In-Depth Guide

Overview of Online College Accreditation

Your priority during an online college search should be accreditation, since this will determine the credibility of your education and likelihood of being hired by employers after graduation. Attending academic institutions with proper accreditation ensures the value of your college degree. Read on to learn how colleges become accredited, and why it is so vital for your online education.


Both colleges and individual degree programs go through accreditation, which means they are reviewed by an authoritative agency that regulates teaching standards, educational content, and faculty practices. If you enroll in an accredited program, you can be confident that professors are teaching curricula that meet high standards. Accreditation is not just granted to a school once – most are required to continually demonstrate a commitment to standards by renewing their accreditation once every few years.

There are two main organizations in the U.S. that oversee reputable accreditation agencies. These are the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The CHEA recognizes accreditation agencies that uphold academic quality, accountability, and decision-making standards. The USDE admits organizations that can participate in federal student aid and other national programs.

Accreditation agencies are split into two categories, national and regional. There are six regional agencies recognized by the USDE or CHEA, and 84 national accreditation agencies. Regional accreditation is generally applied to four-year universities, while national accreditation is awarded to community colleges, technical schools, and other institutions with a more vocational focus. If you are planning to transfer schools, make sure to do some research first. Credits that fall under national accreditation are not accepted at every school.

Another important accreditation agency is the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). This organization regulates over 100 web-based academic institutions across seven countries. For-profit colleges are recognized by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges (ACICS), which oversees nearly 900 institutions. Students exploring associate’s degrees at technical colleges and federal institutions may find that the Council of Occupational Education (COE) has recognized your program.

Depending on the field you are entering, you may want to check for specialized accreditation. For example, all law degree programs within the U.S. should only receive accreditation from the American Bar Association or the California Committee of Bar Examiners. Other fields, such as business, architecture, engineering, and nursing, will rely on specific, authority agencies for accreditation. Make sure to thoroughly research your individual field to see if your college choices have received the appropriate accreditation.

All agencies have their own processes, guidelines, and rubrics for schools and degree programs to qualify for accreditation. Here’s a sample timeline of how the process works:

  • An academic institution or department will contact the agency for updated guidelines.
  • The school will compose a report evaluating their own educational practices, curricula, and standards, as they pertain to the agency’s requirements. This document can be dozens of pages long and take several months to compile.
  • This report is submitted along with the school’s application for accreditation.
  • The agency will often schedule an on-site visit to view teaching processes, examine teaching materials, and survey students.
  • A committee will then review a collection of materials and reports about the institution, and then decide whether to award accreditation or deny it.

The entire process can take several months to over a year. Agencies often require schools and departments to renew their accreditation every few years.

The Importance of Accreditation

You may still be wondering why accreditation is such a big deal. These agencies actually exist for your benefit. Only students who attend accredited colleges and universities may receive federal financial aid. If your school is unaccredited, you will be losing out on thousands of dollars in financing options. A lack of accreditation can also make it difficult or impossible for you to transfer to a new college. Most academic institutions will only accept course credits from accredited institutions, since they know your former program upheld rigorous educational standards.

Diploma mills and fraudulent accreditation agencies prey on eager college applicants, charging students exorbitant rates for degrees that hold little professional or academic value. The U.S. Department of Education warns consumers about suspicious organizations, which are often unaccredited or recognized by an unknown agency. Diploma mills will often boast quick and unrealistic completion timeframes, with little to no actual class work. Accreditation signifies that your degree was obtained from a reputable institution, rather than purchased from a mill.

While some colleges and degree programs may be leaders in specific academic fields, they still run the risk of losing their accreditation. Don’t forget that accreditation agencies hold these institutions and departments to extremely high standards. If a school can no longer demonstrate their dedication to high-quality education, then the accredidation agency will no longer vouch for them. For example, The City College of San Francisco is reeling after learning that their accreditation will be revoked in 2014 after the school neglected to make recommended improvements. Mountain State University lost accreditation in 2012 after a number of administrative changes.

So what should you do if your school loses accreditation? Once you enroll at an accredited college, make sure to continually monitor the news about their renewal status. If your college or program is at risk, you may want to consider transferring your credits to a new, accredited school. That way you can continue receiving financial aid and ensure your degree retains its value. If you have already earned a degree and your college loses accreditation, let prospective employers know about your alma mater’s accreditation history if asked. This will demonstrate that you earned the degree while the college was still meeting agency standards.

There are other important considerations to make while looking for the perfect online degree program. However, accredited schools and departments should be at the forefront of your search. After enrolling in your new degree program, continue to monitor your school for any upcoming changes to its accreditation status.