Accreditation is when an independent body verifies that a school or academic program meets certain academic standards. Attending an accredited school guarantees that your degree will be recognized by employers, certification boards, and other institutions.
Given the time and cost of college, prospective students should ensure their school or program is accredited before enrolling, especially if they're seeking an online education. Here, we go over how to determine whether an online school is accredited and why accreditation is so important for your future.
Why Does Accreditation Matter So Much?
Accreditation is like a stamp of approval — it proves that a school provides a 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 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.
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How to Confirm an Online School Is Accredited: 3 Steps
If you're interested in attending an online college or university, you must ensure the school is accredited before you apply. Many online schools act as though they're accredited but, in reality, are just diploma mills handing out unrecognized degrees and certificates.
So how can you confirm an online school's accreditation status? Follow the steps below.
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 site:.edu" on Google.
If you'd also like to confirm programmatic accreditation (not just institutional), navigate to the program's official homepage and look for info on accreditation.
Go to the Accreditation Agency's Website
Though a school's website may claim the institution is accredited, some diploma mills lie about their accreditation status or use fake accreditation agency names. This is why you should also check the accrediting agency's official website.
The accrediting agency's site should contain a database or list of member schools. Look for your school on this list — if it's there, you can rest assured it holds accreditation from this agency.
The same goes for individual programs: Look for your program on the accreditor's website to confirm its accreditation status.
Verify 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.
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.
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.
What Are Some Accreditation Red Flags?
Schools without CHEA- or ED-recognized accreditation know they're lacking an important characteristic.
As a result, many diploma mills work hard to confuse or trick prospective students into thinking the school is accredited. These scam colleges may even take another route and claim accreditation isn't necessary!
One way diploma mills try to fool students is by getting accreditation from a fake accrediting agency. These fake agencies often sound like real agencies and award accreditation to schools much more easily than a reputable accrediting body would. Sometimes all the diploma mill has to do is pay a small fee.
Here are some red flags to look out for when researching accredited online schools:
- The school has a very similar name and/or website to a known accredited school.
- Other schools and employers in the same region as the school have never heard of the institution or have a strongly negative perception of it.
- The school is accredited by an agency that isn't recognized by CHEA or ED.
- The school has a pending accreditation status, with no estimated date as to when the accreditation will be finalized.
- The school promises you'll earn your degree in an unusually short period of time, like six months for a bachelor's.
- It has incredibly high or low tuition rates.
- Its promotional materials seem overly "salesy."
- Faculty credentials aren't readily available and/or faculty members attended unaccredited schools.
- The school makes hard-to-believe claims, such as a much higher-than-average salary for graduates or robust employment rates after graduation, without citing sources or offering ways to verify the information.
- The school's website doesn't provide an address for its campus or offices.
- Graduation and curriculum requirements are far less rigorous than those of comparable, accredited programs.
- 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.
- It has few, if any, class attendance or participation requirements.