Online College Accreditation 101
Pursuing an online degree isn’t for the faint of heart. Simply choosing a school can be a long process. But when you find the right one, how do you know it’s a good school? How can you be sure it will prepare you for a new career? What if employers and other schools don’t recognize the degree you’ve worked so hard for?
Luckily, you don’t need to ask these questions—thanks to accreditation.
The Accreditation Process: A Brief Explanation.
Without accreditation, there would be no basic standard to judge a school’s legitimacy. During the process, an independent accrediting agency makes a thorough review of a school to determine whether it meets the agency’s standards. If it does, the agency will issue a certificate of accreditation for the school. This lets all other schools and students know that the school is legitimate.
The USDE and CHEA: Separating Legitimate Agencies from Accreditation Mills
In many countries, accreditation is handled by the government or a single government-sponsored agency. In the U.S., there are many independent, nonprofit accreditors. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of illegitimate accrediting scams out there. So how do you know that your school’s accreditor is legitimate? Easy: check to see if your regulator is regulated.
The U.S. government does not accredit schools, but it does recognize accreditors. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) is required by law to maintain a list of accreditors nationally recognized to be reliable education authorities.
In addition, a network of schools provides a regulating body to oversee accreditors. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a group of over 3,000 colleges and universities that also recognizes independent accreditors.
Accreditors may be recognized by one or both of these institutions to be considered legitimate.
Regional Accreditation Agencies
There are six major regional accreditors in the U.S. Each is recognized by both the CHEA and the USDE, and they accredit entire schools—not just programs within a school. They accredit schools only within their designated area. Regional agencies are the primary accreditors in the United States.
New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE): Covers higher education in Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA): Covers higher education institutions in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU): Covers post-secondary schools in Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah.
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC): Covers higher education institution in Illinois, New Mexico, Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wyoming. It also accredits Navajo Nation schools.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC-ACSCU): Recognizes senior universities and colleges in Hawaii, California, Guam, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS): Recognizes higher education institutions in Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Mississippi.
National Accreditation Agencies
National accreditors have no territorial boundaries. They may recognize schools anywhere in the U.S. or U.S. territories, including distance learning and online schools.
National accreditors are sometimes classified as specialized, private, career, or professional, because most focus on certain types of schools instead of certain geographic areas. Most of these accreditors work within certain professions only, and some accredit certain programs within a school.
Regionally accredited schools often will not accept transfer credits from nationally accredited programs. That’s because in most cases, regional accreditors have more rigorous standards than national accreditors do.
Some schools, both online and traditional, choose to go with national accreditation because they are unwilling or unable to meet the standards set by regional accreditors. For example, regional accreditors require that a certain percentage of a school’s curriculum focus on the humanities and the physical and social sciences. This requirement doesn’t work for some specialized schools. While it isn’t always the case, nationally accredited schools are sometimes taken less seriously than those with a regional accreditation.
The following are approved by the CHEA, the USDE, or both.
- AACSB International—The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
- Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
- Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)
- Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA)
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and College of Technology
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
- Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC)
- American Academy for Liberal Education
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT/COAMFTE) Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
- American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) Council for Accreditation (CFA)
- American Association of Nurse Anesthetists Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (CoA-NA)
- American Bar Association, Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
- American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) Committee on Accreditation
- American College of Nurse-Midwives, Division of Accreditation
- American Council for Construction Education (ACCE)
- American Culinary Federation Foundation, Inc. (ACFF) Accrediting Commission
- American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation
- American Dietetic Association Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE-ADA)
- American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
- American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
- American Optometric Association (AOA) Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE)
- American Osteopathic Association, Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE
- American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) Council on Podiatric Medical Education (CPME)
- American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
- American Society for Microbiology
- American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB)
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
- American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Council on Education
- Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., Accreditation Commission
- Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
- Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI)
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
- Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- Commission on English Language Program Accreditation
- Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation
- Commission on Opticianry Association
- Computer Sciences Accreditation Commission (CSAC) of the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB)
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Council for Interior Design Accreditation
- Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs
- Council on Aviation Accreditation
- Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) Commission on Accreditation
- Council on Education for Public Health
- Council on Naturopathic Medical Education
- Council on Occupational Education
- Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) Commission on Standards and Accreditation
- Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Office of Social Work Accreditation and Educational Excellence
- Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission (DETC)
- Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER)
- Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT)
- Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT)
- Liaison Committee on Medical Education
- Midwifery Education Accreditation Council
- Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, Commission on Accreditation
- National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)
- National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences
- National Architectural Accrediting Board, Inc.
- National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT)
- National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, Council on Accreditation
- National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD)
- National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD)
- National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)
- National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA)
- National Association of Schools of Theatre, Commission on Accreditation
- National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
- National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
- National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, Inc. (NLNAC)
- National Recreation & Park Association/ American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation (NRPA/AAPAR)
- Planning Accreditation Board (PAB)
- Society of American Foresters (SAF)
- Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC)
Religious Accreditation Agencies
Some schools with a strong religious affiliation reject the accreditation process because they claim it imposes standards that are incompatible with their religious beliefs. However, there are four recognized accreditors who deal specifically with faith-based programs. These accreditors ensure that religious schools uphold required education standards without compromising religious ideals.
Like national organizations, these accreditors are not generally considered as rigorous as the regional accreditors. Regionally accredited schools may not accept transfer credits from schools with accreditation from these agencies.
- Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Commission on Accreditation
- Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
- Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS)
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) Accreditation Commission
Unrecognized Accreditation Agencies
Some schools sell diplomas for cash—they’re referred to as “diploma mills.” Most of these require minimal coursework, and none are accredited by a recognized agency. However, some diploma mills claim accreditation from agencies that sound official.
Fraudulent agencies sell accreditation credentials for a fee, and they’re as common as diploma mills. Following is a list of some known unrecognized accreditors. If your school claims to be accredited through one of these agencies, it is essentially an unaccredited school.
- Accrediting Commission International
- Accreditation Governing Commission of the United States of America
- American Association of Drugless Practitioners Commission on Accreditation
- American Association of International Medical Graduates
- American Council of Private Colleges and Universities
- American Naturopathic Medical Certification and Accreditation Board (ANMCAB)
- Association for Distance Learning (ADLP)
- Association for Online Academic Excellence
- Association of Christian Colleges and Theological Schools
- Board of Online Universities Accreditation
- Central States Council on Distance Education
- Commission on Medical Denturity Accreditation (COMDA)
- Council for International Education Accreditation (CIEA)
- Council on Medical Denturity Education (COMDE)
- Distance Graduation Accrediting Association
- Distance Learning Council of Europe
- European Council for Distance & Open Learning
- Examining Board of Natural Medicine Practitioners
- Higher Education Accreditation Commission
- Higher Education Services Association
- Inter-Collegiate Joint Committee on Academic Standards
- International Accreditation Agency for Online Universities
- International Accreditation Association
- International Accreditation for Universities, Colleges and Institutes
- International Accrediting Association for Colleges and Universities
- International Association of Universities and Schools
- International Commission for Higher Education
- International Commission of Open Post Secondary Education
- International Council for Open and Distance Education
- International University Accrediting Association—based in California
- National Academy of Higher Education (NAHE)
- National Commission on Higher Education
- National Distance Learning Accreditation Council
- Non-Traditional Course Accreditation Body
- Southern Accrediting Association of Bible Institutes and Colleges
- United Congress of Colleges
- US-DETC (note: there is a legitimate accrediting agency with a similar name: DETC, based in Washington DC. The illegitimate US-DETC is based in Nevada.)
- Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation
- Virtual University Accrediting Association—based in California
- World Association of Universities and Colleges—based in Nevada
- World Online Education Accrediting Commission
- World-wide Accreditation Commission of Christian Educational Institutions
There are many online colleges with regional and national accreditation. If you’re looking into an online school, make sure its accreditor is on our list of recognized regional, national, or religious agencies. If you find it under our list of fraudulent agencies, apply elsewhere for your degree.
UCEA Directory: Accreditation: A Brief Explanation of Why it Matters
CHEA Database of Accreditors
USDE Database of Accreditors
eLearners.com: Regional Accreditation vs. National Accreditation
Education USA: Types of Accreditation
Recognized Accrediting Organizations [pdf]
Baker’s Guide: Christian Distance Education: Who Are the Accrediting Agencies?
Credential Watch: Be Wary of Nonrecognized Accrediting Agencies