Are online college degrees legitimate? This is a question that pops up in the mind of every student considering an online program. Though they have grown in demand and popularity over the last few years, online programs still have some way to go before being adopted without any questions. Perhaps, this skepticism still exists because when they first came around as distance education, they were options for students who could not participate in mainstream academics. The reasons were many. Either students could not afford regular college tuition, or they had to work to support their families. Some might have faced the lack of good colleges if they lived in rural or remote areas. Many also believed that students who were not high performers find it easier to attend online classes than on-campus programs.
Things are very different now as more students opt for online education. However, there may still be students who are worried and asking are online colleges legit? It is a valid question, and it is always a good idea to do thorough research before investing time and money into college education. One of the best ways to find out if online degrees are legitimate is if an accredited college offers them. Accreditation is an important criterion as it makes a program credible and improves job prospects. Accreditations ensure the quality of the program, course delivery and add to the overall value of the degree. It ensures that the program and university meet certain quality standards.
Accreditation proves that your degree is awarded by a quality academic institution recognized by all other higher education institutes and employers.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation can be defined as a “seal of approval” from a third party or a recognized organization that certifies that a school offers a quality academic experience. It is essentially a review process conducted by several non-governmental, nonprofit organizations in the United States. They help us understand if educational programs, whether online or traditional, meet defined standards of quality.
The process is quite thorough and rigorous, so you can be assured that you are getting a quality education by choosing an accredited college. Most colleges have staff dedicated to overseeing and managing the process. They present all the necessary paperwork required for the accreditation. The process ends with a team of professional experts from academia or industry who conduct the external quality review. These are subject matter experts who lend their time, knowledge, and experience to help assure the program’s quality and contribute to the ongoing improvement of education in their disciplines.
However, it is important to remember that accreditation achieved is not permanent; it needs to be renewed periodically. The renewal process is also comprehensive, ensuring that the degree program’s quality is maintained. This recognition from professional organizations is essential because accredited degrees improve job prospects, help students get good jobs, and pursue graduate education from a reputable institution.
Most colleges hold regional or national accreditation from an independent, nonprofit agency. An online degree that is accredited and recognized is essential for a students’ future success.
Students should also check the program-specific accreditations. They reflect the programmatic excellence of the online degree programs. They ensure that the course delivery is top-notch and add to the overall value of the high-quality degree. It also ensures that the program and university both meet national quality standards. Students at regionally accredited institutions often qualify for federal financial aid.
Students should also look into the school’s recognition and rankings, regional reputation, and national rankings.
What are the different kinds of accreditations?
The main accreditation commissions and the regions they serve are:
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC): Accredits colleges and universities in the United States.
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges: California and Hawaii
- New England Association of Colleges and Schools: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
How to know if a college is accredited?
Accredited online colleges proudly display their accreditation certificates on their websites, both on their homepages and the page dedicated to all accreditation information. Students can also visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website that offers links to all accreditation institutions and help them discover whether or not a school is accredited by one of the recognized accrediting agencies.
Search the website for the United States Department of Education. There you find a ‘Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.’ The search options are easy and convenient, and you will find information on hundreds of institutions to see if your desired online college has been properly accredited. You can search by the institution’s name, city or state, or the regional accrediting agency. If the specific school being searched for does not appear, search in a different format like the full name instead of the school acronym.
Select a result to locate the right college and go to the main profile page or homepage. It should include verified information like the name of the accreditation agency, campus addresses, and contact information like phone numbers and emails. If you want to learn more about the accreditation, click on that link, and you will be redirected to the accreditation agency website. There, you will find a wealth of information about the agency’s accreditation, standards, and contact information. However, one should note that the U.S. Department of Education states in its disclaimer that the list may not be comprehensive and include all accredited colleges.
Every school is unique because they offer diverse programs and have different learning environments and systems. Accreditation helps to maintain a level of consistency in educational quality between the schools despite the diversity. It provides a uniform picture for students to compare and determine which school is right for them. Since students spend a great deal of time and money earning their degrees, opting for accredited online colleges is a smart move. They will be able to walk away with credentials that will open doors for them everywhere.
Accredited degrees are important for jobs and higher education opportunities. If you earn an unaccredited degree or have not graduated from an accredited college, potential employers may not think your college education was legitimate. Sometimes, colleges do not allow the transfer of credits from an unaccredited school which is a waste of time, money, and effort.
What are programmatic accreditations?
Some schools seek specialized organizations to support their knowledge and industry-based credentials, known as programmatic accreditations. Programmatic accreditation focuses on individual programs instead of the whole institution. They are designed to ensure prospective students and parents that the academic program has undergone a rigorous review process and met high standards for educational quality. Accrediting agencies assess the curriculum, faculty, and program outcomes. Programmatic accreditation applies to a single degree program and offers an evaluation-based standard for the program per the list of criteria of the nationally recognized accreditation commissions. These accreditations provide the backing needed to answer questions like “are online college degrees legitimate?”
Some of these programmatic accreditations are:
- IACBE, AACSB, and ACBSP for business programs
- CSWE for social work degree programs
- CAAHEP for health education programs
- CACREP for counseling and related programs
- ACEN for nursing programs
- AOTA-ACOTE for occupational therapy programs
- AVMA for veterinary
- COAMFTE-AAMFT for marriage and family therapy education
Why are accreditations important?
While online degrees are new to many, proper accreditations, help students get peace of mind. As we have seen above, accredited schools are required to follow meticulous standards to maintain their accreditation. It is important for advanced studies as well for employment. In some cases, students may be unable to apply for financial aid, such as Pell Grants from the federal government, unless they have earned a degree from an accredited college. Students must make a checklist of what they need to do and determine if the accredited online colleges offer the degree they are seeking.
How to know if a college is accredited? Here’s a quick checklist:
Do your research. Look for both institutional and programmatic accreditations. Remember that the former can be regional or national. Even if a school proclaims to be accredited, double-check to ensure that the accrediting agency is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. As mentioned above, these websites will provide you with a list of accredited institutions to verify your search.
Look for the schools’ location. Even if it is an online college, it should have a physical campus location or address for students to visit. Also, no accrediting agency will offer legitimacy to a fake university, so location is a big plus. Sometimes, a school’s website promises students a lot which sounds too good to be true. In most cases, these are scams students should stay away from.
Look out for admission scams. Some fraudulent colleges ask for tuition upfront without elaborating the details of the admission process or the academic rotation. If the admission criteria are too simple, then double-check the schools’ reputation. Most universities ask for tuition payments to be in installments and also offer aid. If a school is not doing that, they warrant the question: are online colleges legit?
Look for corresponding traditional campuses. One easy way to ensure legitimacy is to opt for online programs managed by reputable brick and mortar institutions. They offer online students the same quality and academic rigor as their traditional programs, and the faculty remains the same. What can be a better way than this to ensure that you are enrolling in an accredited college.
Check out resources and the student support system. Accredited online universities offer varied resources to set students up for success. This includes student services and student support systems that offer students everything from library services and tutorials to advisors who guide students until they complete their education and get their online degrees. They should also provide information about placements and jobs and related career information.
Look for student reviews and feedback. Many students post reviews on the college websites as well as on related educational websites and study portals. These will give you a good idea of the school, its programs and what studying there feels like. If getting a degree seems too fast and easy, then step back and double-check the school’s reputation and ranking. Online degrees may be flexible but require the same amount of effort to be completed, and any website telling you otherwise is not to be trusted.
The information provided above lays some ground rules for your online education research. If you are investing time, money, and efforts to secure a college education, then it may be worth your time to follow some of the points we have stated above. While they may seem complicated and time-consuming, investing some time to research and make a list of accredited online colleges is a good idea. You can be assured that the degree you choose will be accredited, recognized, and a legitimate investment for your future.
All you have to do is follow the checklist and see if the schools match the criteria you need. While accreditation is of utmost importance to prove legitimacy, the others are important as well. Visit the websites of each accrediting agency along with the school’s website to get a thorough knowledge of the process so that you can make an informed decision.
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
- United States Department of Education
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- New England Association of Colleges and Schools