Accredited Online Colleges: Process and Importance
Accreditation is a voluntary process of review and regulation that ensures higher education institutions offer programs that meet acceptable quality standards. The Department of Education oversees accreditation, but it does not conduct the actual review process.
Institutions pursuing accreditation undergo a rigorous review process, which includes the examination of elements such as curriculum planning, course offerings, faculty, admissions standards, graduation rates, facilities, and financial resources. Accredited institutions and programs must undergo regular evaluation to ensure compliance with the standards set forth by the accrediting bodies.
Accreditation is regional, national, and programmatic in nature, with 15 accrediting agencies currently recognized by the Department of Education to conduct regional and national accreditation. Specialized accrediting organizations handle subject- and program-based review in areas such as community and social services, healthcare, law, and counseling. Choosing an accredited program of study is important because students receive a level of assurance their institution provides an education that is of value. It also important because it ensures the following:
- Program accountability
- Program compliance
- Credits are transferable to other institutions
- Academic credential or degree is recognized by employers
The Rise of the Not-for-Profit
Online learning is transformative, not only reshaping how students learn, but how colleges and universities deliver instruction. Non-profit colleges and universities (both two- and four-year) have quickly adopted online education as a way to improve academic access and program diversity for students. Furthermore, the growing acceptance of online learning at non-profit colleges is important because—in most cases—non-profit colleges represent the best educational choice for adults who have jobs or family commitments that preclude traditional campus attendance.
According to research from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), more than 80 percent of public universities and at least half of private colleges offer online programs. A 2014 study from the Babson Institute estimated that 71 percent of all public-, degree-granting institutions provide distance learning opportunities to students.
The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that approximately 2.6 million college students enrolled in fully online degree programs, while more than 5.5 million students were taking at least one online class. In 2013, according to AASCU, 65 percent of online students attended a nonprofit college and of those students, 45 percent attended public colleges and 20 percent attended private nonprofit institutions.
Although enrollment in online degree programs has continued to tick upwards during the past decade, it has recently slowed in the past few years. However, both public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities continue to experience respectable increases. From 2012 – 2013, research from the Babson Institute shows that enrollment in online classes rose nearly 5 percent at public institutions and almost 13 percent for private nonprofits. Here’s a closer look at the growth numbers by volume for online learners by institution type in 2013.
Based on the numbers, it’s clear that nonprofit online colleges are doing something right, and in a big way. Students are turning to these educational options in droves, thanks to several key areas in which online colleges are out-pacing their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
Fields of Study
Based on nonprofit universities that offer online programs, healthcare-related fields of study and business are the two most commonly offered academic programs at AASCU institutions. The table below outlines the common fields of study offered online by AASCU non-profit institutions.
|Undergraduate||% of Institutions||Graduate||% of Institutions|
|Social sciences||33%||Criminal justice/paralegal studies||25%|
According to the most recent market research from Eduventures (2013), the bachelor’s degree remains the most popular online degree option. According to their study, 42 percent of students choose a bachelor’s degree, 29 percent are enrolled in online associate degree programs, and 24 percent are in master’s degree programs.
To a certain degree, online degrees have had a persistent stigma—a reputation that they are not on-par with those earned on-campus. However, the tide seems to be shifting because non-profit colleges (both private and public) have created online programs that rival those traditional degrees. In fact, a recent study shows that 76 percent of academic leaders agree that degrees taught online are equal to their on-campus counterparts.
A central reason for the increasing demand for online education is flexibility. Whether the student is seeking to go back to school, is a recent high school graduate that wants to attend a college in another state, or is a career advancer who wants to pursue a graduate degree, online college allows them to complete an education on their own terms. Online education helps students to craft a schedule that fits their lives, which is typically not possible in the traditional classroom. School can be woven into the student’s working and home lives instead of the other way around, making online classes the number one option for many in pursuit of a higher education.
Students, regardless of state of residence, will often enjoy in- state tuition costs when enrolling at an online college. Savings can also be found in the form of living expenses, like dorm and travel costs, as well as lowered costs for class and study materials, which can instead be obtained virtually.
Even though online students may never set foot on campus doesn’t mean they don’t have access to the same support and student resources. Regardless if the student is on-campus or online, nonprofit colleges traditionally offer an array of resources to their students, ranging from libraries to access to laboratories. Below is a list of commonly offered support services for online students at nonprofit colleges:
- Online student orientation
- Online learning management systems
- Dedicated online education website and departments
- E-libraries and digital textbooks
- Online student advising
- Counseling services
- Academic tutoring and support programs
Resources for Online Learning
Online education’s legacy will be access—it has fundamentally altered how, when, and where students learn. Students can use the resources below to access free college courses from respected universities and private companies, get help with various academic subjects, and connect with other online students.