Best Online Colleges & Universities
What does a university classroom look like?
It could look like your own home.
According to recent research in university enrollment, higher education has been experiencing a decline in traditional on-campus enrollment while seeing online registrations grow.
In 2017 alone, online enrollments totaled 3.85 million, growing 3% from the previous year. The report also found that 56.1% of all online students resided in the same state as their school of choice.
Why are students going online?
Beyond reasons of convenience, 74% of students report that career progression motivates them. Most are hoping to transition to new careers, update their skills, or are looking for an increase in salary.
Many online students continue to enroll in business-related programs, but with the market growing, a wider variety of undergraduate and graduate programs are becoming available. The number of enrollments in general business and psychology programs has given way to increased admission to specialized programs like computer science, child psychology, and nursing. Information Technology, STEM, and health and medicine programs have also become more accessible at the graduate level.
Related Online Programs That Might Interest You
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
What do these numbers mean for you?
These massive enrollment numbers mean that the marketplace for education is becoming more and more competitive every year. With all this competition, it’s becoming incredibly important to sort through the noise and find the schools that will bring excellent academic credentials and long-term value for your money.
Remember, an online degree’s value is more than just a price tag. There are plenty of affordable options, but the cost should not be restricted to a dollar sign. Value can be found in the efficiency of the program, how convenient it is, the reputation of the school, course materials, and even scholarships. Most importantly, value is determined by whether a plan will help you achieve your career goals.
What’s the best option for you?
To help you find the best online program fit for you, we’ve created a ranking system based on critical attributes that showcase the best these schools have to offer. This list represents what we think are the top-rated online colleges in the country.
The Best Online Colleges ranking is based on four main data points in four categories:
- Affordability (average net price)
- Student Satisfaction (retention rate)
- Academic Quality (4-year graduation rate)
- Student Outcome (20-year return on investment per Payscale.com)
Each data point is ranked with equal weight. Schools received a weighted overall ranking score for each individual point mentioned above–100 being the highest score possible.
In the case of a tie in scoring, the average net price was the determining factor for which school received the higher rank–the lower the net price, the higher the ranking.
Best Online Colleges for 2020
The EDsmart Best Online Colleges ranking aims to help students find affordable, quality schools that provide a high return on investment.
1. University of Michigan
Average Net Price: $16,408
Retention Rate: 97%
Graduation Rate: 92%
Headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, the top-ranked University of Michigan has three entirely online degree programs for students around the country, a Master of Applied Data Science, a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Public Health in Population and Health Sciences. UM is ranked as the top 27th university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and is rated A+ by Niche.com. The Ann Arbor campus alone has an undergraduate student body of almost 30,000.
At UM-Dearborn, there are additional graduate degree offerings that include a Master of Education, a Master of Science in several engineering fields, including electrical, energy systems, computer, mechanical and chemical, and a Master of Science in finance.
At UM-Flint, online degree programs are all degree-completion programs. That means you will need to bring some required credits to the university to gain admission to the program. The UM-Flint online degree programs include a Bachelor of Applied Science, a Bachelor of Business Administration in either general business, accounting, or marketing; and a Bachelor of Science in psychology, nursing, respiratory therapy, health care administration, and substance use treatment and intervention.
One small caveat for online degree candidates from out-of-state is that one must ensure that a reciprocity agreement with your state supports your individual UM program. There is an easy-to-use online tool the university has created to allow you to look up this information. Another caveat for all UM online students who are out of range of the campus is that you will have to make arrangements to have your examinations proctored.
2. Villanova University
Average Net Price: $35,491
Retention Rate: 95%
Graduation Rate: 90%
Located in Villanova, Pennsylvania, Villanova University is one of the top-ranked, private Catholic universities in the country. It has over 6,000 undergraduate students and is competitive in terms of admission. They only admit 36 percent of their candidates each year. They are ranked the 49th top university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and have a rating of A on Niche.com. VU is accredited by the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education.
Purely online degree programs are mostly for master’s and graduate certificate programs. There is an extensive list of online master’s degree programs at Villanova that include master’s programs in all types of engineering, including mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical, computer, and cybersecurity. They offer master’s degrees in classical studies, communication, human resources, and provide two offerings in public administration. Master’s degrees are also offered in business analytics, administration, and taxation in their two degree-completion programs provided for those seeking a bachelor’s degree. VU offers Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degrees.
3. University of North Florida
Average Net Price: $13,524
Retention Rate: 91%
Graduation Rate: 57%
The University of North Florida is a public university located in Jacksonville, Florida. It has about 14,500 students. It accepts about 59 percent of its applicants for admission. They have also garnered a slew of other awards and accolades, U.S. News and World Report have rated it the 42nd top university in the South, 37th in online bachelor’s degree programs, and 84th best graduate online program in the nation. Niche.com ranks it as a B+.
The bachelor’s degree is an RN to BSN degree completion program, and UNF offers a Doctorate of Nursing in psychology and mental health, a Master of Science in nutrition and dietetics, a Master of Science in criminal justice, a Master of Educational Leadership in educational technology or early childhood education, and a Master of Science in American Sign Language. UNF receives praise for the affordability of its online programs, which tend to be less expensive than on-campus courses. A keynote is that the very popular RN to BSN program emphasizes that incoming grades are highly important.
4. Fairfield University
Average Net Price: $37,799
Retention Rate: 90%
Graduation Rate: 81%
Located in Fairfield, Connecticut, Fairfield University is a private, Jesuit Catholic school. The undergraduate student body numbers over 4,000. It is located 60 miles from New York City and is ranked first in the Northeastern region by U.S. News and World Report. Niche.com ranks them as an A-. Sixty percent of FU applicants are accepted. They are accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Fairfield offers only a few graduate online degree programs and no online-only bachelor’s program. Their online graduate offerings include a hybrid program that is a Master in Fine Arts in creative writing. Students in the creative writing program attend a semiannual 10-day retreat on a Connecticut island as a part of their program. The Master of Arts in educational technology or Master of Arts in library media science degree programs comprise of 30 units. Their Master of Social Work is another low-residency program, so most of the coursework is completed online. This Social Work program is designed to produce specialists in clinical social work. Thus, candidates will possess the ability to help evaluate, assess, diagnose, treat, and prevent behavioral health issues in clients.
5. University of North Dakota
Average Net Price: $14,478
Retention Rate: 81%
Graduation Rate: 54%
The University of North Dakota is a public university located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They are ranked 205th of all national universities and receive regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. UND has over 8,500 students and received a rating of B+ on Niche.com. The acceptance rate is 83 percent for applicants to the university.
There are around 15 online degree programs for undergraduate work leading to a bachelor’s degree. These include bachelor’s degrees in chemical, civil, geological, or petroleum engineering; computer science; public health; social science; political science; social work; psychology; general studies; elementary or early childhood education; computer science; cybersecurity; data science; and an RN to BSN program.
Quite a number of these programs are accelerated, combined bachelor’s to master’s degree programs in 58 graduate-only, online degree programs that are in several different specializations of education, nursing, engineering, business, aerospace and computer science.
6. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Average Net Price: $12,422
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 62%
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is a public university located in Whitewater, Wisconsin. They have a student body of just under 10,000 and are accredited by the Commission for Higher Learning. They are ranked 65th for Midwest regional universities on U.S. News, and Niche.com rates them as a B+. Of those who apply, seventy percent are accepted to the university.
Online programs for undergraduates at UW-Whitewater include a Bachelor of Business Administration in economics, general business, finance, or management. There is also a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies as well as one in political science. A unique bachelor’s degree program is one in law enforcement. The latter degree is for veteran police officers with three years of experience who already possess an Associate of Arts in criminology. The program is designed to allow officers to work at a pace that does not overwhelm them. There is also a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
Graduate online degree programs available include a Master of Science in special education or school business management, an MBA, and a Master of Science in environmental safety and health or finance.
7. Smith College
Average Net Price: $26,734
Retention Rate: 93%
Graduation Rate: 88%
Smith College is a private, women’s, liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts. It has a student body of 2,500. The admission rate to this highly-rated, Northeastern college is only 32 percent, so it is highly competitive. SC was rated as the 11th best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News, to go alongside its high rankings from Washington Monthly and Forbes Magazine, and an A+ rating from Niche.com. Smith College is unique in that it continues only to accept female candidates for its undergraduate degree programs and that it has an engineering program. Most female-only colleges do not have a school of engineering. Smith is one of the largest women’s colleges in the country and receives accreditation through the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Smith has a unique scholarship program for women who are older and are re-entering academia.
There are no online degree offerings for Smith College, but they do offer online continuing education mini-courses through their School of Social Work. The courses all are 1.0 to 1.5 CEs and only cost between $25 and $35.
8. University of Wisconsin – Platteville
Average Net Price: $14,363
Retention Rate: 79%
Graduation Rate: 53%
The University of Wisconsin-Platteville is a public university in Platteville, Wisconsin. With a rate of admission acceptance at 80 percent, their student body is over 6,700. Niche.com rates the university as a B. They are accredited through the Higher Learning Commission.
Online undergraduate degrees include an Associate of Arts and Sciences as well as an Associate of Science in business administration. There is a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, a Bachelor of Science in applied computing, a Bachelor of Science in business administration, and a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice.
Online graduate degree programs include Master of Science degrees in criminal justice, engineering, healthcare administration, integrated supply chain management, organizational change leadership, and project management. Each graduate student must either complete a thesis, a capstone project, or a seminar paper that must be approved by their program advisors.
9. Old Dominion University
Average Net Price: $15,213
Retention Rate: 80%
Graduation Rate: 54%
Located in Norfolk, Virginia, Old Dominion University is a public university with an enrollment of over 15,000 students. They rank 215th in national universities on U.S. News and World Report, and Niche.com rates them as a B. The university was initially part of the College of William and Mary. Old Dominion is a major research university, housing the Center for Accelerator Science and the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center. They are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Online undergraduate degree offerings include an extensive list of bachelor’s completion programs as well as fully online bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s completion programs include the umbrella fields of business, engineering, computer science, education, health sciences, psychology, and sociology. Bachelor’s degree programs are in communications, business, criminal justice, industrial technology, information systems and technology, psychology, and sociology.
Candidates in business degree or public health programs that are in their upper-undergraduate units can apply to begin taking their Master in Public Health or Master in Business Administration coursework in advance in an early-entry program.
The list of online graduate degree programs offered is exhaustive. There are several business, engineering, education, computer science, library science, nursing, public administration, and public healthcare graduate degrees. Unique are offerings in aerospace engineering, dental hygiene, and sports management.
10. Sam Houston State University
Average Net Price: $11,742
Retention Rate: 77%
Graduation Rate: 51%
Located in Huntsville, Texas, Sam Houston State University has almost 15,000 undergraduate students. They are ranked in the second tier for online national universities by U.S. News, but their online graduate programs rate in the top 50 in the nation. Their online criminal justice graduate program is rated third in the country, and their online computer information technology graduate program is ranked 28th in the nation. Niche.com gives them a B+. The acceptance rate for admission is 74 percent. Sam Houston is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Sam Houston prides itself on keeping the class sizes smaller in the online programs. Online undergraduate programs include a Bachelor of Criminal Justice, Business or Healthcare Administration, Homeland Security Studies, Nursing, Psychology, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and History.
The list of online master’s degree programs is extensive and includes some unique offerings. There are degree programs in the fields of business, communications, criminal justice, education, healthcare, homeland security, geographic information systems, kinesiology, library science, mathematics, political science, and public administration. Both doctoral degree options at SHSU are in education.
11. Butler University
Average Net Price: $38,051
Retention Rate: 89%
Graduation Rate: 79%
Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, Butler is ranked tied for number one in the Midwest region in the U.S. News college rankings. Butler University has a student body of just over 4,000 with an acceptance rate of 65 percent. BU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and Niche.com gives Butler a grade of A-.
Butler has created its first online degree program. It is titled “Master of Science in Risk and Insurance.” Students will be able to specialize in the risk management and insurance industry. They will take coursework on property and casualty, operating an insurance entity and employee benefits as well as MBA-type coursework.
Butler is also offering summer online and hybrid coursework for the summer of 2019. There are two terms for the summer session.
12. Ball State University
Average Net Price: $13,535
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 68%
Located in Muncie, Indiana, Ball State is ranked 171st best college nationally on U.S. News and World Report and 13th for both its online graduate nursing and online graduate MBA offerings. They accept 62 percent of applicants, bringing their student body to over 15,000. Their education degree programs have also received awards and accreditation for excellence in teacher preparation programs, and Niche.com rates them with a B+. The Higher Learning Commission grants them regional accreditation.
There are three associate degree programs, an Associate of Arts degree, an Associate of Science in the field of criminal justice, and a hybrid radiography program available at BSU. Bachelor’s degrees offered online include those in applied behavioral analysis, business administration, criminal justice, early childhood education, general studies, logistics and supply chain management, and an RN to BSN program.
Graduate online offerings are more extensive at Ball State and include master’s degrees in the fields of education, business, psychology, mathematics, nursing, interior design, journalism and communications, and media design. Some of these offerings require some on-campus courses. There are three doctoral degrees in education with one doctoral degree that is in educational leadership.
13. Saint Mary’s College
Average Net Price: $26,664
Retention Rate: 84%
Graduation Rate: 79%
Located in Moraga, California, St. Mary’s College is the oldest college on the West Coast. It is a private, Catholic college and has an enrollment of just over 2,600 students. It is ranked 8th in the West and 23rd best value by U.S. News. Niche.com grades SMC at a B+. St. Mary’s is accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.\
St. Mary’s of California offers a hybrid, online, executive MBA program that is rated by CEO Magazine as the 16th best MBA program in the world and the 2nd best MBA program in California. Contributing factors to this prestige are small class sizes and individualized teaching. Graduates are also encouraged to maintain ties that they forge within the program to help propel their careers.
14. Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville
Average Net Price: $15,090
Retention Rate: 73%
Graduation Rate: 49%
Located in Edwardsville, Illinois, Southern Illinois University is a public university with a 90 percent admission acceptance rate, putting them at just under 10,000 students. Their U.S. News and World Report ranking for a college in the Midwest region is 72nd. They also ranked as the 72nd best value school in the nation and 45th as a great value for veterans. They are ranked as a B on Niche.com. The Higher Learning Commission accredits SIUE.
There are two online undergraduate programs offered at SIUE. There is an RN to BSN accelerated-degree program and another degree-completion program titled Leadership in Organizations. This program integrates the studies of business leadership, sociology, and psychology. Students learn about the dynamics of organizations and the theories and practices of business leadership. They will apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the program to real-life business problems.
Master’s degree online programs at SUIE include several business offerings, a few nursing programs, healthcare degrees, instructional technology, kinesiology, and criminal justice. There is a nursing doctoral program.
15. Simpson College
Average Net Price: $22,511
Retention Rate: 80%
Graduation Rate: 68%
Located in Indianola, Iowa, Simpson College is a private, Christian institution that is ranked as the 135th best liberal arts institution in the country by U.S. News. They have priced their coursework to be the most affordable in Iowa, and they provide advisors designed to make their institution veteran-friendly. Niche.com places them as a B- grade. 1,280 students currently attend as undergraduates at SC, which is accredited through the Higher Learning Commission.
Online degree programs at SC include bachelor’s degrees in business management, management information systems, and marketing communications. There is also a Master of Arts in criminal justice, which emphasizes the use of data interpretation to create ethical answers to the problems of crime in a social system. Students will learn how to effectively combine research skills and critical thinking to solve vexing social problems.
16. Azusa Pacific University
Average Net Price: $28,784
Retention Rate: 83%
Graduation Rate: 67%
Located in Azusa, California, Azusa Pacific is a non-denominational, evangelical Christian university that has around 5,000 students. U.S. News ranks them as the 205th best university in the nation. Their admission acceptance rate is 60 percent. Niche.com grades them as a B+. They are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
There is an Associate of Science degree for nurses getting ready for their BSN. The online bachelor’s degrees are all degree-completion programs, but the admission requirements for the Bachelor of Psychology and Bachelor of Business Administration only require 15 credits to have been completed before program entry. There are several master’s degrees in education and business sub-fields. Individual master’s programs are also available in screenwriting, interactive design, modern art history, public administration, nursing administration, healthcare administration, and music entrepreneurship.
There is also Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Rehabilitation and Movement Science degree programs. The latter program requires only two weeks on campus per year.
17. Eastern Kentucky University
Average Net Price: $12,659
Retention Rate: 73%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Located in Richmond, Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University is ranked 76th in the Southern region by U.S. News. They have just over 16,000 students and try to keep class sizes down to 16. They serve the eastern portion of Kentucky, mostly the Appalachians. Many of the student body is the first in their family to attend college, so they have devised many support services to help students succeed. Niche.com grades them as a B. EKU has been accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Online associate degree programs at EKU include a general studies offering, a paramedic and a police studies program. There also is a paralegal associate degree that requires ten credits of on-campus coursework.
Online bachelor’s programs include accounting, business administration, child and family studies, communications, corrections and juvenile justice studies, criminal justice, fire and arson investigation, fire protection administration, homeland security, an RN to BSN program, occupational safety, paramedic and EMT studies, police studies, political science, psychology, risk management and insurance, sports management and social work. As with the associate degree, a bachelor’s degree is offered in paralegal studies, but one must attend ten credits of on-campus instruction.
There are nine master’s degree programs in education at EKU, including four in special education. They also offer master’s degrees in nursing, library, emergency management, public administration, justice, and industrial psychology.
18. Fort Hays State University
Average Net Price: $12,196
Retention Rate: 71%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Located in Hays, Kansas, Fort Hays State University is a public university. Their student acceptance rate is 89 percent, bringing their student body to almost 6,000 students. They are rated in the second tier of Midwest regional colleges by U.S. News, and Niche.com rates them as a B grade. The school prides itself on driving students toward entrepreneurial thinking and looking outside of the box. The Higher Learning Commission accredits FHSU.
FHSU offers a general Associate of Arts degree online as well as an associate degree with an applied technology concentration.
FHSU online bachelor’s degree offerings are impressive in their scope. There are fully 60 programs. Some of the more unusual offerings include bachelor’s degrees in agricultural business, business education, geology/GIS, health informatics, Spanish teacher education, addiction counseling, and tourism and hospitality management. There are also many of the usual bachelor’s degree offerings and an impressive number of business bachelor’s degree concentrations.
Their master’s program offerings are no less impressive. There are 60 master’s degrees offered in total at FHSU, and they offer around 12 different sub-specialties within their MBA programs and 13 different Master of Education sub-specialties. They offer master’s degrees in counseling and an eclectic variety of other master’s degrees. Their only doctoral program is in nursing.
19. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Average Net Price: $19,247
Retention Rate: 72%
Graduation Rate: 56%
Located in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a public university with just under 10,000 students due to its 91 percent acceptance rate. IUP is in the second tier of the U.S. News and World Report national school rankings, and Niche.com grades them a B-. They are a doctoral/research institution. They have for 16 consecutive years been rated as one of the country’s best colleges by the Princeton Review. They are accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
IUP has a bachelor’s degree-completion program that is in media communications. Their production coursework is offered online for the degree includes classes in documentary and basic photography and communication graphics.
There are online and hybrid master’s degree programs at IUP, as well. Fully online offerings include master’s degrees in criminology, management and labor relations, food and nutrition, health services administration, and nursing. There is a master’s track for elementary mathematics educators and one for secondary educators. U.S. News rates the criminology program in the top 10 online programs nationally. One of the hybrid offerings is an executive MBA program.
20. Hope International University
Average Net Price: $25,150
Retention Rate: 72%
Graduation Rate: 48%
Located in Fullerton, California, Hope International University is a small, private Christian university. They accept only 28 percent of applicants and have less than 600 students. U.S. News rates them as the 77th ranked school in the Western region. Niche.com ranks them as a B- and they are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
There is a general Associate of Arts degree program with a focus on the Bible, Christian values and ethics, and critical thinking. HIU also offers a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and teacher preparation. The latter has a liberal arts focus. They also offer Bachelor of Science degrees in business administration, Christian ministry, and human development. The latter degree has five concentrations, all designed to prepare the student to work in counseling and other helping professions. HIU concentrates on behavioral psychology, family studies, community mental health and counseling, addiction studies, and graduate studies preparation.
21. Western Kentucky University
Average Net Price: $11,817
Retention Rate: 70%
Graduation Rate: 43%
Located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Western Kentucky University is a public institution with a student body numbering almost 13,000. They are the 34th ranked Southern regional university by U.S. News and World Report, 24th best for veterans, 22nd best for teacher preparation, and Niche.com gives them a grade of B-. They are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
WKU has an interdisciplinary associate program as well as a nursing associate program.
WKU’s online bachelor’s degree programs have been ranked in the top five in the nation by U.S. News for the past three years. There are two Bachelor of Arts, one in criminology and one in sociology. A Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies is also offered. Bachelor of Science offerings includes computing, dental hygiene, engineering technology management, two family studies programs, healthcare information or administration, and three business administration programs.
There are 30 master’s degree programs that include a Master of Education and a Master of Teaching that has a concentration in special education. Master of Arts degrees are conferred online for criminology, history, mathematics, and organizational leadership. There is an MBA, an MPA, and an MPH program as well as an MSW. There are four master’s degree programs in recreation and sports administration.
22. Angelo State University
Average Net Price: $11,742
Retention Rate: 67%
Graduation Rate: 37%
Angelo State University offers certificates, undergraduate and graduate degree programs online, and a variety of online courses. US News and World Report ranked Angelo State as a tier 2, Best College in Regional Universities West in 2019, Niche.com ranked Angelo State as the #46 Best Value College in Texas in 2019 with an overall grade of B-, and a rank of #59 for Most Conservative Colleges in America.
Angelo State Universities online programs have received numerous rankings from US News and World Report over the years with the most recent and most impressive being #43 in Best Online Graduate Criminal Justice Programs, #40 in Best Online Graduate Education Programs for Veterans, and #88 in Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs.
Angelo State is a choice school for pre-med students with over 50 percent accepted into medical school, which is 15 percent higher than the statewide average. All graduates from this school’s Honors Program who applied to professional schools or graduate programs have been accepted. Angelo State students have maintained a 100 percent passing rate on the Texas teacher certification test for secondary mathematics.
23. High Point University
Average Net Price: $39,101
Retention Rate: 79%
Graduation Rate: 63%
Located in High Point, North Carolina, High Point University is a private institution that has an 81 percent acceptance rate, bringing their student body numbering over 4,000 students. They are ranked the top school in the Southern region by U.S. News. They are ranked the most innovative school in the country and 20th in terms of value by U.S. News. Niche.com gives them a B grade. They emphasize a grounding in liberal arts for the undergraduate portion of a bachelor’s degree, and they have a rigorous honor’s program for students with a GPA of over 3.45. They are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
High Point offers summer online coursework in a session lasting from June through July. Students are allowed to take up to 12 credits online in the summer session, which is a bit smaller of a load than one would be able to take on campus. High Point emphasizes that summer session enrollment is smaller than for the regular school year so that students can expect smaller class sizes and better access to instructors.
24. California Baptist University
Average Net Price: $25,714
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 59%
Located in Riverside, California, California Baptist University is a private, Christian college that accepts 77 percent of applicants and has over 6,000 students. They are ranked 32nd by U.S. News for Western regional colleges and are ranked 7th for innovative programs. Niche.com gives them a rating of B+. CBU is accredited by the Western Association for Schools and Colleges.
CBU has an impressive list of 40 online bachelor’s degree programs. Some of the more unique include one in business administration that has a concentration in logistics and operations. Other unique bachelor’s degree programs include ones in kinesiology, network administration and management, cybersecurity, graphic design and digital media, English, and sports and fitness management.
Their online master’s offerings include five degrees in education, two in counseling psychology, two MBA concentrations, and other degrees in accounting, communication, information technology management, public administration, organizational leadership, kinesiology, and public health.
CBU offers doctorates in public administration and business administration.
25. Eureka College
Average Net Price: $19,754
Retention Rate: 71%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Located in Eureka, Illinois, Eureka is a private, Christian college that has less than 6oo students and admits 62 percent of its applicants. U.S. News ranked them 33rd in the Midwest region. EC emphasizes a liberal arts education, even in its professional program offerings. Niche.com ranks them as a B- and The Higher Learning Commission has granted EC accreditation.
Although they do not offer online degrees, Eureka College has a unique means of helping struggling on-campus students. Students can take approved courses online at other institutions to make up failed classes. Eureka pays for the tuition differential that a more expensive course might cost at another institution. The idea has caught on, and now Eureka students who would like to accelerate their programs or add more credits in minors or other concentrations are also taking coursework at other online institutions that Eureka has pre-approved.
26. Valdosta State University
Average Net Price: $13,978
Retention Rate: 69%
Graduation Rate: 37%
Located in Valdosta, Georgia, Valdosta State University has over 7,000 students. They are a public university ranked by U.S. News in the second tier of national universities. They are ranked as a B- by Niche.com and are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. VSU claims that Valdosta is one of the prettiest cities in the South.
Online bachelor’s degree programs at Valdosta include a Bachelor of Arts in French or Spanish language and literature, paralegal studies, and criminal justice. A unique bachelor’s degree is in human resources performance. There is a Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in management. Bachelor of Science degrees are offered in office administration and technology or leadership of organizations.
Online master’s programs include an impressive array of concentrations in Master of Education degrees. Master’s degrees are also available online for criminal justice, nursing with a focus on mental health, an MBA with a healthcare administration emphasis, library science, and public administration.
Doctoral programs online at Valdosta include educational leadership and public administration.
27. Adams State University
Average Net Price: $12,989
Retention Rate: 62%
Graduation Rate: 29%
Located in Alamosa, Colorado, Adams State University is a public university with only about 1,500 students that ranks in the second tier of Western regional universities by U.S. News and accepts 99 percent of their applicants with a C+ ranking with Niche.com. Their accreditation is from the Higher Learning Commission.
Adams State offers an online associate degree in business administration. They offer two bachelor’s degrees in business administration. Their Bachelor of Arts in sociology has two different concentrations – criminology or social work.
Adams State pioneered distance learning in Colorado, beginning with print-based distance coursework. They call their distance learning programs “extended learning.” These programs may be online, print-based, or through videos. Extended learning programs offered include general associate degrees as well as associate degrees in business or criminal justice administration and emergency management.
Bachelor’s degree extended study programs at Adams State include business administration degrees with different concentrations as well as bachelor’s degrees in English, government, history, interdisciplinary studies, and sociology. The criminology degree program has four focuses.
Graduate extended studies programs include master’s degrees include several education sub-specialties, counseling, humanities, and MBAs with four different concentrations.
28. Southwestern Assemblies of God University
Average Net Price: $24,463
Retention Rate: 72%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Located in Waxahachie, Texas, the Southwestern Assemblies of God University is a private, Christian university. It is Pentecostal in emphasis. U.S. News and World Report ranks it in the second tier of Western regional colleges. Niche.com gives it a B as an overall grade. It only accepts 28 percent of applicants for admission.
SAGU has been providing distance learning for 25 years. The undergraduate list of online degree programs includes both associate degrees and bachelor’s degree programs in the fields of behavioral sciences and community services, Bible and ministry, business, education, English, general studies, history, interdisciplinary studies, and occupational leadership. Under each of these categories, there are often several individual programs. It is unclear which if any of the graduate programs are online.
29. Averett University
Average Net Price: $22,592
Retention Rate: 62%
Graduation Rate: 40%
Located in Danville, Virginia, Averett University is a private, Christian university with an enrollment acceptance of 61 percent and a student body of under 1,000 students that began as a women-only university. Today, it is coeducational. It is ranked 13th in the Southern region, 6th best for veterans, and 4th for the best value by U.S. News. Niche.com gave them a rating of B-. Accreditation for Averett University is from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Averett offers an associate degree in business administration. Bachelor’s degree online offerings include a degree in sociology and criminal justice, business administration, and a leadership studies degree that offers minors in criminal justice, cybersecurity, homeland security, or sociology.
Master’s online programs at Averett include master’s degrees in accounting, an MBA with three concentrations, a master’s in education with four tracks, and new programs in applied data analytics and criminal justice.
30. Bluefield College
Average Net Price: $20,227
Retention Rate: 52%
Graduation Rate: 21%
Located in Bluefield, Virginia, in the Appalachians, Bluefield College is a private, Christian college that has under 900 students. U.S. News and World Report have ranked Bluefield as 43rd in the Southern region. Niche.com rates Bluefield as a C. They accept 91 percent of all applicants and are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Bluefield offers online bachelor’s degrees in business administration, criminal justice, early childhood education, human services, organizational leadership, cybersecurity, Christian ministry leadership, and an RN to BSN program.
For master’s candidates, Bluefield offers online MBAs, master’s in education, and nursing.
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 coursework. 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 a 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 for Online Colleges
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 the 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 catalog 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 provides additional information.
- Issue an order to the institution to show cause as to why its accreditation should not be withdrawn.
- Withdraw accreditation.
The 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:
- The accrediting agency must provide written notice prior to proceedings detailing the charges and the standards by which the institution will be judged.
- The institution has a meeting before the agency regarding the issues surrounding their suspension.
- A decision on the record is made, including a statement detailing the reasons for the decision.
- 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 catalogs 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 sure they’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 recognizes state agencies for the approval of both vocational and education.
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 for Online Universities
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 for Universities
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 hold specialized accredited if applicable.
Not all areas of 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 was 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 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.
Best Online Colleges and Universities Rankings
Looking for good online colleges? Feel free to browse EDsmart’s best online universities rankings.
Best Accredited Online Colleges by State
- Accredited Online Colleges in Alabama
- Accredited Online Colleges in Alaska
- Accredited Online Colleges in Arizona
- Accredited Online Colleges in Arkansas
- Accredited Online Colleges in California
- Accredited Online Colleges in Colorado
- Accredited Online Colleges in Connecticut
- Accredited Online Colleges in Delaware
- Accredited Online Colleges in Florida
- Accredited Online Colleges in Georgia
- Accredited Online Colleges in Hawaii
- Accredited Online Colleges in Idaho
- Accredited Online Colleges in Illinois
- Accredited Online Colleges in Indiana
- Accredited Online Colleges in Iowa
- Accredited Online Colleges in Kansas
- Accredited Online Colleges in Kentucky
- Accredited Online Colleges in Louisiana
- Accredited Online Colleges in Maine
- Accredited Online Colleges in Maryland
- Accredited Online Colleges in Massachusetts
- Accredited Online Colleges in Michigan
- Accredited Online Colleges in Minnesota
- Accredited Online Colleges in Mississippi
- Accredited Online Colleges in Missouri
- Accredited Online Colleges in Montana
- Accredited Online Colleges in Nebraska
- Accredited Online Colleges in Nevada
- Accredited Online Colleges in New Hampshire
- Accredited Online Colleges in New Jersey
- Accredited Online Colleges in New Mexico
- Accredited Online Colleges in New York
- Accredited Online Colleges in North Carolina
- Accredited Online Colleges in North Dakota
- Accredited Online Colleges in Ohio
- Accredited Online Colleges in Oklahoma
- Accredited Online Colleges in Oregon
- Accredited Online Colleges in Pennsylvania
- Accredited Online Colleges in Rhode Island
- Accredited Online Colleges in South Carolina
- Accredited Online Colleges in South Dakota
- Accredited Online Colleges in Tennessee
- Accredited Online Colleges in Texas
- Accredited Online Colleges in Utah
- Accredited Online Colleges in Vermont
- Accredited Online Colleges in Virginia
- Accredited Online Colleges in Washington
- Accredited Online Colleges in West Virginia
Best Online College and Degree Rankings
- Best Online Hospitality Management Degree Programs
- 10 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges
- Best Game Design Schools Online & On-Campus
- The Best Online MBA Programs of 2019-2020
- Best Regionally Accredited Online Colleges
- Best Online Graduate Programs
- Cheapest Online Degrees by Degree Level
- Best Accelerated Nursing & BSN Programs: Online + On-campus
- Best Online Colleges that Offer Laptops
- Best Accredited Non-Profit Online Universities
- Best Nationally Accredited Online Colleges & Universities
- Easiest PhD and Shortest Doctoral Programs Online
- Fast Track LPN Programs Online
- 15 Best Online Psychology Degree Programs
- Quickest Online Master’s Degree Programs
- Cheapest Online MBA Programs
- Best Online History Degree Programs
- Best Open Admission Colleges Online
- Most Affordable Online Master’s Programs
- Easiest Online College Degrees for Students
- Fast Track RN to BSN Online Programs
- Self-Paced Online College Courses & Degrees
- Fastest Accelerated Online Degrees by Degree Level
- Most Affordable Online RN to BSN Programs
- Online MBA Programs with No GMAT
- Best Online Degree Programs
EDsmart reviews publicly available data to produce independent ranking assessments of higher education programs based on affordability, student satisfaction, academic quality, and earnings after college. University rankings are regularly updated by a committed team of writers and researchers to help prospective and current college students get into, pay for, and thrive at the college of their choice.
What are the best online colleges?
According to our analysis, the best online colleges are:
|University of Michigan|
|University of North Florida|
|University of North Dakota|
|University of Wisconsin–Whitewater|
|University of Wisconsin–Platteville|
|Old Dominion University|
|Sam Houston State University|
|Ball State University|
|Saint Mary’s College|
|Southern Illinois University Edwardsville|
|Azusa Pacific University|
|Eastern Kentucky University|
|Fort Hays State University|
|Indiana University of Pennsylvania|
|hope International University|
|Western Kentucky University|
|Angelo State University|
|High Point University|
|California Baptist University|
|Valdosta State University|
|Adams State University|
|Southwestern Assemblies of God University|
Which is the Best Online University?
According to our analysis, the best online college is the University of Michigan with an average net price of $16,408, a 97% retention rate, 92% graduation rate and a $559,000 20-year ROI.
Related Online Programs That Might Interest You
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.