online. The USDE also recognizesstate agencies for the approval of both vocational and education.

The CHEA publishes its own list of recognized accrediting agencies, with up-to-date directories of regional accrediting agencies and special programmatic accrediting organizations also online.

If an accrediting agency is not recognized by either the USDE or CHEA, that should immediately raise a red flag about the legitimacy of the agency – and any school it has accredited. At the same time, it can take a few years for an accrediting association to meet the necessary standards to become recognized, so additional warning signs include spelling errors of common words (such as “Ametrican” or “psycotherapy”) in the agency’s name; unlisted phone numbers or addresses; and, naturally, if the agency has accredited known diploma mills.

The CHEA also has a list of questions you should ask of any accrediting agency:

  • Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?
  • Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited without those institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?
  • Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by, e.g., USDE or CHEA) when it is not?
  • Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?
  • Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?
  • Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?
  • Is “permanent” accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic review, either by an external body or by the organization itself?
  • Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting organizations?
  • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

If the answer to many of these questions is yes, warns the CHEA, it’s most likely an accreditation mill.

Why Non-Accreditation Is Not Always a Deal-Breaker

Accreditation is the best way for students to determine the standards to which schools are held. An accredited school undergoes self-study, evaluation, and close examination to ensure that it is providing the best possible education. With this in mind, many students check a school’s accreditation as one of the first steps in researching an institution. However, we recommend that you keep in mind that there are many shades of accreditation that go beyond basic institutional accreditation – and that some programs may even opt out of accreditation for some very valid reasons.

States have regulations in place that must be met prior to the operation of a college or university. These regulations ensure that students’ rights will be protected by the university. State licensing is important for campus-based schools and in a few cases, even online schools, such as American Public University System, seek state licensing. However, state licensing is not the same as accreditation. A college or university must meet basic state standards in order to open its doors. In other words, it is a necessity. However, accreditation is not necessary. Instead, it is an extra step that a college or university takes in order to prove the quality of its education after first becoming licensed by the state.

As the article on the function of accreditation mentioned, there are many levels of accreditations, including regional, national, and even international, and some programs, such as business or journalism, can be specifically accredited as well. Accredited institutions are continuously evaluated for improvements and developments. In fact, from the above paragraphs, it may seem as though the best schools will have all of the following: state licensure, institutional accreditation, and program accreditation. However, there are valid reasons for forgoing accreditation. Sometimes, it can be in the students’ best interest to refrain from adhering to the strict standards set in place by accrediting institutions.

According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, sometimes accreditation hinders students’ abilities to choose their own, unique degree paths. The program-specific requirements for accrediting a journalism degree plan prevent students from being able to feasibly complete a double major in order to specifically tailor their degrees. In this instance, “the very same accreditation that attracted [journalism majors] to our school limits their ability to follow certain legitimate paths of study,” Billy Reader wrote in the article. In order to avoid limiting students’ potentials, some schools, such as the University of Notre Dame, have opted not to get program-specific accreditation.

Some private colleges and universities that teach religion can opt to be exempt from state licensure and accreditation. For example, in California, if a degree-granting institution teaches religion and meets the requirements for a religious exemption, it does not need to seek licensure or accreditation. Exemptions vary on a state-wide basis, providing religiously orientated schools an opportunity to teach according to beliefs, rather than state-mandated guidelines. For example, Portland Bible College is not accredited due to religious exemption, as it operates under the leadership of the governing body at City Bible Church, according to its official website. Not wanting to sever this type of connection between school and church, Portland Bible College remains unaccredited because no approved accrediting agency will make “sufficient provision for local church governed colleges,” the website states.

We recommend that all students interested in a college or university check to make sure that a college or university has state licensure and/or accreditation. However, if a university has opted to forgo program accreditation, or if an institution is exempted from licensure, it does not necessarily mean that it does not provide quality education. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and research a program or school if you find it appealing despite the lack of accreditation. It just may be that the university is looking out for its students’ best interests.

All About Specialized Accreditation

Specialized, or programmatic, accreditation is used to ensure that the education you receive from a specific program, department, school, or college within an institution is of high quality. This is different from institutional accreditation, which encompasses an entire school, because specialized accreditation focuses on the particulars of one field of study. Specialized accrediting agencies are experts in their fields and set the bar that programs strive to reach because they know what is required of a professional in that particular field. As such, specialized accrediting agencies often develop accrediting criteria to make sure students are fully prepared to transition into the workplace.

Completing an accredited program guarantees that students have gained the know-how they need to enter their field of choice. Due to this assurance, employers often check to see if job candidates earned their degree from an accredited institution through an accredited program. This means that accreditation isn’t obtained just for an institution to have bragging rights — even though gaining accreditation is something to brag about — it also helps you to successfully transition from being a student to being a professional. We recommend that once you choose a field or industry to pursue, make certain the school and the program holds specialized accredited if applicable.

Not all areas have study have reputable specialized accreditation agencies in place, but many, such as health care, architecture, business, and psychology, do. There is a lot of importance placed on specialized accreditation for these types of fields, even when the institution offering the program is accredited. As mentioned, specialized accreditation is often looked for in addition to institutional accreditation because while institutional accreditation involves a general evaluation of the campus, faculty, and education delivery methods for a school, specialized accreditation is focused on a single area of study. Therefore, even though a student may attend an accredited institution, if the program he or she completes is not accredited, he or she may not acquire the right credentials and struggle with job placement. In fact, many professional positions requiring state or federal licensing require that their employee’s education be from an accredited program, so research the educational requirements and search for an accredited program that matches your findings.

Since there is no governing authority that enforces a standard of education in colleges or universities in the U.S., there are varying degrees of quality. Students should know that accreditation of any type is voluntary. When an institution wants one of their programs, departments, or schools, such as a university’s school of law, to be recognized for being of high quality, they apply for accreditation. Then, an agency that focuses on that particular type of program will come and make an evaluation based on the standards and criteria they have established. The agency will review the course materials, faculty, hands-on training (if applicable), and teaching methods for the program. If the program meets or exceeds the minimum standards the agency has established, they are awarded accreditation.

A good way to check the accreditation status of the school and the program that you are considering is to use College Navigator. This tool allows students to search for accreditation details by school name, program, state, degree level, institution type, and more. For example, if a student types in the name of a university, they can see what agency accredited the school, as well as what programs are accredited and by which specialized agencies.

We suggest that students take their research a step further. These agencies are private organizations, but they must meet the requirements established by the U.S. Department of Education in order to gain national recognition. Therefore, students should compare the accrediting agencies listed by an institution to an official list of nationally recognized specialized accrediting agencies, which are provided by the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the U.S. Department of Education. A red flag should be raised if a specialized agency that is not found here is listed by an institution.

A college education is expensive, time consuming, and should be used toward the start or advancement of a career. Thus, students need to make sure they are spending their money and time wisely, and that they are truly investing in their futures. The best way to do this is to make sure that the institution and the program they are considering are accredited by nationally recognized accrediting agencies.

The History of Accreditation

By the late 1880s, more colleges than ever were being founded in the United States, thanks to the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890, which set aside land for establishing public educational institutions. At the same time, a number of different types of institutions were calling themselves “colleges,” including technical institutions, professional schools, music conservatories, teacher’s colleges, and even fraudulent providers cashing in on the market, but there was no clear definition on what a “college” was.

To help set standards among admissions procedures, credits, and degrees, as well as distinguish legitimate institutions from degree mills, non-governmental regional associations started to form, consisting of voluntary, peer-based reviews of institutions. The first such organization was the New England Association of Colleges and Schools, founded in 1885. That was followed by the Middle States Association in 1887, and in 1895, both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the North Central Association of Colleges Schools, the latter of which published the first list of accredited schools in 1913.

At the same time, professional schools also began developing new accreditation standards, and in 1912, one of the first national accrediting agencies formed when a group of 23 private career schools created the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (then called the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools). That was followed by the American Council on Education in 1918, formed to reduce duplication in and increase the effectiveness of the accreditation process.

By the 1930s, accreditation was the norm in the higher education landscape, and post-World War II, several bills further legitimized the accreditation process. The first was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, aka the GI Bill, which passed in 1944 and provided millions of WWII veterans with access to free higher education. To avoid supporting degree mills, which also proliferated during this time, the government depended on accreditation to determine which schools should receive funding.

Then in 1952, following the Korean War, the Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act passed to, like its predecessor, provide veterans with free higher education opportunities. To help determine which schools should receive funding from the government, the bill mandated that the U.S. Secretary of Education (then called the Commissioner of Education) publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies and associations. This marked “Congress’ first statutory statement of reliance on accreditation as one of the principal determinants of quality education,” according to a paper published in The Journal of Higher Education.

The role of accrediting associations in the U.S. was further cemented in 1965 with the passage of the Higher Education Act, which created new federal student aid programs for non-veterans. As with the GI Bill and Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act, only accredited institutions were eligible to receive the funds.

Since the passage of the GI Bill, the structure of accrediting agencies has continued to grow and evolve. In 1949, following a rise in the number of national professional and specialized accrediting agencies, the major national higher education associations united to form the National Commission on Accrediting (NCA). Similarly, the regional accrediting agencies formed the National Committee of Regional Accrediting Agencies, later known as the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education (FRACHE).

In 1975, NCA and FRACHE merged to create the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA), through which accrediting agencies sought to provide a unified process of recognizing accrediting agencies through peer-review evaluation, and to improve quality assurance among member institutions. In 1996, COPA was replaced with the Council for Higher Education (CHEA), which today serves as the primary authority for the Department of Education and Congress on higher education accreditation and the quality of accrediting agencies. It’s also a source to the public on anything dealing with accreditation.

Looking ahead, the scope of accreditation will become more international, according to an interview in Higher Ed Jobs, as more institutions open branches abroad or get involved in education with overseas partners. The “global reach of accreditation” will also be expanded as foreign institutions look toward the U.S. accreditation system as a world standard.

List of Accredited Online Colleges
by State