You’ve found the online college degree program you want, all you to do is click, pay, and you are in! Is it too good to be true? Unfortunately, it could be. You can end up not getting the education you paid for, credits that are non-transferable or coursework that is not accepted by professional organizations. Worst of all, you can end up finding yourself registering for a diploma mill—a bogus online school offering fake college degrees.
The best way to make sure you aren’t falling for a scam is to make sure the online provider is accredited. Thoroughly check out your school first and make sure you are registering for the real-deal.
Online Accredited Colleges Vs. Diploma Mills
When it comes to online learning, there are many legitimate online accredited colleges, which provide students a sound education. However, among the reputable institutions, there are also individuals looking to rip-off potential students.
By now, “diploma mills” is a well-known term in distance education and in the public mind. Some diploma mills will claim that you can earn your online diploma in one day for $500-$2,500 without doing any coursework at all. However, do not be fooled—if you haven’t read a text book, taken a test or heard a lecture, your degree is fake.
With such varied state regulations, some states have become diploma mill breeding grounds, and they have mushroomed in the online environment. Since diploma mills present themselves as viable educational institutions, it can be difficult for individuals to differentiate them from online accredited colleges that are genuine.
Why is Accreditation Important?
All students should check to make sure that they are earning their online degrees from accredited colleges. Accreditation allows you to transfer your credits, go on to a graduate degree, and prove to your employer that your credential is valid.
Just What is Accreditation?
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) defines accreditation as “review of the quality of higher education institutions and programs.” Within CHEA, private, nongovernmental educational agencies with a regional or national scope have adopted standards for evaluating colleges and universities.
Institutions seeking accreditation conduct an in-depth self-study to measure their performance against these standards. The accrediting agency then conducts an on-site evaluation and either awards accreditation, pre-accreditation status or denies accreditation.
Periodically, the agency reevaluates each institution to make sure continued accreditation is warranted. Accreditation is not a one-step process. An institution must maintain high standards or face jeopardizing its accreditation status as a result of these evaluations.
For online accredited colleges, seeking accreditation is entirely voluntary. The initial accreditation process can take as many as five or ten years and can be quite costly. Due to these reasons, recently established online program providers that are perfectly legitimate may not have been in operation long enough to be accredited.
Who Does the Accrediting?
Accrediting agencies are private, nongovernmental organizations. In other countries, government agencies oversee educational quality. In the United States, authority over postsecondary educational institutions is decentralized. Although there are some national accrediting agencies, each state, not the federal government, regulates educational institutions within its borders, and as a consequence, standards and quality can vary.
There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional accreditation and specialized accreditation. Campus and online accredited colleges have earned their institutional accreditation by one of six regional accrediting agencies, such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and national accrediting agencies, such as the Distance Education and Training Council.
In contrast to institutional accreditation, specialized accreditation usually applies to a single department, program or school that is part of a larger institution of higher education. There are specialized accrediting agencies in nearly fifty fields. Specialized accreditation varies considerably depending on the field of study. In some professional fields, you must have a degree or certificate from a program with specialized accreditation in order to take qualifying exams or be in practice.
What is the Purpose of Accreditation?
For students earning online degrees from accredited colleges, there are many advantages. Accreditation can allow you to be sure of the quality of the provider, gain federal financial assistance and state funds, and transfer credits from one college to another.
- Quality- When an institution is accredited, its faculty members, curriculum development, student services, and libraries have met established standards. In addition, colleges, universities, and employers are more likely to recognize any certificate or degree you earn as a legitimate credential.
- Funding- The federal government uses accrediting organizations to ensure that students receiving federal loans and grants are attending institutions that maintain high standards of quality. State governments do the same, ensuring that students receiving state loans and grants (and going for state licensure examinations in some professional fields) are attending institutions with high-quality standards.
- Transferring credits- Whether or not you intend to transfer credits from a course or program, accreditation is one major factor the receiving institution takes into consideration. Any credits you earn are more likely to transfer to other regionally accredited institutions.
Which Is Best: National or Regional Accreditation?
Online accredited colleges can be either nationally or regionally accredited. No national or federal law requires a college to be accredited by a nationally recognized agency, and the federal government has not yet established a national system. Therefore, regional accreditation is often preferred. The six regional organizations that have been recognized by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation are as follows:
- Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
However, this is not to say that you should dismiss all national accrediting organizations. For instance, the Distance Education and Training Council sponsors a nationally recognized accrediting agency, the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council. There are also national accrediting bodies that are discipline-based.
How to Know Whether an Institution is Really Accredited
There are many ways to check whether an institution is accredited by a recognized organization. Here are some great websites that can help you avoid bogus online schools:
- The Department of Education features a master list of 6,900 campus and online accredited colleges, universities, and trade schools
- The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) lists about 3,000 colleges and universities and encompasses more than sixty national, regional, and specialized accrediting organizations on their website.
- The Bureau of Consumer Protection has also published a useful article “Avoid Fake-Degree Burns by Researching Academic Credentials”
How to Make Sure Unaccredited Schools Are Legitimate
- Call the state agency with jurisdiction over higher education in the state in which the school is located. The agency can at least tell you whether or not the school is operating with a charter and if any complaints have been lodged or legal action has been taken.
- Call the school and ask why it is not accredited and whether the school plans to seek accreditation. If the school tells you it has applied for accreditation, double-check its status with the agency it names.
- Consult with people in your field about the school’s reputation and the value of its degree. Don’t forget, in some fields, a degree from an unaccredited school or program will bar you from professional licensure and practice.
For students seeking online degrees from accredited colleges, research is the best bet. To ensure that you will be receiving a quality education, verify the accreditation of the school you are interested in. Good luck!