Best Online Colleges & Universities 2023

What does a university classroom look like?

It could look like your own home.

According to recent research on university enrollment, higher education has been experiencing a decline in traditional on-campus enrollment while seeing online registrations grow.

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.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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.

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.

Ranking Methodology

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

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.

All data was gathered from the National Center for Education Statistics website, College ScorecardPayscale, and school websites.

Best Online Colleges for 2023

The EDsmart Best Online Colleges ranking aims to help students find affordable, quality schools that provide a high return on investment.

All data for this ranking was gathered from the National Center for Education Statistics and

1. University of Michigan


Score: 100

Average Net Price: $14,878
Retention Rate: 97%
Graduation Rate: 92%
Salary After Graduation: $75,842

The University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor and is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. It has a Master of Applied Data Science, Master of Business Administration, and Master of Public Health in Population and Health Sciences that are available completely online. UM is ranked as the top 25th university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and is rated A+ by The Ann Arbor campus alone has an undergraduate student body of over 32,000.

The Dearborn campus also offers various graduate degree programs, such as the Master of Education, the Master of Science in several engineering fields, including electrical, energy systems, computer, mechanical, and chemical, and the Master of Science in Finance.

In addition, UM-Flint provides online degree programs, such as the Bachelor of Applied Science, the Bachelor of Business Administration in general business, accounting, or marketing, and the Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Nursing, Respiratory Therapy, Health Care Administration, and Substance Use Treatment and Intervention.

2. University of North Florida


Score: 96.8

Average Net Price: $8,865
Retention Rate: 83%
Graduation Rate: 65%
Salary After Graduation: $49,338

The University of North Florida is a public university in Jacksonville. It has about 16,500 students. It accepts about 77 percent of its applicants for admission. They have also garnered a plethora of other awards and accolades. U.S. News and World Report has ranked 140th in top performers on social mobility, and 47th in best online bachelor’s degree programs. ranks it as a B+.

UNF provides an RN to BSN degree completion program for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree. UNF also offers a range of master’s degree programs, including the Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics, the Master of Science in Criminal Justice, the Master of Educational Leadership in Early Childhood Education or Educational Technology, and the Master of Science in American Sign Language. UNF also provides a Doctorate of Nursing in Psychology and Mental Health. 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.

3. Villanova University


Score: 96.4

Average Net Price: $43,577
Retention Rate: 96%
Graduation Rate: 89%
Salary After Graduation: $90,613

Villanova University is in Pennsylvania and is recognized as a leading private Catholic universities in the United States. It has over 7,000 undergraduate students and is competitive in terms of admission. They only admit 25 percent of their candidates each year. They are ranked the 51st top university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and have a rating of A+ on 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. They have many options available at Villanova University, including programs in different types of engineering, like mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical, computer, and cybersecurity. They offer master’s degrees in classical studies, communication, and 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.

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4. Fairfield University


Score: 96.0

Average Net Price: $36,663
Retention Rate: 91%
Graduation Rate: 80%
Salary After Graduation: $86,060

Fairfield University is a private Jesuit Catholic school in Connecticut. The undergraduate student body numbers are over 4,600. It is located 60 miles from New York City and is ranked #29 in best undergraduate teaching by U.S. News and World Report. 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 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. Saint Mary’s College

Score: 95.4

Average Net Price: $23,625
Retention Rate: 84%
Graduation Rate: 79%
Salary After Graduation: $56,655

St. Mary’s College, situated in Moraga, California, is renowned for being the earliest established college in the West Coast region. It is a private, Catholic college and has an enrollment of just over 3,169 students. It is ranked 4th in the West and 25th best value by U.S. News. grades SMC at a B.

St. Mary’s College of California offers an online executive MBA program which has been ranked as one of the top programs in the world and highest in California by CEO Magazine, coming in at number 16 worldwide and second-best inside the state. 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.

6.  Smith College

Score: 95.4

Average Net Price: $29,615
Retention Rate: 86%
Graduation Rate: 89%
Salary After Graduation: $56,419

Coming in at number 4 on our list of Best Online Colleges is Smith College. The U.S. News and World Report have given Smith College multiple distinguished rankings including, #13 in National Liberal Arts College, #14 in Best Value Colleges, and #91 in Top Performers on Social Mobility. gives Smith College an overall grade rating of A.

Smith College is the only college on this list solely dedicated to female students. Presently, the count of enrolled students at St. Mary’s College is around 2,900 and continuing to increase. The college offers thousands of different courses, a multitude of varsity sports, and many different student clubs for individuals to choose from. Some of the most popular majors include dance, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, film/media studies, engineering science, education/child study, astronomy, and computer science. Along with all their majors, individuals can choose from an array of different concentrations, and Smith College offers special programs that are more advanced for students who enjoy being challenged.

7. Butler University

Score: 90.4

Average Net Price: $39,430
Retention Rate: 87%
Graduation Rate: 82%
Salary After Graduation: $66,540

Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, Butler is tied for number one in the Midwest region in the U.S. News college rankings. The community of Butler University comprises slightly more than 5,500 students, and the acceptance rate for admission stands at 81 percent. BU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and 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.

8. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Score: 94.4

Average Net Price: $14,417
Retention Rate: 79%
Graduation Rate: 64%
Salary After Graduation: $49,599

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is a public university. The student body at UW-Whitewater is just shy of 11,500 and the institution is accredited by the Commission for Higher Learning. They are ranked 45th for Midwest regional universities on U.S. News, and rates them as a B+. Of those who apply, seventy percent are accepted to the university.

UW-Whitewater provides online undergraduate programs which encompass a Bachelor of Business Administration in economics, general business, finance, or management. They also offer Bachelor of Arts degrees in liberal studies and 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. This program is thoughtfully structured to enable officers to work at a manageable pace without feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, there is a bachelor’s degree offered 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.

9. University of North Dakota


Score: 93.4

Average Net Price: $16,966
Retention Rate: 80%
Graduation Rate: 50%
Salary After Graduation: $57,299

The University of North Dakota is a public university situated in Grand Forks. They are ranked 250th of all national universities and receive regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. UND has over 13,700 students and received a rating of B+ on 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 with 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.

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10. Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville

Score: 93.0

Average Net Price: $14,462
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 53%
Salary After Graduation: $51,671

Located in Edwardsville, Illinois, Southern Illinois University is a public university with a 98 percent admission acceptance rate, putting them at just over 13,000 students. They are ranked as a B on 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.

11. University of Wisconsin – Platteville


Score: 93.0

Average Net Price: $14,565
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 55%
Salary After Graduation: $52,813

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville is a public university. With a rate of admission acceptance at 89 percent, their student body is over 6,700. 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. Beyond that, online degree programs include:
Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences
Bachelor of Science in applied computing
Bachelor of Science in business administration
Bachelor of Science in criminal justice
Master of Science degrees in criminal justice
Master of Science degrees in engineering
Master of Science degrees in healthcare administration
Master of Science degrees in integrated supply chain management
Master of Science degrees in organizational change leadership
Master of Science degrees in 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.

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.

12. Azusa Pacific University

Score: 93.0

Average Net Price: $30,744
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 68%
Salary After Graduation: $57,796

Located in Azusa, California, Azusa Pacific is a non-denominational evangelical Christian university that has around 8,000 students. U.S. News ranks them as the 263rd best university in the nation. Their admission acceptance rate is 94 percent. 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.

13. Simpson College

Score: 92.8

Average Net Price: $19,644
Retention Rate: 77%
Graduation Rate: 71%
Salary After Graduation: $50,628

Located in Indianola, Iowa, Simpson College is a private, Christian institution that is ranked as the 7th in regional colleges midwest 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. places them as a B- grade. 1,170 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. The curriculum is designed to teach students how to effectively blend research skills and critical thinking to resolve complex social issues.

14. Ball State University

Score: 92.6

Average Net Price: $14,765
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 61%
Salary After Graduation: $45,934

Located in Muncie, Indiana, they accept 68 percent of applicants, bringing their student body to over 19,300. Their education degree programs have also received awards and accreditation for excellence in teacher preparation programs, and 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.

15. Sam Houston State University


Score: 91.8

Average Net Price: $15,035
Retention Rate: 77%
Graduation Rate: 60%
Salary After Graduation: $50,125

Located in Huntsville, Texas, Sam Houston State University has over 18,000 undergraduate students. gives them a B. The acceptance rate for admission is 97 percent. Sam Houston earns accreditation through 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 business, communications, criminal justice, education, healthcare, and more. Both doctoral degree options at SHSU are in education.

16. Old Dominion University


Score: 91.8

Average Net Price: $17,204
Retention Rate: 78%
Graduation Rate: 58%
Salary After Graduation: $49,678

Old Dominion University, located in Norfolk, Virginia, is a public university with a student body exceeding 23,000. Originally, the university was a component 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. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accredits Old Dominion.

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 include communications, business, criminal justice, and more.

The list of online graduate degree programs offered is exhaustive. There are several businesses, including 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.

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17. California Baptist University

Score: 91.0

Average Net Price: $26,719
Retention Rate: 77%
Graduation Rate: 61%
Salary After Graduation: $52,941

Located in Riverside, California, California Baptist University is a private Christian college that accepts 64 percent of applicants and has over 11,400 students. They are ranked 28th by U.S. News for Western regional colleges and are ranked 2nd for innovative programs. gives them a rating of B+. CBU is accredited by the Western Association for Schools and Colleges.

CBU has an impressive list of 27 online bachelor’s degree programs. Some of the more unique ones 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, 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.

18. High Point University

Score: 90.6

Average Net Price: $39,475
Retention Rate: 83%
Graduation Rate: 64%
Salary After Graduation: $48,534

High Point University, situated in High Point, North Carolina, is a private college with an acceptance rate of 80%, which enrolls over 5800 students. 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 honors 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.

19. Fort Hays State University

Score: 89.8

Average Net Price: $13,189
Retention Rate: 76%
Graduation Rate: 57%
Salary After Graduation $42,518

Located in Hays, Kansas, Fort Hays State University is a public university. Their student acceptance rate is 90 percent, bringing their student body to over 14,000 students. They are ranked #31 in Top Public Schools and #98 in Top Performers on Social Mobility by U.S. News, and 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’s 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.

20. Eastern Kentucky University

Score: 88.8

Average Net Price: $13,763
Retention Rate: 77%
Graduation Rate: 50%
Salary After Graduation: $40,500

Located in Richmond, Kentucky, they have just almost 14,000 students and try to keep class sizes down to 15. 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. grades them as a B-. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredits EKU.

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.

21. Western Kentucky University

Score: 88.2

Average Net Price: $12,522
Retention Rate: 75%
Graduation Rate: 47%
Salary After Graduation: $39,268

Kentucky University is a public school located in Bowling Green with a student body pushing up to almost 17,000. gives them a grade of B-. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accredits KU.

WKU has an interdisciplinary associate program as well as a nursing associate program.

There is one Bachelor of Arts in criminology and another 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

Score: 88.2

Average Net Price: $13,184
Retention Rate: 70%
Graduation Rate: 40%
Salary After Graduation: $44,242

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, and one of the Best colleges in Regional Universities West in 2023, gave Angelo State an overall grade of B and a rank of #70 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 #55 in Best Online Graduate Criminal Justice 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. Valdosta State University

Score: 87.8

Average Net Price: $13,240
Retention Rate: 71%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Salary After Graduation: $43,218

Located in 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 C+ by 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, and nursing with a focus on mental health, an MBA with a healthcare administration emphasis, library science, and public administration.

24. Hope International University

Score: 87.4

Average Net Price: $21,437
Retention Rate: 79%
Graduation Rate: 41%
Salary After Graduation: $41,202

Hope International University is a small, private Christian university in Fullerton, California. They accept only 40 percent of applicants and have more than 1,100 students. U.S. News rates them as the 85th-ranked school in the Western region. ranks them overall with a B ranking 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.

25. Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Score: 87.2

Average Net Price: $22,828
Retention Rate: 72%
Graduation Rate: 58%
Salary After Graduation: $44,089

Located in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a public university with just under 9,500 students due to its 94 percent acceptance rate. IUP is in the second tier of the U.S. News and World Report national school rankings, and grades them a B-. They are a doctoral/research institution. 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 including 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, 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.

26. Eureka College

Score: 86.2

Average Net Price: $21,548
Retention Rate: 59%
Graduation Rate: 60%
Salary After Graduation: $42,669

Located in Eureka, Illinois, Eureka is a private, Christian college that has less than 600 students and admits 87 percent of its applicants. U.S. News ranked them 25th in the Midwest region. EC emphasizes a liberal arts education, even in its professional program offerings. 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 for 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.

27. Adams State University

Score: 84.8

Average Net Price: $13,388
Retention Rate: 59%
Graduation Rate: 38%
Salary After Graduation: $37,685

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 100 percent of their applicants with a C ranking with 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 and 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. Averett University

Score: 84.6

Average Net Price: $28,218
Retention Rate: 64%
Graduation Rate: 46%
Salary After Graduation: $45,467

Located in Danville, Virginia, Averett University is a private, Christian university with an enrollment acceptance of 48 percent and a student body of over 1,300 students that began as a women-only university. Today, it is coeducational. It is ranked 24th in the Southern region and 17th for the best value by U.S. News. 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.

29. Bluefield College

Score: 83.2

Average Net Price: $22,442
Retention Rate: 57%
Graduation Rate: 35%
Salary After Graduation: $43,825

Bluefield College is a private Christian college with fewer than 900 students in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. U.S. News and World Report have ranked Bluefield among the best in the Southern region. rates Bluefield as a C. They accept 76 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.

30. Southwestern Assemblies of God University

Score: 83.2

Average Net Price: $23,976
Retention Rate: 69%
Graduation Rate: 44%
Salary After Graduation: $39,942

The Southwestern Assemblies of God University is a private Pentacostal Christian university in Waxahachie, Texas. U.S. News and World Report rank it in the second tier of Western regional colleges. 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 if any of the graduate programs are online.

Online College Accreditation

In brief, accreditation verifies that an institution or degree program meets particular criteria, ensuring that students who enroll in an accredited school or complete an accredited program receive an education of high quality. The US Department of Education does not run the accreditation process. 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.

Although schools are not required to pursue accreditation, accrediting agencies evaluate and review their programs and institutions on multiple criteria if they do apply for it. Such factors include the condition of the campus (if relevant), the expertise and training of the faculty, and the methods employed to deliver education. 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. Accrediting agencies, which bestow accreditation upon traditional universities like Harvard University and the University of Texas, also provide accreditation to online institutions. However, although every accredited school or program has undergone evaluation and approval, the type of accreditation may differ.

The two main types of accreditation are institutional and specialized. The scope of institutional accreditation encompasses the entire school, while specialized accreditation is solely applicable to particular programs offered by the institution.

Institutional accreditation is offered either as national or regional accreditation. Certain schools, namely trade schools, religious schools, and their online counterparts, are eligible for national accreditation. 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, in contrast, depends on the geographic location of the institution. Colleges and universities, when pursuing regional accreditation, are subjected to an assessment process administered by the regulatory body in charge of supervising the specific locality where the establishment is situated. Universities situated in the southern region of the US are granted accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, to cite an instance. Conversely, universities in the northeastern region are regionally accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. The CHEA provides details on the six regional accrediting organizations in the U.S.

Accreditation extends beyond the confines of the United States, encompassing a global landscape. In fact, many accrediting agencies evaluate schools in several other countries, including Puerto Rico and Canada. Numerous accrediting organizations operate outside the U.S., but the U.S. Department of Education is unable to legally recognize or evaluate them, and therefore does not oversee them. There is no guarantee that educational institutions located in other nations will adhere to equivalent regulatory criteria as those imposed in the United States.

Institutional accreditation ensures high quality and enables the students of the accredited college to receive federal financial aid. Attending an institution without accreditation renders a student ineligible for federal financial assistance, causing the government to withhold any monetary support. 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.

Schools can also receive specialized accreditation as a replacement for institutional accreditation, or seek it as an addition to their school-wide accreditation. Accreditation that is tailored to certain areas of study or particular programs provided by an educational institution, such as nursing, accounting, and law, is known as specialized accreditation. Accreditation involves an appraisal process that ensures a program has provided its students with the requisite expertise and aptitudes to thrive in their preferred profession or area of study. 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. In the event that a student wishes to transfer credits earned from an accredited establishment to another educational institution, the latter must be aware of the assessment and validation of the establishment and/or program that issued the credits by a reputable accrediting body. 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 recomme that students conduct thorough research on the institution or program they are contemplating and verify 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. Employers rarely accept degrees from unaccredited colleges or universities. 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.

To ensure the acceptance of transfer credits by most higher education institutions, students intending to continue their education should obtain a degree from an accredited university. Learners attending unaccredited institutions and later transferring to another school may find that their earned credits are non-transferable. It is vital to bear in mind that, whether an associate degree holder aspires to attain a bachelor’s degree or a graduate with a bachelor’s degree aims to advance to postgraduate education, this consideration is significant. 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 areas like 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. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a counterfeit diploma not only squanders money but also offers little-to-no advancement in one’s professional and career trajectory. 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. How do you know if a school is accredited? And, even if it’s not accredited, if it’s still a program worth pursuing? It’s essential to conduct thorough research, and beginning here is an ideal first step.

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 about it for 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:

  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 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.

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 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. The Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditorsthe Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the U.S. Department of Education populate these lists. 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. It is essential for students to ensure that they utilize their time and money wisely by making a genuine investment in their future prospects. To ensure that the institution and program being considered are accredited by nationally recognized accrediting agencies is the most effective approach.

The History of Accreditation

By the late 1880s, more colleges than ever were starting up in the United States, thanks to the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890. The government passed these acts 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 association started to do this 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 began. The latter group published the first list of accredited schools in 1913.

At the same time, professional schools also began developing new accreditation standards. 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.

In 1965, the Higher Education Act solidified the position of accrediting organizations in North America by introducing fresh federal student aid schemes for individuals who were not veterans. As with the GI Bill and Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act, only accredited institutions were eligible to receive the funds.

Accrediting agencies have undergone a constant process of growth and change ever since the GI Bill was signed into law. 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). The regional accrediting agencies formed the National Committee of Regional Accrediting Agencies, later named the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education (FRACHE), in a similar manner.

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. The Council for Higher Education (CHEA) took over from COPA in 1996 and currently acts as the foremost governing body for the Department of Education and Congress with regard to accreditation in higher education and the assessment of accrediting organizations. 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

Best Online College and Degree Rankings

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:

1. University of Michigan
2. University of North Florida
3. Villanova University
4. Smith College
5. Fairfield University
6. Azusa Pacific University
7. Simpson College
8. Old Dominion University
9. University of Wisconsin Whitewater
10. Ball State University
11. Sam Houston State University
12. University of North Dakota
13. California Baptist University
14. University of Wisconsin-Platteville
15. Western Kentucky University
16. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
17. Saint Mary’s College
18. Fort Hays State University
19. Eastern Kentucky University
20. Butler University
21. Angelo State University
22. Valdosta State University
23. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
24. Adams State University
25. Eureka College
26. Averett University
27. Bluefield College
28. Southwestern Assemblies of God University
29. Hope International University

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Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.