Before you apply to an online college, or any college for that matter, it is important that you first make sure the college is accredited. An online college is accredited when an independent, third-party accrediting agency examines the school and its programs to ensure the school is operating legally and meets the agency’s quality standards for higher education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Verifying an online college’s accreditation is essential because it helps you avoid accidentally getting involved with a diploma mill ó a phony college that does not offer college-level courses and/or makes false diplomas that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Degrees from colleges without accreditation are not taken seriously in the working world or in academia, and credits gained from such colleges do not usually transfer to legitimate colleges. Even worse, students who choose to attend an unaccredited college risk their eligibility for federal financial aid.
Finding out if an online college is accredited is a simple process. Both the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintain helpful databases with comprehensive lists of accredited colleges. All you need to do is enter the name of the online college you are considering into the search box on the USDE’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. If the college is accredited, it will show up as a search result. From here, you can tell what accrediting agency has examined the college. The CHEA database works the same way. Both are excellent resources for determining if an online college is accredited.
Another way you can go about checking an online college’s accreditation is to search your college’s website for its accreditation information. Once you’ve found it, you can then verify that the accreditation agency itself is legitimate using the USDE and CHEA databases.
Finally, note that accreditation can be institutional or programmic. Institutional accreditation is a blanket quality approval for the whole college, while programmic accreditation is quality approval for one program within that college. Programs in nursing, physical therapy and optometry, for instance, are accredited by agencies that specialize in those programs alone. Programmic accrediting agencies do not examine the entire school. It is important that you verify both the institutional accreditation for your online college and the programmic accreditation of the academic program you plan to pursue there.