The cost of a college education isn’t small. In 2022, the average in-state cost of one year of study at a public university was $11,631. Out-of-state students pay more than $28,000 per year. Private school students pay even more – about $43,775 per year.
The cost to earn a degree means that traditional means of a higher education is out of the reach for many. Additionally, today’s college students often find the busy pace of life, managing part-time or full-time work responsibilities, and family obligations to be difficult to manage, in addition to the pursuit of a degree. But, enrollment at an online university has made it easier, and in some cases, less expensive, to pursue a college education.
But with this new wave of earning a degree come problems. Not every online degree is equal, and it’s imperative that you understand the importance of earning an online degree from an accredited institution.
Why is Accreditation Important?
Accreditation ensures that your course of study and the degree you earn from a degree-granting institution are recognized as an achievement. Likewise, it ensures that your degree comes from a high-quality institution.
That’s because online accreditation is used to maintain standards of online colleges and universities. Accreditation standards give you peace of mind that the education you’re paying for results in the best opportunity to find a job upon graduation.
In fact, most employers specifically look to see if job applicants have earned a degree from an accredited online college or program. Many employers will not even consider your application if your degree is from a non-accredited college.
Furthermore, some financial aid programs for college are only available for studies at accredited schools. As noted earlier, college isn’t cheap, so if you need financial assistance to pay for your schooling, the chances are good that you’ll need to do so at an accredited institution to qualify for financial aid. This is just one reason why accreditation is important.
Accreditation is overseen by a variety of regional agencies and national agencies. These agencies implement criteria that evaluate the quality of courses as well as the institution itself. These organizations ensure that accredited vs non accredited colleges have distinct differences, and that you benefit from the advantages of pursuing an accredited degree.
What Accreditation to Look for in Online Colleges
There are two primary types of accreditation for online learning at two-year and four-year colleges: national and regional.
Both types are guided by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Both types are also institutional accreditation. In other words, the entirety of the institution is accredited, whereas programmatic accreditation refers to a single program in a specific department.
National accreditation is considered the lesser of the two. This type of accreditation is often reserved for vocational and trade schools, though many online schools are also nationally accredited. Many for-profit schools also have national accreditation.
Some examples of national accreditors include:
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
The reason national accreditation is considered a lower tier is that the standards to achieve accreditation are lower. Likewise, the standards of admission for online students to nationally-accredited schools tend to be lower than those for learners that attend regionally-accredited schools. As a result, regionally-accredited schools do not accept transfer credits from nationally-accredited schools (though nationally-accredited schools accept regionally-accredited transfer credits).
Regional accreditation, on the other hand, is viewed as the gold standard. Regional accreditation is the most common and is often reserved for non-profit schools. This type of accreditation is bestowed by one of several regional accrediting organizations:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Unlike national accreditation, in which programs and schools are compared to one another across the nation, regional accreditation is handled in a smaller geographic area. Therefore, each regional accrediting agency has slightly different standards of accreditation.
However, each agency maintains very strict standards that schools must meet and maintain for online school accreditation. This involves looking at factors for accreditation status that include academic budget, academic facilities, support services, and the education and training level of professors, to name a few.
Regional accreditation also involves periodic site visits and evaluations by representatives from the accrediting body. These site visits are required for traditional education as well as online education. While this process is voluntary (as is national accreditation), it is a rigorous process that demonstrates a school’s desire to be held to high educational standards. When you think of how do online colleges work, it’s the same as brick-and-mortar education institutions – accredited online schools are held to the same high standards as traditional schools.
It should be noted that the type of accreditation, the accreditation status, and the accreditor should all be listed on a school’s website. If this information isn’t readily available (e.g., Googling the school name and “accreditation”) it could be a red flag!
The Difference Between Non-Accredited Courses, Programs, and Degrees
So, the big question is this: are online colleges accredited?
The answer is, it depends.
An online college or university might not be accredited for a number of reasons. A new institution might not yet have attained accreditation for its education programs. Other non-accredited institutions might have financial difficulties, which have cost them the all-important eligibility for accreditation. Institutions that base course work on religious teachings often choose not to be accredited as they see the accreditation process as government intervention.
Online colleges and universities that are not recognized by accrediting entities and organizations generally offer coursework and degrees are not based on proper academic assessment. Courses taken and degrees earned from non-accredited schools for distance learning often are not valid. If your degree is earned at an online school that does not have accreditation, chances of landing that dream job could be endangered.
Another important factor you need to consider when taking courses from a non-accredited online school is the potential to earn and receive scholarships and government grants. As mentioned earlier, if you enroll in online classes from non-accredited colleges, you can’t get federal or state financial aid. These types of classes also can prevent you from being eligible from receiving some scholarships and grants.
If you’re considering taking online classes from a non-accredited college, you need to be aware of diploma mills as well. These are online businesses that build a website to give the appearance that they are a legitimate institution offering legitimate courses and degrees. Some of these diploma mills might claim to be accredited and model their websites on actual accrediting agencies to convince you that you’re earning a degree that has value.
With all the negativity surrounding non-accredited online colleges and universities, one might wonder why anyone would enroll in such classes. For some jobs that do not require a college degree or high-school diploma, a degree from a nonaccredited institution might be sufficient to be hired. But actual experience might be more desirable than this type of degree.
So, what accreditation should an online college have? You should consider taking online courses from an accredited institution, be that one with national or regional accreditation. Chances of earning a useful education are better, which in turn results in a higher probability of landing a job afterward.
What is the Value of Online Degrees?
As more and more colleges and universities offer online degrees and distance education opportunities, there’s no denying that there is tremendous value in learning online.
Not only is online learning more convenient, but it’s often less expensive – many schools charge in-state tuition (or a comparable online tuition) regardless of where you live. Online learning environments are also more robust than they’ve ever been. You can use video and audio feeds, e-mail, chat rooms, and many other features to stay connected to your classmates and professors.
And, of course, if an online degree is accredited, it has the same value as a degree earned on campus. In fact, most schools no longer designate degrees as being earned in person or online. So, from that perspective, the value of an online degree is just as much as a degree earned in on-campus programs!
If you’re on the fence about an accredited vs. non accredited degree, there’s simply no competition. An accredited degree – whether from an undergraduate programs, graduate programs, or doctoral programs – is the way to go to get a quality education.
Want to learn more about accredited online colleges? Check out our list of the best 30 Accredited Online Colleges For Nursing and 30 Most Affordable Online Business Bachelor’s Degrees.