Accreditation of Online Degree Programs: Frequently Asked Questions

U.S. News and World Report | November 11, 2016 - Accrediting agencies hold online programs to the same standards of quality as those on campus, experts say.

1. What is accreditation?

Accreditation is a process conducted by an outside authority to ensure that a school and degree program meet certain standards of quality and rigor. Online, blended and on-campus degree programs can all be accredited. While it's voluntary, accreditation has many benefits and, in many ways, validates a program to employers and other colleges or universities.

2. Who accredits online degree programs?

Legitimate online degree programs are accredited by agencies recognized by either the Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation, known as CHEA.

3. What are the different kinds of accreditation for online programs?

Online learners should ensure that a program has both institutional and programmatic accreditation, says Judith Eaton, president of CHEA. Institutional accreditation applies to the entire university, while programmatic or "specialized" accreditation focuses on particular degrees, departments or schools – including those offered as online programs.

Not every program at a university has programmatic accreditation, however – it depends on the school and industry standards for the discipline.

4. Why does an online program's accreditation matter?

Many online students plan to change or advance their careers, but most employers – especially those unfamiliar with online learning – will verify that a job candidate's online degree comes from an accredited program, experts say. In addition, transferring credits to and from degree programs is common among online learners, experts say, and credits earned in accredited programs are more likely to be accepted by other schools.

Online students "want credits that are acknowledged and respected and usable once they've completed their coursework," Eaton says.

Institutional accreditation also ensures that students can receive federal financial aid, says Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities in their entirety. Federal aid is generally available for online students as grants, loans and work-study.

5. How do programs get accredited?

Accreditation often involves a self-review, requiring institutions to provide evidence that they satisfy set standards, and a site visit, generally by a team including faculty and administrators from similar institutions and practitioners in the field chosen by the accreditor to check those claims, experts say.

For site visits, peer evaluators might receive access to online courses and meet with students virtually, says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, a group dedicated to advancing the quality of online learning.

Accreditors monitor programs and institutions continuously to ensure they continue to meet standards, according to the Department of Education. Programs are re-accredited every several years, depending on the accrediting body.

6. Do accreditors judge online and on-ground degree programs the same way?

Yes, experts say – expectations about quality aren't lower just because a program is online. However, there are steps an accreditor takes to ensure that these programs meet the specific needs of online learners, says Jennifer Mathes, director of strategic partnerships for OLC. They might look at how student services function and how students and faculty interact.

7. What's the difference between national and regional accreditation?

When it comes to an institution's overall accreditation, prospective students might come across either regional accreditation agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education or national accrediting bodies, such as the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

While both regional and national accreditation are reliable signs of a program's quality, Eaton says, more employers typically look for regional accreditation. Experts say it's also easier to transfer credits to and from a regionally accredited institution.

The regional accreditation process is typically more rigorous than national accreditation, says Gellman-Danley. Historically, reputable schools have been regionally accredited, though that doesn't mean there aren't strong nationally accredited schools, she says. For-profit online programs, experts say, are more likely to have national rather than regional accreditation – though some, including the University of Phoenix and Capella University, are regionally accredited.

8. How can I tell if an online program is accredited?

That information is often listed on an online program's website – a good place to start researching, Pedersen says. Then, prospective students can verify a school or program's accreditation with CHEA or the Department of Education, but experts say they shouldn't hesitate to ask school officials for clarification.

9. What are some immediate signs that an online program might not be accredited?

If a website contains information about an online degree program that seems too good to be true – for example, that students can earn a degree with little to no study – definitely look into its accreditation, says Pedersen from OLC. The same goes if a program seems abnormally expensive.

"Don't just read it on a website and enroll," says CHEA's Eaton. "Check out the claims."

And experts say: Beware of so-called "accreditation mills," or groups that accredit schools under minimum standards on the internet. Confirm the accreditor is recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education.

10. I'm applying to a program at a reputable university. Is it safe to assume it's accredited?

For the most part, yes – a program at a respected school will likely have both institutional and specialized accreditation. But it's always smart to double check, experts say.

"Even good schools can sometimes do things, or have things happen, that may jeopardize their accreditation," Mathes says. It's not very common, she says, but it's important to ensure the program is in good standing.

Corrected on Nov. 11, 2016: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

SOURCE: U.S. News and World Report