Are Online Colleges Fully Accredited?

Category: Education

A reader asked: 'Are online colleges and universities accredited in the the same manner as campus-based schools? I'm planning get my Master's degree, so I'm looking into various online college courses. Should I be concerned about the reputation of online schools, even if they're associated with a well-known university? I'd hate to do all that work, only to find out my diploma is worthless. How can I find out if an online college is accredited?

Accreditation for Online Colleges

Thanks to the Internet, getting a college degree has never been easier. Thousands of degrees, professional certification courses, and continuing education credits are available online. Studying at home, at one's own pace, can be the most efficient and cost-effective way to earn your degree or advance your career. Provided the online college with which you study is accredited, of course.

Let's start with a definition. Accreditation is a third party's certification that a college program meets certain standards of academic rigor; in other words, that students actually do meaningful work and learn specific skills or knowledge. Accreditation is important for several reasons.

First, many scholarship and government financial aid programs fund only accredited college programs. Even banks may require accreditation as evidence that student loan money will be spent on education that will enable the borrower to pay back the loan. (See my related article: Don't Fall For Online Financial Aid Scams.)

accredited online colleges

Second, college credits earned through accredited institutions are often transferable to other colleges. You can take basic courses inexpensively online from an accredited institution instead of paying through the nose for them at an Ivy League school. But if the credits don't come from an accredited institution, Harvard or Yale may say they're worthless towards your MBA degree.

Third, employers look for accreditation as evidence that you actually learned something useful. Or at least, that you were taught something useful. You definitely want to avoid online "diploma mills" that simply take tuition money, mail a paper diploma, and tell employers, "Yes, we gave him a BS degree." BS, indeed. (See my related article: Doctors of Deception: Diploma Mills.)

Accrediting Organizations

If your goal is transferring your credits to another college, or earning a degree to advance your career, then accreditation is important. But if you just want to learn for fun or curiousity's sake, there many excellent online college courses you can take. Many prestigious universities, such as MIT, Stanford, Yale and Notre Dame, offer free online courses, and in some cases, you can earn actual college credits. See my articles Free Online College Courses, Free Online College Courses - Part Deux, Free Online College Courses - Part Three, and More Online College Courses to get started.

So how can you avoid these scams and ensure that your diploma or certificate is worth the paper it's printed on? You might assume all you need to do is look for the word, "accredited" in an online college's website, right? Well, no; it's not that easy, unfortunately. If the online college you're considering is associated with an established real-world college or university, that's a plus, but it's still no guarantee that the specific program or classes you want are accredited. Colleges, in particular, are persnickety about who does the accreditation of course. Funders and employers are not so picky, generally speaking.

There are a number of nationwide accrediting organizations; many regional ones; and some clique-ish ones established by small circles of institutions who snobbishly accept only each other's credits. So you must be careful, in planning your educational path, to choose online colleges whose accredited credits will definitely be accepted by the employer or colleges you plan to attend in the future.

Is My Online College Accredited?

It may be easiest to start with the college or university at which you plan to end. Call and ask the admissions office for the name of accreditation organization(s) that certify their school. If they don't know the answer, that's a red flag. Or you can visit the US Department of Education's database of accredited colleges.

Be sure to ask if the entire online college is accredited or only specific courses. Check out the online college's accrediting organization to make sure it exists, and see that it is widely accepted and legitimate. A site called World Wide Learn provides a helpful directory of accrediting organizations and other useful information about college accreditation.

Here's an example. Suppose you want to know if the "University of Phoenix at Holiday Inn Express - Fresno" is accredited. Sounds a bit sketchy, but sure enough, it appears in the DOE database, and the accrediting organization listed there is also in the World Wide Learn directory. On the flipside, see this long list of unaccredited institutions of higher education, many of which sound perfectly legitimate.

Be aware that colleges and specific courses can occasionally lose their accreditation. Other institutions may decide their standards have slipped and stop accepting their credits. So even after enrolling in an online college that was properly accredited at the time you enrolled, it pays to keep tabs on news concerning the institution and its accreditation.

And finally, there's one additional consideration. Even though a given school may be a fully accredited institution of higher education, some individual programs may not be. For example, a Master's program in Library Science may not be accredited by the American Library Association, or its paralegal certificate program may not be approved by the American Bar Association. While this distinction may not matter in a lot of professions, it's crucial to a few. So check to see if your program has the related professional association's "seal of approval" or your resume may be tossed without a second glance.

Do you have something to say about accreditation of online colleges or online college courses in general? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Online Colleges Fully Accredited?"

Posted by:

Marc Eisen
18 Jan 2018

Be aware that there are different accrediting agencies for online and "brick and mortar" institutions. While an online school may be legitimate, and accredited with the Department of Education, that does not mean you can transfer credits that you earn from one to the other. University of Phoenix credit hours and degrees, may or may not transfer to Harvard for example. You need to check if that is what you plan to do. Buyer beware!

Posted by:

18 Jan 2018

I may have missed something in the article but it strikes me that maybe the simplest way to check out accreditation is to call an Ivy League school or two, or the school you hope to transfer to, and ask if credits from the online learning institution may be transferred to them.

Posted by:

19 Jan 2018

One thing: stay away from for-profit schools (a la that phoenix one that paid to be the naming rights sponsor [john?] for the stadium).

Posted by:

20 Jan 2018

My employer does not accept any on-line education as a means of upgrading your skills, knowledge or education. They only accept education in a brick and mortar facility that you have to personally attend.

Posted by:

Russell Coover
22 Jan 2018

As a graduate of California Polytechnic State University (in San Luis Obispo, CA and known as Cal Poly), I was astounded to see on the list "South California Polytechnic University", a school listed as being in Taiwan.There is, however, an accredited school 200 miles south of San Luis Obispo with a similar name, California State Polytechnic University (in Pomona, CA - also know as Cal Poly). The two accredited schools are both part of the State University system in California, but are now separate institutions, though the Pomona School is actually a daughter of the San Luis Obispo School.

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