Best Online Colleges & Universities 2024
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 YouLearn 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.
The Best Online Colleges ranking is based on four main data points in four categories:
Schools are ranked based on four data points in three categories:
- Salary After Attending
- Affordability (average net price)
- Student Satisfaction (retention rate)
- Student Outcome (4-year graduation rate)
Each data point was ranked and scored against all other school data points in the ranking. Schools then received a composite score for the scores mentioned above and ranked accordingly--100 being the highest score possible.
In the case of tie in scoring, we used the average net price to determine which school would rank higher the lower the net price, the higher the ranking.
All data was gathered from the National Center for Education Statistics website and is accurate at the time of this writing [November 2023].
Best Online Colleges for 2024
The EDsmart Best Online Colleges ranking aims to help students find affordable, quality schools that provide a high return on investment.
1. American Public University System
- Average Net Price: $11,144
- Graduation Rate: 17.69%
- Retention Rate: 94.06%
- Median Earnings: $58,699
American Public University (APU) offers various benefits and features to its students, making higher education accessible and affordable. Here are some of the key benefits and highlights: APU aims to provide high-quality education that is affordable for students. APU offers flexible online programs that allow students to earn their degrees at their own pace. Online courses start each month, offering convenience and accessibility.
APU does not require entrance exams for admission, making it easier for students to enroll. APU offers over 200 degree and certificate programs, ranging from undergraduate to doctoral levels, providing options for various career paths. A significant portion of new undergraduate students have the opportunity to transfer credits from prior college or work experience, reducing the time and cost of earning a degree. About 90% of APU's students are working professionals, creating a collaborative learning environment where students can learn from their peers. There is no application fee for undergraduate and master's-level programs.
2. University of Missouri-St Louis
- Average Net Price: $11,462
- Graduation Rate: 58.76%
- Retention Rate: 77.67%
- Median Earnings: $50,876
The University of Missouri-St. Louis offers over 100 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs across disciplines like business, nursing, education, engineering, and more. Many programs are ranked nationally. As part of the UM state university system, UMSL offers affordable in-state tuition and numerous scholarship opportunities. Programs emphasize hands-on experiences, internships, and research to build career skills. The campus career center aids job and internship placement.
Despite its large size, class sizes average 20-30 students for more individualized attention. UMSL has a highly diverse student population representing varied backgrounds, ages, and life experiences. Students can join 100+ student organizations, clubs, Greek life, athletic teams, and more to build connections. The suburban campus outside St. Louis provides easy access to city resources, events, businesses, and cultural institutions. Services like advising, tutoring, counseling, disability access, veterans services, and more support student success.
3. University of Cincinnati-Main Campus
- Average Net Price: $22,114
- Graduation Rate: 68.20%
- Retention Rate: 87.39%
- Median Earnings: $51,185
The University of Cincinnati-Main Campus is regionally accredited with many highly ranked programs. Online students get the same great education. Online courses allow students to complete coursework on their own time each week, ideal for working adults. UC offers over 50 online associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees spanning diverse subjects. UC maintains transfer partnerships with community colleges and accepts many transfer credits.
Online students get access to resources like advising, tutoring, the writing center, the library, and more. Online programs allow students to build skills without interrupting their careers. Many see salary boosts.Graduates join UC's extensive alumni network for career networking and perks. UC is a major public research university ranked among the nation's top schools. Graduates earn a respected degree.
4. Trine University
- Average Net Price: $25,144
- Graduation Rate: 63.32%
- Retention Rate: 81.01%
- Median Earnings: $54,719
Tuition for Trine's online courses is more affordable compared to on-campus rates. This provides cost savings. Trine offers over 30 online associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree programs in fields like business, education, and healthcare. Online students get access to academic advising, tutoring, technical support, library services, and other resources.
Online course sections are capped at 25 students to ensure instructor engagement. Being fully online, there is no campus attendance requirement. Students are remote. Some online programs are self-paced, allowing students to accelerate course completion. Online students can enhance skills without interrupting their career. Many get promotions.
5. Western Governors University
- Average Net Price: $11,835
- Graduation Rate: 53.91%
- Retention Rate: 65.63%
- Median Earnings: $52,911
Western Governors University uses a competency-based model, allowing students to complete courses as fast as they can prove mastery of the material. This self-paced model benefits quick learners. Tuition is charged at a flat rate per 6-month term, regardless of how many courses are completed. This keeps costs low. Transferring previous college credits can reduce the time and cost to earn a degree. WGU accepts many transfer credits. WGU holds regional accreditation making degrees valid everywhere. Many programs hold specialty accreditations too.
Programs focus on high-demand fields like business, IT, teaching, healthcare, and more. Many tie directly to certification exams. All students get a personalized success team including a mentor, course instructors, and student advisors. Degree programs equip students with skills employers want. Many graduates earn promotions or change careers. Being online, there are no residency requirements. Students complete work remotely. WGU students can apply for federal financial aid and military benefits.
6. Columbia Southern University
- Average Net Price: $12,474
- Graduation Rate: 46.07%
- Retention Rate: 50.79%
- Median Earnings: $64,977
Columbia Southern University utilizes a self-paced online model, enabling students to complete courses at their own pace year-round. This accommodates busy schedules. CSU offers very affordable tuition rates compared to other online universities. CSU accepts up to 90 transfer credits toward undergraduate degrees, expediting completion. New course sessions begin every 4 weeks, so students can quickly progress. All online resources and student support are available round-the-clock. Courses can be accessed anytime.
CSU is regionally accredited and offers 98 accredited degree programs online. Programs focus in-demand fields like business, criminal justice, IT, psychology, and public safety. CSU is military-friendly, accepting military credits and benefits like the GI Bill.
7. University of Houston-Downtown
- Average Net Price: $13,100
- Graduation Rate: 45.42%
- Retention Rate: 65.91%
- Median Earnings: $52,929
UHD offers over 20 online bachelor's and master's degree programs in fields like business administration, criminal justice, psychology, public administration, and more. There are also several online certificate programs available in areas like technical communication, data analytics, and management. Online courses are delivered through the Blackboard learning management system. Programs can be completed fully online with no campus visits required.
As part of the University of Houston system, UHD's online programs provide affordable in-state tuition rates. The programs allow students to advance their careers without having to relocate or commute to campus. The flexible online format fits the schedules of working professionals. Courses do not meet at set times. Students receive access to campus resources like academic advising, tutoring, library services, and tech support. Faculty are experienced in online instruction and use interactive tools to engage students. Online students can participate in campus events, clubs, and networking opportunities. UHD is regionally accredited, so degrees have broad credibility.
8. Valley City State University
- Average Net Price: $13,060
- Graduation Rate: 48.00%
- Retention Rate: 66.67%
- Median Earnings: $48,672
VCSU offers over 80 online bachelor's degree completion programs in fields like business, criminal justice, education, healthcare, and more. Endorsement programs in fields like Special Education and English Language Learner instruction are also offered online.
As part of North Dakota's university system, VCSU provides affordable in-state tuition rates for online students. The flexible online format accommodates working adults and out-of-state students. Faculty are specifically trained in online pedagogy to deliver an engaging learning experience.
- Average Net Price: $11,469
- Graduation Rate: 47.05%
- Retention Rate: 63.16%
- Median Earnings: $49,205
Students can take self-paced online courses year-round which can accelerate degree completion. As part of SUNY, Empire State University offers very affordable in-state tuition rates for online learners. A generous transfer policy allows students to transfer up to 80 credits toward a bachelor's degree. Empire State offers over 120 online associate's and bachelor's degree programs in diverse fields. Regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Certain programs have specialty accreditations.
Learn from dedicated faculty who are experts in their online teaching fields. Graduates join an engaged alumni community for networking and mentoring. Dedicated advisors provide personalized guidance from enrollment to graduation. Online learners have access to tutoring, counseling, financial aid, the library, and other services. Students earn a degree from a renowned public college within the prestigious SUNY system.
10. Miami University-Middletown
- Average Net Price: $12,624
- Graduation Rate: 17.84%
- Retention Rate: 65.64%
- Median Earnings: $55,590
Miami Middletown offers several Associate's and Bachelor's degree completion programs online in fields like business, commerce, creative writing, criminal justice, and information technology. There are also online certificate programs available, including cybersecurity and social media marketing certificates. Miami Middletown has an extensive selection of online general education courses as well.
As part of Miami University, Middletown's online programs provide reputable degrees at affordable tuition rates. The flexible online format fits the schedules of working adults and students with families. Faculty are specifically trained to deliver an exceptional educational experience online. Small class sizes, even online, allow for personalized attention and interaction. Students gain access to Miami University's career development resources, alumni network, and student support services. Online students can complete full degrees remotely or take select courses online toward campus-based programs. The programs help position graduates for career advancement and success in their fields.
11. Miami University-Hamilton
- Average Net Price: $13,034
- Graduation Rate: 16.01%
- Retention Rate: 58.46%
- Median Earnings: $55,590
Miami University is a highly regarded public university, so online students earn respected degrees. As part of Miami University, Miami-Hamilton offers very affordable in-state tuition rates. Online courses accommodate busy schedules and remote learning, with asynchronous formats. Students can transfer many credits toward Miami-Hamilton online programs.
A good selection of Associate's and Bachelor's completion programs are offered online. Online students get access to advising, tutoring, counseling, financial aid, the library, and other resources. Limited class sizes promote interaction and engagement with classmates and faculty. Classes can be completed fully online from anywhere with no campus visits required. Miami-Hamilton offers accelerated 7-week online terms to progress quickly. Programs equip graduates with knowledge and skills applicable to in-demand fields.
12. Logan University
- Average Net Price: $13,854
- Graduation Rate: 45.33%
- Retention Rate: 51.02%
- Median Earnings: $50,143
Logan is a top-ranked chiropractic college with a renowned faculty. The online format accommodates students from all over the country, including working professionals. The MSSR curriculum integrates Logan's expertise in human biomechanics, movement assessment, and health optimization.Students gain access to Logan's student resources, alumni network, career services, and library databases.
The program incorporates practical experience through clinical rotations. Courses use interactive tools and video lectures to engage online learners. Affordable tuition rates and financial aid are available for the online program.
13. Wilmington University
- Average Net Price: $14,796
- Graduation Rate: 43.84%
- Retention Rate: 54.49%
- Median Earnings: $51,570
Wilmington offers online, evening, weekend, and accelerated courses to fit different schedules. Wilmington strives to keep tuition affordable, especially for in-state students. Scholarships and financial aid are available. Up to 90 credits can transfer toward a bachelor's degree, expediting completion.
Over 200 associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs are offered across diverse fields. Programs focus on in-demand skills that translate directly to career progression. Despite enrollment over 15,000 students, average class size is just 14-17 students. Wilmington professors have relevant real-world experience in the fields they teach. With campuses in Delaware and online, Wilmington serves students regionally and beyond. Wilmington specifically caters to adult and non-traditional student needs.
14. Franklin University
- Average Net Price: $29,773
- Graduation Rate: 40.85%
- Retention Rate: 8.86%
- Median Earnings: $52,358
Franklin's online courses are asynchronous and self-paced, allowing students to balance school with work. Franklin offers very competitive tuition rates for online students and financial aid is available. Students can transfer up to 80 credits toward an online bachelor's degree. Franklin offers over 50 online associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs in diverse fields. Programs focus on high-demand fields like IT, healthcare, business, and public safety.
From tutoring to advising to the library, online students have access to support services. Learn from professors with academic credentials and real-world experience. Regionally accredited with program-specific accreditations in many disciplines. Being fully online, there's no campus attendance requirement to complete degrees.Programs teach in-demand skills that translate to career progression.
15. Brigham Young University-Idaho
- Average Net Price: $6,577
- Graduation Rate: 64.71%
- Retention Rate: 70.59%
- Median Earnings: $52,551
As a private university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU-Idaho offers very affordable tuition for members of the LDS church. Students enjoy a spiritually uplifting environment with religion classes and weekly devotionals. Practical, career-oriented programs provide hands-on experience and networking for job opportunities after graduation. Students can choose from over 100 undergraduate degrees across diverse fields of study.
The campus in Rexburg, Idaho provides a scenic background for learning and outdoor recreation. A common honor code and standards unite students in a respectful, collaborative environment. Many student clubs and activities center around service and volunteer opportunities. Resources like tutoring, counseling, and advising assist in student success. Despite its large enrollment, class sizes average around 22 students for personalized attention. Overall, BYU-Idaho combines spiritual growth, rigorous career preparation, beautiful surroundings, and a strong sense of community for an affordable education.
16. The Baptist College of Florida
- Average Net Price: $7,641
- Graduation Rate: 61.87%
- Retention Rate: 84.09%
- Median Earnings: $38,772
BCF offers several fully online bachelor's degree programs including Biblical & Theological Studies, Business Leadership, Elementary Education, Christian Studies, and more. Taking classes online allows students flexibility in scheduling and location. Courses can be completed asynchronously.
As a Christian college, BCF integrates faith into the curriculum and offers spiritual growth for online students. Students must take biblical studies courses. Online courses have an 18:1 student-to-teacher ratio, allowing for personalized attention and interaction with professors. Students can complete their degree 100% online through BCF with no required on-campus visits. BCF is regionally accredited, so credits and degrees earned can transfer to other schools or be used professionally. The online programs equip graduates well for Christian ministry, teaching, and leadership positions after graduation.
Overall, BCF provides affordable, faith-based online bachelor's degrees with scheduling flexibility and academic support for students seeking ministry training or an education grounded in Christian principles.
17. University of Alaska Fairbanks
- Average Net Price: $9,684
- Graduation Rate: 34.22%
- Retention Rate: 72.90%
- Median Earnings: $46,150
UAF offers over 40 degree and certificate programs fully online across diverse fields like business, education, engineering, emergency management, justice, and more. Online classes allow students to complete coursework on their own time from anywhere, which is beneficial for working professionals. Online students qualify for same in-state tuition rates as on-campus students, making programs affordable. Rates are about $330 per credit.
UAF's online bachelor's programs are ranked among the best in the nation by US News for their quality and value. UAF offers online classes in shorter 8-week terms as well as 16-weeks, providing faster completion options. Students can transfer eligible credits to maximize affordability and shorten time to degree completion. As Alaska's flagship university, UAF is accredited and known as a top choice for Arctic and northern studies.
Online programs are designed to help advance careers for working students seeking skills and credentials.
18. Georgia Highlands College
- Average Net Price: $6,848
- Graduation Rate: 22.14%
- Retention Rate: 73.33%
- Median Earnings: $40,769
GHC offers several Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees online in fields like business, criminal justice, education, general studies, and more. As a two-year state college, GHC offers very affordable tuition for Georgia residents. Rates are about $115 per credit hour for eTuition students. All classes are offered asynchronously 100% online, allowing students to complete work on their schedule.
Online students get access to advising, tutoring, technical support, library services, and other academic resources. There is no fee to apply for admission to GHC's online programs, saving students money upfront. A wide variety of core courses and electives across disciplines are offered online each term at GHC. Small class sizes allow for interaction with faculty. Professors are focused on teaching. GHC focuses on providing the first two years of college affordably with credits that transfer for bachelor's programs. Overall, GHC offers an affordable and convenient way to complete associate degrees online or get core credits towards a four-year degree. Student support services help ensure online student success.
19. Hallmark University
- Average Net Price: $10,708
- Graduation Rate: 46.11%
- Retention Rate: 66.67%
- Median Earnings: $39,118
Hallmark offers several bachelor's and master's degrees fully online, including programs in business administration, cybersecurity, information technology, nursing, and more. Hallmark has regional accreditation, so credits and degrees earned online are widely transferrable. Tuition for online undergraduate programs is priced competitively around $400 per credit hour. Graduate tuition is around $500/credit. Hallmark offers 6-week accelerated terms that allow online students to complete degrees faster.
No part of the online degrees require any on-campus coursework or visits. Programs are 100% online. Online coursework, resources, and student support are accessible 24/7 for scheduling flexibility. All online students get access to academic advising, tutoring, technical support, library services, and career guidance. Online courses are capped at 25 students to ensure individualized attention and interaction. Hallmark caters to military/veteran students with benefits like tuition discounts, flexible credit transfer.
Overall, Hallmark provides accredited and affordable online degree programs in professional fields with schedules flexible for working adults and ample student support services.
20. University of Alaska Southeast
- Average Net Price: $7,368
- Graduation Rate: 38.26%
- Retention Rate: 64.06%
- Median Earnings: $41,500
The University of Alaska Southeast offers associate's and bachelor's degrees online in fields like business administration, accounting, community health, early childhood development, and more. As part of the University of Alaska system, UAS Southwest offers very affordable tuition rates around $250 per credit hour for Alaskan residents.
The university provides accessible education to students located in southwest Alaska remote communities. All classes are offered 100% online asynchronously, allowing students to complete coursework on their schedules.
Some online courses are offered in accelerated 8-week sessions for faster completion.
Online courses have capped enrollment to ensure learning support and interaction.
Students meeting Alaska resident requirements pay affordable in-state tuition rates for online programs. Being part of the University of Alaska system, UAS degrees provide accredited education that is valued. Eligible credits can transfer to UAS, helping maximize affordability and shorten time to degree. Overall, UAS Southwest provides affordable, accredited, and flexible online degree options tailored for students located in remote southwest Alaskan communities.
21. University of Maine at Presque Isle
- Average Net Price: $9,266
- Graduation Rate: 44.92%
- Retention Rate: 68.88%
- Median Earnings: $28,114
The University of Maine at Presque Isle offers various associate's and bachelor's degree programs fully online in fields like business, accounting, criminal justice, nursing, education, and more. As part of the University of Maine system, UMPI provides discounted in-state tuition rates for online students which are around $315 per credit hour. The online programs follow a unique 7-week academic term schedule, allowing students to take multiple terms per year. Students can potentially transfer credits from other schools to maximize affordability and accelerate progress.
The university provides increased access to education for students located in central/northern Maine. As part of the accredited University of Maine system, degrees earned provide credentialed education. Online courses have lower enrollment caps allowing for more personalized learning and faculty interaction. Programs can be completed entirely online with no required campus visits. The unique term model allows online students flexibility in pacing their progression.
22. Eastern New Mexico University-Main Campus
- Average Net Price: $4,994
- Graduation Rate: 46.19%
- Retention Rate: 60.35%
- Median Earnings: $36,355
ENMU offers over 15 associate's and bachelor's degrees online in fields like business, education, liberal arts, sciences, nursing, and more. Many online courses are offered in 8-week accelerated sessions as well as 16-week. ENMU is regionally accredited, so online degrees provide credible education applicable for transfer or careers. Online students have access to advising, tutoring, tech support, library resources, and other academic assistance.
Online programs can be completed fully remotely with no required campus visits.
For students interested in New Mexican culture/history, ENMU provides specialized online offerings. Students can transfer eligible credits to help maximize affordability and shorten time to degree completion. ENMU has been providing distance education to New Mexico for over 50 years. Overall, ENMU provides affordable accredited online degree options with flexible pacing and strong student support services tailored for New Mexico students.
23. Polk State College
- Average Net Price: $7,994
- Graduation Rate: 29.82%
- Retention Rate: 68.18%
- Median Earnings: $38,897
Polk State offers over 15 different online associate degree options in fields like business, criminal justice, computer technology, general studies, and more. As a public Florida college, Polk State offers very affordable in-state tuition for online students around $112 per credit hour. Online courses are offered in accelerated 7-week sessions as well as 15-weeks to provide scheduling flexibility. Online students have access to advising services, tutoring, technical support, library resources, and other support services.
Many Polk State credits transfer to Florida public universities, making it an affordable start to a bachelor's degree. The college provides accessible online education options to students located in central Florida. There is no application fee to apply for admission to Polk State's online associate degree programs. A wide range of online general education and program-specific courses are available each term. Small class sizes allow for interaction with faculty in the online environment. Overall, Polk State is an ideal option for affordable online associate degrees, transferable credits, and preparation to enter the workforce in central Florida.
24. Louisiana State University-Alexandria
- Average Net Price: $7,166
- Graduation Rate: 31.62%
- Retention Rate: 58.42%
- Median Earnings: $41,051
Louisiana State University-Alexandria offers fully online bachelor's degrees in fields like business administration, criminal justice, psychology, general studies, and more. As part of the LSU system, LSUA offers discounted in-state tuition rates for online students around $325 per credit hour. Students can transfer eligible credits to help maximize affordability and accelerate degree progress.
Online students have access to advising, tutoring, tech support, library services, and other student success resources. LSUA is regionally accredited, so online degrees provide credible and transferable education. Small class sizes in online courses ensure all students receive interaction with and support from faculty. A wide range of general education and upper-level program courses are offered online each term. For students interested in Louisiana culture/history, LSUA provides specialized online offerings. Overall, LSUA provides accredited and affordable online bachelor's degree options with robust student support services tailored for Louisiana students.
25. Cameron University
- Average Net Price: $8,919
- Graduation Rate: 23.76%
- Retention Rate: 63.47%
- Median Earnings: $39,357
Cameron offers a variety of associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees fully online across diverse fields like business, education, nursing, criminal justice and more.
Affordable Tuition - As an in-state public university, Cameron offers discounted tuition rates for Oklahoma residents, around $250 per credit hour. Cameron is regionally accredited, so credits and degrees earned online are credible and transferrable.
Many online programs offer 6-week accelerated course options alongside 16-week classes.
Services like tutoring, advising, library access, and tech support ensure online student success. Small class sizes promote student-faculty interaction and individualized attention. Online programs at Cameron can be completed 100% remotely with no required campus visits. Students may be able to transfer eligible credits to maximize affordability and shorten time to graduation. Cameron has been providing distance learning to OK students for over 40 years. Overall, Cameron provides accredited, affordable online degree options with flexible pacing and robust student support services tailored for Oklahomans seeking career advancement.
26. Great Basin College
- Average Net Price: $7,758
- Graduation Rate: 31.37%
- Retention Rate: 60.00%
- Median Earnings: $36,875
Great Basin College offers accredited online associate's and bachelor's degrees in fields like business administration, criminal justice, education, nursing, and more. As a Nevada community college, GBC offers very affordable in-state tuition for online students starting around $136 per credit. Online programs provide increased access to higher education for students in rural Nevada communities. In addition to regular semester courses, GBC offers accelerated 5-week online class options.
Many GBC credits seamlessly transfer to Nevada four-year schools to continue a bachelor's degree. All online degree programs can be completed 100% remotely with no required campus visits. Online courses have capped enrollments which facilitates student-instructor interaction. Instructors bring real-world experience that informs practical teaching. Overall, GBC provides affordable, accredited online degree options focused on increasing access to higher education across rural Nevada.
27. Franklin University
- Average Net Price: $29,773
- Graduation Rate: 40.85%
- Retention Rate: 8.86%
- Median Earnings: $52,358
Franklin offers over 40 associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees online spanning fields like business, healthcare, IT, criminal justice, and design. Franklin's tuition rates for online programs are priced competitively, usually under $500 per credit hour. In addition to standard terms, Franklin offers accelerated 5- to 6-week online class options.
Students can transfer in a significant number of credits to maximize affordability and speed graduation timelines. Dedicated teams provide online students with advising, tutoring, tech support, library access, etc. As an established university, Franklin degrees provide credentials from a reputable institution attractive to employers. Franklin is regionally accredited, enabling credit transferability and credential recognition. Many programs feature industry-tailored curriculum aligned to in-demand fields. Franklin enrolls online students from all 50 states and over 65 countries. Overall, Franklin provides accredited, focused, and affordable online degree options backed by flexible pacing and strong student support services.
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:
- 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. The Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, the 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
- 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
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- Accredited Online Colleges in Oregon
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- 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
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- The Best Online MBA Programs of 2019-2020
- Best Regionally Accredited Online Colleges
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- Cheapest Online Degrees by Degree Level
- Best Accelerated Nursing & BSN Programs: Online + On-campus
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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