Are Online Universities Accredited?

Category: Education

A reader asks: '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 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.

Accrediting Organizations

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. 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. But even though "Washington American Governors University" sounds legit, it's not an accredited school.

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.

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 and Free Online College Courses - Part Three to get started.

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 Universities Accredited?"

Posted by:

Jon Skrine
12 Nov 2012

My wife is Californian and I am Welsh (British not English).

She mentioned a person's qualification a 'few' years ago. To her as an American studying at 'Cambridge College' sounded very good. To me it didn't.....

The 'Cambridge College' turned out to be an unregistered 'English as a foreign language' 'school' that wasn't even in Cambridge! It was even weirder that the person in question was American and had English as his first language!

Be very careful even if you think the college sounds reputable. Check, check and check again before you even think of handing over any money.

Even reputable colleges can be a bit 'economic with the truth' I once paid for a course that needed tutorials attended in person. I checked that they were being held locally and the Access to the building (I am Disabled). It took 6 months to get a refund of fees after tutorials were moved a few hundred miles away and in a building without parking facilities. To add insult to injury I discovered that the move had been made after commencement every year the course had been run for the convenience of the tutor.

Be careful it's a big bad world out there.


Posted by:

12 Nov 2012

Tread carefully even if the online program is associated with a reputable university. I know of a paralegal certificate program that claims graduates can take the NALA and NFPA paralegal certification tests. That's true, but only if they meet other additional requirements besides having graduated from their program. The online program (and their classroom version, for that matter) doesn't have enough contact hours to meet those organizations' standards, or even to qualify for student membership in them.

Posted by:

Peter Whitlock
12 Nov 2012

Many universities and colleges are moving to distance education (internet, etc.), i.e. taking the instruction to the student (as opposed to the traditional student comes to the instruction).

If the online course claims to be affiliated with a college or university, check with the particular institution's registrar's office (telephone call works best). They can tell you if the course is legit, if it is part of a certificate, diploma or degree program and most importantly, they can give you any prequalification information (i.e. previous experience, transfers, etc.). They can also direct you to the respective dean/department for further information.

Colleges and universities are starting to recognize that they are a lot of charlatans out there.

caveat emptor

Posted by:

12 Nov 2012

Having experienced this with hundreds of high school students planning college, my recommendation is to contact the University or College you want to transfer any credit to for their approval. Even properly accreditated schools credits are not accepted at all colleges and universities.

Posted by:

Marty Crum
13 Nov 2012

I highly recommend Columbia Southern University (CSU). They are fully accredited and I just graduated with a BS in Information Technology last month! You can earn your degree entirely online and the costs is very reasonable. They hold a commencement ceremony once a year in October not far from the school in Orange Beach, AL. While it is not required to attend in order to graduate, me and 537 other classmates made the trip, and I can say it was well worth it!! Forty-two states and six countries were represented. Check them out at:

Posted by:

16 Nov 2012

Thank goodness for online college and universities! If it were not for them, I would not have obtained my degree. I have moved just about every year because of being in the military and once I left the military, I followed my husband around the world. I have attended 1 community college and 3 universities online and eventually obtained my BS in Information Technology. My husband has also obtained his Associates, Bachelors and Masters degree through a combination of classroom and mostly online courses.

Also, my daughter goes to a traditional university but has taken online classes during the summer and will now graduate from her traditional university a semester early because of it. Her university accepted all of her online classes.

I know many people who have obtained their degrees from accredited online colleges and universities. It is a new way of learning and achieving educational goals. I will tell anyone to not be discouraged by the word "online." Just check out the university or college that you want to attend to ensure they are accredited as the article has mentioned and start working on achieving your goals!

Don't just listen to what other people say especially if it will discourage you, do your research and try it for yourself; that is how you achieve goals and fulfill dreams!

Posted by:

Damodara Surya Rama Prasad Dubey
18 Dec 2012

So many universities in USA are having accreditation and my own university where I have been graduated with MBA, i.e., The International University, Independence City, Missouri, MO,USA, is having accreditation but the same has not been shown in the narration. I would like if citation on the university is made for the help of other interested candidates.

Posted by:

Laurie S. Larsen
07 Oct 2013

Paralegal certificate. This option requires completing a bachelor's degree in a certain field of study before you can obtain a paralegal certificate. It takes a few months of intense study about the existing laws. To obtain paralegal certificate without actually going to a certain school, you may opt to earn online paralegal degrees from any of the online paralegal accredited schools.

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