5 Steps to Check if an Online Program Is Accredited

U.S. News | June 12, 2017 - When it comes to pursuing an online degree, it's important to select a legitimate program offering marketable credentials.Stamp of Approval

A key indicator of legitimacy, experts say, is accreditation, a process conducted by an outside authority to ensure that a school and specific degree program – whether on campus, online or blended – meet certain standards of quality. Though it's voluntary, accreditation has several benefits and typically validates a program to other colleges and universities as well as employers.

While it's generally safe to assume that online programs at reputable universities are accredited, experts say it doesn't hurt to double check. For those earning a degree from a lesser-known online school, researching accreditation is particularly important given the prevalence of scams on the internet.

"It's the first thing that they ask when you're even applying for a job: 'Did you graduate from an accredited program?'" Barbara Chapman, a student in the hybrid nurse practitioner master's program at the University of Texas—Tyler, told U.S. News in 2016.

Here are five steps to take when researching accredited online colleges.

1. Find and verify a school's overall accreditation online: There are two levels of accreditation – institutional, which applies to an entire college or university, and specialized, referring to specific programs or schools focusing on certain disciplines.

Having institutional accreditation also ensures that online students can receive federal financial aid, Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities at the institutional level, told U.S. News in 2016. That's generally available to them as grants, loans and work-study.

To determine whether an online school has institutional accreditation, its website is a good place to start, says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, an organization aiming to advance online education. Many universities list their institutional accreditation on an "About" or similar page on the university or online college's main website, or both.

If so, prospective students should verify those accreditors are recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, by visiting the department or council websites. They can also view this list of recognized accrediting agencies.

Judith Eaton, president of the council, says if accreditation information is not readily available on an institution's website, consider visiting the department or council websites directly and search for the institution, or contact the school for information.

2. If necessary, check for regional versus national accreditation: Prospective students researching online colleges' institutional accreditation might also look into whether the school has regional or national accreditation, if that information is relevant to their career or educational goals, Eaton says.

While both are reliable signs of an online college's quality, employers generally prefer regional accreditation, which is typically perceived as more rigorous, Eaton says. It's also usually easier to transfer credits to and from regionally accredited institutions, she says.

There is no such legitimate thing as international accreditation, as some fraudulent online programs claim to have, Eaton says.

Prospective students can check whether an accreditor is regional or national on the department or council's website.

3. Glance at the online school's institutional accreditation history: While it's not particularly common, "Even good schools can sometimes do things, or have things happen, that may jeopardize their accreditation," Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships for OLC, told U.S. News in 2016.

It can't hurt to look at a school's institutional accreditation history on the department or council sites, though that information isn't available for every one, Eaton says.

"That will give you information about potential weaknesses, whether they've been addressed or not," Eaton says.

4. Determine whether your discipline also requires programmatic accreditation:Depending on the field, employers – or other schools, should a student pursue a higher-level degree – might prefer that an online degree program also has specialized, or programmatic, accreditation. For example, all undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at UT—Tyler, including those online, are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Eaton says programmatic accreditation is typically limited to career-specific fields, especially those requiring a licensure, as opposed to liberal arts, for example.

Prospective students might view the list of recognized agencies to get a sense of whether programmatic accreditation is common in their industry. Pedersen also recommends researching further online and asking faculty or professionals in their field whether and what type of programmatic accreditation is needed.

5. Find and verify the programmatic accreditors: Prospective students might check a potential online degree program's website for its specialized accreditation. If necessary, they should then verify that the accreditor is recognized by the department or council.

If programmatic accreditation information isn't listed, they can again search for the school and program directly on the department or council website, or contact the institution to learn more.

As with institutional accreditation, Eaton suggests checking out a program's accreditation history if available.

Chapman, the UT—Tyler student, says she knows of students who failed to do that type of research beforehand. A lack of accreditation might cause employers to hesitate to accept the online credential or lead to issues with transferring credits to another school.

"They were either promised that they would eventually become an accredited program and it did not, or they were in a program and it lost accreditation, and it was devastating to them," she told U.S. News.