How to Check if Your Online School Is Accredited

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Updated July 17, 2024
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Curious how to know if a university is accredited? Our guide explores everything you need to know about college accreditation and red flags to avoid.
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Accreditation matters for online colleges, yet many prospective students don’t know what accreditation means or if a university is accredited.

So what is accreditation? It’s a rigorous process in which independent, nonprofit accrediting agencies evaluate schools and programs. Accredited colleges offer students a high-quality education, and choosing an accredited online school can shape your career opportunities.

Our guide walks through how to check if an online school is accredited so you can avoid the pitfalls of an unaccredited degree.

Why Does Accreditation Matter So Much?

Accreditation is like a stamp of approval — it proves that a school or program provides quality education by meeting certain academic standards.

These standards typically focus on the school’s ability to provide academic support, how well the school prepares students for jobs, faculty quality, and curriculum strength.

Attending an accredited school also ensures you qualify for federal financial aid. Only schools that have been accredited by an approved agency are eligible for federal funds. Approved accreditors are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

In addition, accreditation increases the likelihood that graduate programs and potential employers will recognize your degree. A degree from an unaccredited school may not meet the requirements necessary for licensure or for admission to a graduate program.

How to Know if a College or University Is Accredited

If you’re interested in attending an online college or university, you must ensure the school is accredited before you apply. Some online schools may claim they’re accredited but, in reality, are diploma mills handing out unrecognized degrees and certificates.

So how can you confirm an online school’s accreditation status?

1. Check the School’s Website

Most accredited colleges and universities include a link to their accreditation details somewhere on their homepage or on their “About Us” page.

Alternatively, you can look for accreditation information using the school’s search function or by searching “[School Name] accreditation” on Google.

If you’d also like to confirm programmatic accreditation (not just institutional), navigate to the specific degree program’s official homepage and look for info on accreditation.

2. Check the Accreditation Agency’s Website

After finding accreditation information on a school’s website, you need to confirm the accreditation status directly through the accrediting body. Schools and programs can lose accreditation if their quality drops or they fail to pass an accreditation review.

Visit the accreditation agency’s website and look for a list of accredited or member schools. If your school appears on the list, you’ll know that it holds accreditation.

Unaccredited schools may misrepresent their accreditation status, so it’s important to confirm their claims through the accreditation agency.

3. Check the Accreditor’s Legitimacy

The final step is to ensure that the accrediting agency itself is a legitimate organization recognized by CHEA and/or ED.

To ensure the agency’s legitimacy, look for it on CHEA’s list and ED’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. The accreditor only needs to appear on one of these to be considered legitimate.

Remember that if a school or program is accredited by an unrecognized agency, you may not qualify for federal aid, licensure, and even certain jobs.

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How to Know if a College or University Is Not Accredited

Unaccredited schools do not advertise their lack of accreditation. In fact, they often pursue accreditation from organizations with little or no standards so they can appear accredited at first glance.

By confirming the accreditor’s legitimacy, you can steer clear of colleges that do not hold accreditation. If you see any of the following red flags, do more research before applying.

Look Out for These Red Flags

  • The school claims accreditation by an agency that isn’t recognized by CHEA or ED.
  • Promotional materials seem overly “salesy” and make outlandish promises, such as telling prospective students they can earn a degree in weeks.
  • The school has a very similar name and/or website to a well-known accredited school.
  • Other schools and employers have never heard of the institution or have a strongly negative perception of it.
  • The school has a pending accreditation status with no estimated date for when the accreditation will be finalized.
  • Faculty credentials aren’t readily available or faculty members attended unaccredited schools.
  • The school makes hard-to-believe claims, such as that graduates earn unusually high salaries or have robust graduate employment rates, without citing sources or offering ways to verify the information.
  • Graduation and curriculum requirements are far less rigorous than those of comparable, accredited programs.
  • The school’s website doesn’t provide an address for its campus or offices.
  • You can earn a degree solely with prior experience — no coursework necessary.
  • The school awards academic credit for prior coursework without requiring you to supply an official transcript.

Frequently Asked Questions About Accreditation for Online Universities and Colleges

What is accreditation?

Accreditation is a process that evaluates educational institutions and programs. Independent accrediting agencies conduct rigorous reviews of graduation requirements, program materials, and faculty qualifications to grant accreditation. Degree-seekers should always choose an accredited college.

How can I know if a university is accredited?

You can check whether a university holds accreditation by visiting the university’s website or by using a search tool like the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs from ED. When checking accreditation status, don’t take the school’s word for it. Make sure to confirm with the accreditor and check the accrediting body’s legitimacy.

What if my university is not accredited?

If your university is not accredited, it can put your transfer credits, financial aid, and job opportunities at risk. An unaccredited degree may not meet the requirements for many professional licenses or certifications. And you may struggle to get into graduate school.

Are institutional and programmatic accreditation the same?

No, institutional and programmatic accreditation evaluate higher education at two different levels Institutional accreditation evaluates the entire college or university, including all degree-granting programs. It emphasizes overall academic standards and institutional health. Programmatic accreditation focuses on specific programs, evaluating their ability to prepare graduates for a given profession, such as teaching.

What are the top three red flags that a school is not accredited?

The top three red flags for an unaccredited school include false accreditation from an unrecognized accrediting agency, unrealistic promises such as the ability to earn a degree without taking classes, and a lack of information about the school’s location, financial status, or faculty credentials.

Page last reviewed June 17, 2024.

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