Regional Accreditation vs National Accreditation for Online Colleges
Help! Choosing an online college is an overwhelming task. I have a list of more than 20 possible colleges. I’m favoring one that is nationally accredited by the Distance Education & Training Council (DETC). Will my degree be accepted by employers? My career counselor told me national accreditation (like DETC) is not as good as attending a regionally accredited online college. Which is better: regional accreditation vs. national accreditation? And does it really make any difference?
—Michael in Atlanta, Ga.
The truth? One type of online university accreditation is not necessarily “better” than another if you take “better” to mean “better academically.” However, there are real benefits to attending a regionally accredited online college versus a nationally accredited college.
When people ask if you have attended an "accredited university" in the United States, they commonly mean a regionally accredited university. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85 percent of all colleges in the United States are regionally accredited. Not all online schools are regionally accredited—though the vast majority are.
There are six major regional accrediting bodies in the United States. You can see which states are the domain of which regional accreditation association below.
Regionally Accredited Online Colleges — Pros & Cons
- The gold standard of college accreditation; highest prestige
- Most widely recognized type of college accreditation
- Credits and degrees widely accepted in transfer
- Eligible for all corporate tuition reimbursement plans
- Usually provide instructor-led courses
- Often more expensive than nationally accredited colleges
- Often require more liberal arts coursework
- May offer less career-oriented programs
- Often enforce more competitive admission standards
#TRENDING: Regionally-accredited Western Governors University.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also recognizes a number of “national accreditation agencies.” These agencies are called “national agencies” because they aren’t organized by and limited to regional geographic areas.
These national agencies have historically focused on approving career, vocational, and trade schools that offer certificates and degrees. Because of the specialized focus, the requirements to earn a certificate or degree from a nationally accredited school are not as standardized as a regionally accredited school. Nationally accredited schools are reviewed every 3-5 years to ensure that they still meet the requirements.
The three most popular “national” college accreditation agencies recognized by CHEA are:
- Distance Education & Training Council (DETC)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
Other national accreditation agencies include:
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission (TRACS)
CONSUMER ALERT: The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is no longer approved to issue national accreditation due to pending legislation.
Nationally Accredited Online Colleges – Pros & Cons
- Often less expensive than regionally accredited counterparts
- May require less liberal arts coursework
- May offer more practical, career-oriented majors
- May employ more relaxed admission standards
- Credits not widely accepted in transfer if you later attend a regionally accredited college
- Coursework and degrees may not be widely accepted for professions that require licensing after degree attainment, which might affect those in licensed careers such as teaching, accounting, engineering and healthcare
- Sometimes excluded from corporate tuition plans
- Sometimes provide self-study courses without instructor-led course sessions
#TRENDING: Nationally-accredited Full Sail University.
Affordability: One Major Factor
Cost can be an important deciding factor. If “better” means more affordable, then nationally accredited online universities are often the winners.
According to GetEducated.com’s online MBA rankings, the average cost of a regionally accredited online MBA is $25,869. On the other hand, the average cost for a nationally accredited online MBA is only $12,700.
That’s a savings of about $8,000.
In addition, Get Educated’s surveys of online universities indicate that regionally accredited colleges often employ stricter admissions requirements, including higher entrance GPAs. They also are more likely to require standardized admission exams, such as the GRE or GMAT.
CONSUMER ALERT: The most common complaint GetEducated.com receives from students who attend nationally accredited online universities is that their degrees do not meet with wide acceptance later when they return to advance their education or attempt to attend graduate school.
Case in Point
In 2001, a 23-year-old woman, Latesha Gonzalez, enrolled with Crown College in Tacoma, Wash. At the time, Crown College was accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT).
Gonzalez was assured when she enrolled with Crown that a local, regionally accredited school, Gonzaga University, would accept Crown courses as the equivalent of its own.
But when Gonzalez later attempted to transfer her coursework from Crown to Gonzaga, she was told by Gonzaga that it would not recognize credits earned from ACCSCT-accredited colleges.
Gonzalez sued Crown in 2004, as did a number of other disgruntled students. She eventually won the suit.
CONSUMER ALERT: The ACCSCT changed its name to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) in October 2009.
What About Programmatic Accreditation?
Programmatic accreditation can apply to programs, departments, or schools that are part of a larger college or university (Law School, Business School, etc.). The accredited school or program may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline (or career field). Specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review programs within a college or university that has already been accredited by one of the regional or national accrediting bodies.
The most well known form of programmatic accreditation is the AACSB accreditation of business schools such as Northeastern University’s D-Amore-McKim School of Business.
Sometimes employers or licensing boards require degrees with specialized accreditation. For example, to sit for the national physician assistant licensing exam, the applicant must hold a degree that is ARC-PA accredited (a specialized, programmatic accreditation offered by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Asssistant.
Which is Best: National Accreditation or Regional Accreditation?
Nationally accredited online colleges score “better” on some criteria—affordability and ease of admission, most notably.
Regionally accredited colleges score “better” on other dimensions, such as academic reputation, transfer of credit, and the widest possible acceptance by other universities.
Decide which accreditation factor(s) matter most to you then choose your online degree program accordingly.
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Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as "for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students." In 1989 she designed America's first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees, Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student's Guide to College.
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