How Does Online College Accreditation Work?

Accredited online colleges are as legitimate as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here's why accreditation is important and what you need to know.
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Updated on May 24, 2023
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Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
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  • Accreditation is an evaluative process to ensure colleges meet high educational standards.
  • Accreditation can affect financial aid eligibility, transfer credits, and job prospects.
  • The ED and CHEA oversee the accreditation system and host lists of recognized accreditors.
  • The top online accredited schools prepare students both academically and professionally.

While the U.S. hosts more than 4,000 colleges and universities across its 50 states, not all schools are created equal.

Accreditation functions as an evaluative process and an institutional designation, ensuring that schools meet certain educational standards agreed upon by federal, state, and/or non-governmental agencies.

Schools that lack proper accreditation offer no guarantee of adequate academic or professional preparation, and their credits may not transfer to accredited institutions.

This page offers a general overview of college accreditation, including major accrediting agencies, types of accreditation, the importance of attending a properly accredited school, and strategies for spotting fraudulently accredited institutions.

The Importance of Online College Accreditation

Proper accreditation is particularly important for online programs. While distance education offers convenience and flexibility for online learners, it can also help fraudulent or unreputable institutions appear more legitimate through their online appearance.

Additionally, proper accreditation can affect your educational outlook in several ways, including financial aid eligibility, credit transferability, and employment prospects.

Education Quality

The academic and professional standards enforced by accrediting agencies provide a reasonable guarantee of receiving a quality education with adequate institutional support services.

A school that lacks proper accreditation may not prepare graduates to succeed in the workforce or for further academic study.

Employer Perception

Accreditation ensures a school provides a high-quality education. Without accreditation, employers may have trouble determining whether a candidate received an adequate education. Consequently, many employers only recognize degrees from accredited institutions.

Financial Aid

Financial aid is a common concern for most college students, and accreditation can directly affect your eligibility to receive federal aid.

Only students enrolled at schools that hold accreditation from an organization recognized by the Department of Education (ED) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are eligible to receive federal aid.

Credit Transferability

Credit transferability is another distinguishing factor between accredited and non-accredited colleges. Accreditation standards ensure that most credits transfer easily between accredited institutions across the country.

Non-accredited colleges offer no guarantee of credit transferability. This can affect your ability to transfer to another college or enroll in a graduate program.

Types of Accreditation: Institutional vs. Programmatic

Accreditation breaks down into two major categories: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation assesses a college's overall ability to establish and meet academic standards. An institutional accreditation agency typically evaluates several aspects of a college, including its academics, finances, governance and administration, overall mission, and available resources.

Programmatic accreditation generally focuses on individual programs, departments, or academic schools that function as part of a larger institution. Given their specialized nature, programmatic accreditation agencies usually focus on one academic discipline, such as nursing or counseling. However, not all academic fields or specialties boast a relevant specialized accreditation organization.

What Is the Best Accreditation for Online Colleges?

In the past, many public and private four-year institutions received accreditation from regional accrediting bodies. Regional accreditation was considered the gold standard, and these organizations worked to ensure high-quality education in specific geographical areas.

There were also national accrediting bodies, reserved primarily for trade schools, Bible colleges, and for-profit colleges. In many circles, this type of recognition was considered substandard to regional accreditation. However, in 2019, the ED began permitting accrediting bodies to compete in each other's historical regions, essentially removing the distinction between national and regional accreditors.

As the popularity of online programs has increased, so too has the number of fake accrediting agencies. Fortunately, the ED and CHEA provide databases of legitimate accreditation organizations. When searching either of these databases, look for institutional and programmatic accreditation — these are the two main types of recognized accrediting bodies.

How to Tell If a School or Online Program is Accredited

Online programs generally receive accreditation from the same agencies that evaluate on-campus programs, including institutional and programmatic agencies. While programmatic accreditation can vary widely, institutional accreditation remains one of the most consistent markers of a college's reputability.

A quick search on the U.S Department of Education's accreditation database can help students determine a school's accreditation status. To ensure that you attend a top school, look for approval from one of the following agencies:

How to Check Accreditation

Fake accreditation agencies attempt to appear legitimate, often using names similar to real agencies and including reputable schools on their list of members. However, a bit of research can usually help you identify a fraudulent agency.

Both the ED and the CHEA maintain searchable databases of recognized accreditation agencies. If a college's listed accreditation agency doesn't appear in either of these databases, you should be wary of trusting the school or accreditation agency.

What Are the Top Accredited Online Colleges?

The country's top accredited online schools offer a comprehensive education, preparing graduates to succeed professionally.

Check out our ranking of the best accredited online colleges to find schools that combine strong academic programs, extensive support services, and valuable career resources for students and alumni.

Rank School Location
1 Southern New Hampshire University Manchester, NH
2 Liberty University Lynchburg, VA
3 University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
4 Florida International University Miami, FL
5 University of Florida -Online Gainesville, FL

Frequently Asked Questions About Online College Accreditation

Does national and regional accreditation still exist?

Until recently, schools could earn regional or national accreditation at the institutional level. However, in 2019, the ED altered its accreditation rules, permitting accrediting bodies to compete in each other's regions.

This change effectively ended the distinction between national and regional accreditation. However, while conducting your college search, you may still run across these terms.

Historically, national accreditation was typically reserved for technical colleges, trade schools, and some religious colleges. Regional accreditation assessed most other degree-granting higher education institutions, including four-year colleges and universities.

How does an online school or program gain accreditation?

Institutional accreditation helps ensure a college's reputability. Online programs typically gain institutional accreditation from the same agencies that evaluate on-campus programs.

Accreditation organizations establish standards related to curriculum, student support services, and student and faculty expectations. Both the ED and CHEA maintain searchable databases of recognized accreditation organizations.

If a college's accrediting body doesn't appear in one of these databases, the accreditation is likely bogus. Additionally, programmatic accreditation is essential for many individual programs, such as nursing, dentistry, law, and education. However, not all fields feature a relevant programmatic accreditation agency.

What is an accreditation mill?

An accreditation mill awards educational accreditation to higher education institutions and programs without having government authority or recognition. These phony organizations offer accreditation for a fee — typically without reviewing an institution or program.

An accreditation mill is similar to a diploma mill. They are set up to attract students but have no legal or academic value. Students who attend a school that's not recognized by a reputable accreditation agency have no assurance they'll receive a quality education.

Furthermore, accreditation mills often adopt names similar to well-known accrediting agencies. However, an accreditation mill won't be listed in the directory of recognized accrediting agencies on the ED's or CHEA's websites.

Feature Image: Gabriel Visintin / EyeEm / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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