Decoding Accreditation and the Online College

online college accreditationIf you are interested in online education, you probably already know that it is important to compare the components of different programs and look specifically for accreditation. While it seems that accreditation should be a clear-cut issue – a school is accredited or not –in reality, it’s a little more complicated. With so many accrediting agencies (and unfortunately, mills) and different levels of accreditation possible, how can a prospective student make sense of it all?

Accreditation Basics: FAQ

Fortunately, there are two main groups working to help all of us understand accreditation a little better. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) publishes a list of accrediting agencies it reviews and recognizes. The schools that are accredited by these agencies are then eligible for federal funds. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a non-profit organization that serves as a “national advocate and institutional voice for self-regulation of academic quality” and currently recognizes 60 accrediting agencies.

What is accreditation? The goal, as defined by USDE, is “to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable level of quality.” Accreditation gives you some degree of assurance that the schools you are considering go through a periodic review process, which, as described by CHEA, includes “self-review and peer review for improvement of academic quality and public accountability.” The process includes assessment of faculty qualifications, curricula, student support services, and more based on established criteria.

Why is it important? Accreditation is not just a mark of quality that you as a prospective student can use, but also a benchmark for other aspects of higher education and career decisions.

  • If you want to transfer credit from one school to another, for example, the school you are transferring the credits to may require that the courses you’ve already completed be from an accredited institution.
  • If you are interested in using federal financial aid, the school must be accredited by an agency already recognized by the USDE.
  • If your area of study and career goals will require you to sit for a state or national licensure exam, such as nursing’s NCLEX exam for the RN license, you will need to have graduated from an accredited program. Employers in some fields may also choose to hire candidates who have graduated from accredited institutions.
  • If you think graduate school is in your future, you will likely need to have graduated from an accredited undergraduate program.

What are the different types of accreditation? I’ve written previously about types and levels of accreditation. It’s possible for some programs or schools to have more than one kind. Institutional accrediting agencies review the college or university as a whole, and there are national and regional agencies that do this. Specialized accrediting agencies focus on specific areas of study, and are relevant only in some disciplines. For example, there are multiple accrediting agencies that specifically review nursing programs (e.g., NLNAC, CCNE).

There are also accrediting agencies that specialize in online schools and programs. The Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) is just one example and falls into the category of nationally recognized, institutional accrediting agencies. However the accreditors that review traditional institutions also review distance programs, so you don’t have to expect that an online school or program has been reviewed by an online accrediting agency.

“Additional Inquiry is Essential”

Traditionally, USDE and CHEA have provided lists of recognized accreditors on their respective websites. This required some cross checking, but I recently was made aware of a document posted by CHEA that provides a side-by-side comparison of accrediting organizations [PDF] that are or have been recognized by these two groups.

As I reviewed the list of recognized accrediting organizations, I was surprised to find this statement: “readers are strongly cautioned against making judgments about the quality of an accrediting organization … based solely on CHEA or USDE status. Additional inquiry is essential.” In the past, recognition by either USDE or CHEA was a good indicator that the accreditor was doing its job to ensure basic levels of education and training in the schools that receive their accreditation approval. What else do you need to know about an accrediting organization, and how can you find out more?

Let’s walk through the case of Liberty University, a school that offers both online and on-campus programs, and use available resources to research and crosscheck the details of accreditation at both institutional and program levels.

1) Does the school have institutional-level accreditation? A quick look at the school’s website informs us that it has institutional accreditation through a regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Institutional Accreditation

2) Is the school’s institutional-level accreditor recognized by either the CHEA or USDE? We can see on the CHEA/USDE comparison list that SACS is recognized by both the CHEA and USDE.

USDE CHEA Accreditation

3) What about program-level or specialized accreditation? Remember, this isn’t applicable to all programs, majors, or areas of study. As an example, let’s look closer at Liberty’s Athletic Training program.

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association, has determined that to become a Certified Athletic Trainer, “one must graduate from a bachelors or masters degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) … then pass the certification examination.” We can see on Liberty’s website that the Athletic Training program is accredited by CAATE.

Program Accreditation

(Note: if you are interested in a field that requires certification or a license, in addition to academic work, before you are eligible for employment, you should research the specific acceditors that review programs in that field.)

4) Is the program-level or specialized accreditor recognized by USDE or CHEA? The comparison list does not include CAATE indicating that it isn’t recognized by USDE or CHEA.

While this seems like a potential red flag, additional inquiry can help you make an informed decision about what this means. Did the program have accreditation from a recognized agency and lose it? Did this particular accrediting agency choose not to seek recognition?

A closer look at the CAATE website shows that this agency is in the process of CHEA review, which is scheduled to begin in Spring 2014. The process can take a while to complete, but it’s helpful to know that it is in progress.


In the example presented above, a prospective student interested in the athletic training program can know that the school has both institutional and program-specific accreditation, and that the accrediting agencies are either recognized, or in the process of being reviewed by CHEA.

What else do you need to know?

Know what your priorities are as they relate to finding an accredited school or program.

  • Do you already have credit that you want to transfer, or do you plan to transfer credits you’ll earn at your next school to another school in the future?
  • Are you thinking about graduate school, or will employers in your industry be concerned with accreditation? Look at information provided by graduate programs and professional associations in your field.
  • Will you have to take a licensing or certification exam after you graduate to apply for jobs? If so, check with the organizations guiding your field and administering these exams to find out the specific requirements related to accreditation.
  • Will you rely on federal student aid? This includes a range of programs, grants, and loans, as well as the GI Bill and military tuition assistance.

Talk with each school’s admissions representatives, financial aid officers, and/or program directors as applicable to research accreditation status if you are at all unsure. Don’t be shy about asking questions to help you understand what is required and what is in place. Accreditation is not automatic, and once earned, accreditation is maintained through a periodic review, so things can and do change.

You can also contact the accrediting agencies directly to ask questions about a specific school or program’s status. In our example with Liberty University, the school even provides the contact information for SACS and CAATE, as well as all of the other agencies currently accrediting the school’s programs, on its website. Prospective students are encouraged to ask questions.

Keep in mind that accreditation from the perspective of an institution is not required, so there is a chance, though a slim one, that a school would choose not to pursue accreditation. However, this severely limits a school’s marketability and eligibility for federal financial aid, and its graduates’ abilities to move forward. Likewise, accrediting agencies also have to initiate a review by the USDE or CHEA to receive their recognition.

While the USDE and CHEA provide a helpful start on establishing the level of quality of an accrediting agency and the school’s it reviews, there are additional steps you can take to make the best decisions possible about your education and training. Time spent collecting and comparing information before you choose a program is time well spent.

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