Do Accredited Online Colleges Offer Degrees That Matter?

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We’ve all heard the condemnation that online schools don’t provide the same caliber of education as traditional schools, and that the degrees that they confer aren’t as valuable or desirable. This isn’t universally true; many virtual schools provide the same level of academic quality as their more traditional counterparts. So how can you tell if a particular degree from a specific online university is worth the time, effort and cost you’ll need to invest in completing it? The answer is to see if the school or program has achieved academic accreditation.

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is official recognition that validates the reputability and value of the education offered by a college, online or otherwise. Earning accreditation is particularly important for young schools that haven’t yet had a chance to establish their reputation of academic quality. If a school or program has earned accreditation, then it has met certain standards and criteria of scholarly adequacy.

Who is Accreditation Important To?

First and foremost, accreditation is important to the school or program and its students. Accreditation affirms to prospective students that they will earn a degree that has value and merit, in terms of education for its own sake and for knowledge and skills that will help them succeed in their chosen careers once they’ve graduated. This helps the college attract a larger number of students and students of a higher academic caliber. Accreditation also appeals employers, who can rest assured that their prospective hire has a legitimate education and training in his or her field. Likewise, accreditation matters to other schools, whether you’re transferring from one to another or applying to grad school after earning your bachelor’s. Accreditation affirms the value of the credits hours you’ve accumulated thus far or the degree that you currently hold.

How does Accreditation Work?

An entire institution can gain accreditation, which shows that the school has established certain operating criteria, such as: adequate access to scholarly information, like a well-stocked library and subscriptions to academic journals and databases; adequate student services and policies; evidence of student success following their graduations; and a sufficient number of qualified faculty members. Individual programs within a college or university can also earn more specialized, discipline-focused accreditations. Criteria for this type of accreditation vary by the type of program; art history will have very different standards from microbiology. An institution as a whole may be accredited without any of its individual programs having their own accreditation. Achieving either type of accreditation requires a substantial fee and an application describing how the program or institution meets the academic standards required for accreditation. An on-site assessment will occur, and if the team finds that the program or school does indeed meet their standards, accreditation will be awarded. To ensure that standards continue to be met, the accrediting institution will periodically re-evaluate the school or program.

Who Provides Accreditation?

The organizations that confer accreditation are private groups who work in tandem with one another and with federal education agencies. One of these government organs, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, provides oversight for, and maintains general uniformity amongst, accrediting bodies. Traditionally, schools are accredited through regional organizations under the Council’s purview. Online colleges are not typically regionally accredited, though an established school that offers a distance learning program probably will have regional accreditation. National accreditation is typically reserved for very specialized schools or specific programs of study. Programs within an online college are more likely to receive this sort of more focused accreditation.

Is My School or Program Accredited?

Because accreditation is a sign of validity and prestige, schools and programs will often advertise their accreditations in promotional materials and on their websites. If a school you’re interested in is not accredited, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it is a recently established institution or program, they may simply not have completed the accreditation process yet. If they are currently seeking or in the process of finalizing accreditation, they will most likely publicize this fact. If they are neither accredited nor seeking to become accredited, you should investigate further to determine why this is the case. If you’re looking to establish a pool of accredited schools and narrow your search from there, numerous resources are available to you. The Federal Department of Education maintains a comprehensive database of accredited schools and programs within the United States. However, this list is only updated periodically; new schools that have recently achieved accreditation may not yet be listed, and schools that have lost their accreditation may not have yet been removed. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, as well as many state departments of education, also provide lists of accredited institutions that fall within their purview. The six regional accrediting agencies also have lists of institutions that they have accredited. The best way to establish whether or not a school or program is truly accredited is to cross-reference all of these lists and resources provided by these groups. However, you should be wary of fraudulent accrediting bodies; to verify that accreditation is legitimate, consult the Department of Education’s website to ensure that the group is a recognized accrediting agency. Higher education is a huge investment, and not one to be taken lightly. To ensure that you’re getting the most out of your time and money, make sure that your chosen school or program is properly accredited by a recognized authority.