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What is Online College or University Accreditation?

Diploma Mill Police  >  Degree Mills, What They Are and How To Avoid Them
By Vicky Phillips, Chief Education Analyst   
Merrimack College/Flickr
Online College or University Accreditation | College Student
If you're going to attend college, whether online or on campus, you'll want to attend one that is properly accredited.

Accreditation provides for the independent review of education programs for the purpose of determining if that education is of uniform and sound quality.

College accreditation is important if you want to have a public record of your learning that will be widely accepted by employers, professional associations and other colleges and universities.

In the United States, the most widely recognized form of university accreditation comes from the regional accreditation boards. Harvard University is regionally accredited. Ohio University is regionally accredited. Stanford University is regionally accredited ... and so on.

When people ask if you have attended an "accredited university" in the United States, they most commonly mean a regionally accredited university.

Each of the six geographic regions of the United States has a non-governmental, regional agency that oversees and accredits degree-granting institutions headquartered in their territories.

The six regional accreditation boards are:
  • MSA — Middle States Association of Colleges & Schools
  • NASC — Northwest Commission on Colleges & Universities
  • NCA — North Central Association of Colleges & Schools
  • NEASC — New England Association of Schools & Colleges
  • SACS — Southern Association of Colleges & Schools
  • WASC — Western Association of Schools & Colleges
There is no better or worse agency among these six agencies. Regionally accredited colleges recognize degrees and credits earned at other regionally accredited institutions as equal to their own.

For example, if you earn an undergraduate or bachelor’s degree at one university that holds regional college accreditation, such as the University of Maryland, it will be recognized as a valid degree for entering a graduate program later at the University of Illinois Online or any other regionally accredited university.

The most common type of accreditation other than regional accreditation is national accreditation.

The three most common types of national accreditation agencies:
  • Distance Education & Training Council (DETC)
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS)
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
The DETC, founded in 1926, and first recognized as an accreditor by the U.S. Department of Education in 1955, accredits about 60 degree-granting home study institutions, as well as many schools that provide career and vocational training.

Colleges that offer theology training programs for the ministry may be accredited by these specialized national agencies:
  • Association of Theological Schools in the US & Canada (ATS)
  • Association of Advanced Rabbinical & Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges & Schools (TRACS)
All of the above agencies are sometimes referred to as “national accrediting agencies” because they can accredit colleges located anywhere in the USA.

Be forewarned that the majority of regionally accredited colleges (greater than 80 percent) do not accept courses and degrees earned at nationally accredited colleges as the equivalent of their own.

If you earn your bachelor’s degree at a DETC-accredited college, for example, the majority of regionally accredited colleges may not accept this bachelor’s degree as sufficient for entering their graduate level program of study.

Careers that are governed by state licensing boards—such as teaching, accounting and engineering—may not accept academic degrees unless these degrees are earned at regionally accredited universities.
Academic departments within universities often seek specialized accreditation for individual degree programs. Careers regulated by state licensing may require degrees that carry special programmatic accreditation.  

Teacher licensing boards may require degrees earned from colleges whose education schools are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). State bar or lawyer licensing regulatory boards often require law degrees from schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). If you hope to become a licensed engineer, you may have to attend an engineering degree program that is accredited by the Accrediting Board for Engineering Technology (ABET).

Three different agencies in the United States specialize in accrediting business schools. Among these agencies, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools Business International (AACSB) is considered, by academics themselves, the most prestigious type of business school accreditation. If you intend to pursue a career in teaching or research in a university environment, then an AACSB-accredited business degree may be a wise investment.
In order for accreditation to have any meaning, it is important that your online college’s accrediting agency be recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. Essentially, the accrediting agency itself needs to be accredited.

As online education has increased in popularity, so too have the number of unrecognized, fake and bogus online college accreditors. Be very careful when searching for college degrees online. Hundreds of fake online colleges—also known as degree mills—advertise heavily online. These colleges are usually accredited by fake accrediting agencies with very official-sounding names.

To determine if your online college is properly accredited consult GetEducated’s free consumer protection service, the Diploma Mill Police.
There has been a big boom in "state approved" schools offering degrees via distance learning, especially from Alabama and California. Many states regulate private trade schools by putting them through a state approval process. State approval or state licensing is not the same as online college accreditation. Sometimes “state approval” simply means that a license to do business has been granted.

A "state approved" distance learning college may provide sound training, but degrees earned from state approved online colleges are unaccredited degrees; and degrees earned from unaccredited universities are not widely accepted in the academic or corporate world.

A degree earned at a "state approved" college may not be acceptable for transfer to a college with regional accreditation, should you later decide to attend such an institution.
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