Your Guide to Online College Accreditation

While the U.S. hosts more than 4,000 colleges and universities across its 50 states, not all of these 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 non-governmental agencies.

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

What You Need to Know About Accreditation

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

Types of Online College Accreditation

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. This form of accreditation broadly breaks down into two categories, regional and national, both of which we explore further in the following section.

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.

In general, online schools and programs receive accreditation from the same agencies that accredit institutions and their campus programs. All the main regional accreditation agencies, and many programmatic agencies, can regulate campus programs and their distance education counterparts.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation includes two primary categories: national and regional. National accreditation is typically reserved for technical and vocational colleges, and some religious colleges. Regional accreditation assesses most other degree-granting higher education institutions, including four-year schools and those that offer graduate and doctoral programs.

Students interested in pursuing a trade program, such as welding or dental hygiene, often attend nationally accredited schools. Those interested in academic or professionally focused programs, such as biology, art history, anthropology, or business, pursue these degrees at regionally accredited institutions.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

Proper accreditation is particularly important for online programs, many of which enable students to enroll and earn degrees without ever visiting campus. Distance education offers convenience and flexibility for online learners, but it can also help fraudulent or less reputable institutions appear more legitimate through their online presentation.

The academic and professional standards enforced by accrediting agencies also provide a reasonable guarantee of receiving a quality education with adequate institutional support. A school that lacks proper accreditation may not prepare graduates to succeed in the workforce or for further academic study.

Who Accredits Online Programs?

Online programs generally receive accreditation from the same agencies that evaluate campus programs, including national, regional, and programmatic agencies.

While programmatic accreditation can vary widely, regional accreditation remains one of the most consistent markers of a college's reputability. When determining a school's accreditation, look for one of the six regional accreditation agencies: the Higher Learning Commission, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Commission of Higher Education, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Senior College and University Commission.

How Accreditation Affects You

Proper accreditation can affect your educational outlook in several ways, including financial aid eligibility, credit transferability, and employment prospects. In general, non-accredited colleges may offer lackluster academics, spotty student support, and inadequate financial aid, all of which can negatively affect your future career and education prospects.

Financial aid is a common concern for most college students, and accreditation directly affects your eligibility to receive federal aid. Only students enrolled at nationally or regionally accredited (and in some cases, state-recognized) institutions are eligible to receive federal aid.

Only students enrolled at nationally or regionally accredited (and in some cases, state-recognized) institutions are eligible to receive federal aid.

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. (Though credits from regionally accredited schools typically transfer much more easily than credits from nationally accredited schools).

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.

How to Spot a Fake 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 Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintain searchable databases of nationally and regionally recognized accreditation agencies. If a college's listed accreditation agency doesn't appear in either of these databases, it's safe to assume both the school and the agency are not to be trusted.

Most Popular Accredited Online School

The country's top accredited online schools offer a comprehensive education that prepares you both academically and 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 both students and alumni.

Top 5 Online Colleges and Universities of 2020
Rank School Location
1 University of Florida Online Gainesville, FL
2 University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
3 Florida International University Miami, FL
4 Trine University Fort Wayne, IN
5 Colorado State University Global Campus Greenwood Village, CO

Resources for Online Students

Check out this guide for help planning your online education! Planning to transfer to an online school? Check out this guide!