Online College Accreditation

By Taylor Nichols | Published 4/14/2021

The massive expansion of online learning programs means there are thousands of legitimate, high-quality online degrees available to distance learners today. While it's important to be aware of diploma mills and other low-quality online degrees that offer little value for students, it's relatively easy to tell which online colleges are legitimate through accreditation.

Accreditation is a mark of excellence that means a school or degree program has been evaluated by an accrediting body and meets universal standards of academic quality. It's a process that schools undergo so they can show students, employers, certifying boards, and industry leaders that they offer quality education to their students.

Accreditation is a mark of excellence that means a school or degree program has been evaluated by an accrediting body and meets universal standards of academic quality.

Colleges and universities voluntarily undergo accreditation to ensure they are up to academic and industry standards. Schools also must be accredited to receive federal funding and to allow students to use federal and state financial aid to pay for their education.

How does the process work? There are two main steps: first, each school conducts a self-assessment to identify how well it performs based on the standards set by the accrediting agency. Next, the accreditor evaluates the entire school to determine if it is able to meet the needs of students. The agency reviews a school's programs, coursework, degree pathways, institutional mission and policies, faculty and staff, student services and support, infrastructure, and other qualities to ensure it meets accreditation requirements.

Once a school is accredited, it has to repeat the process every five to ten years to renew the status. This policy ensures schools continue to meet accreditation standards and are able to adequately meet student needs.

Why should accreditation matter to you? It is one of the most important things to look for when considering an online degree because it indicates whether or not your degree will be seen as legitimate by employers, colleagues, and other schools. Other benefits of accreditation include:

  • Your online education will be more likely to meet academic standards
  • You'll be able to use any financial aid you qualify for to cover the cost of your education
  • It's more likely that other schools will accept your credits if you decide to transfer or pursue more education later on
  • Accredited programs are more likely to meet industry standards and requirements for certification and licensure

Students can determine if their school is accredited by searching for it in the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP), offered by the U.S. Department of Education, or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) database. All colleges listed on OnlineU are accredited at the institutional level.

What Type of Accreditation Should I Look For in a College?

There are a few different types of accreditation your college can have. Schools can be either regionally or nationally accredited, so if you see that a school is accredited by a regional or national agency, that means the institution as a whole has been evaluated.

Programs within a school can have programmatic accreditation as well. It's not uncommon for a school to be accredited by multiple agencies. Accreditors are typically private, nonprofit organizations that specialize in a certain area of education and are recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Regional Accreditation

For over 100 years, degree-granting colleges and universities — whether they are private nonprofit colleges like Harvard University or publicly funded colleges like the University of Washington — have been accredited by one of six regional accrediting agencies. Regional accreditors typically evaluate schools in a particular location and have a unique understanding of the requirements necessary to best serve students in their region. All valid regional accrediting agencies are recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA.

There are six regional accreditors that evaluate colleges and universities:

  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and School Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission on Higher Education (NECE)
US map showing regional accreditors by area

Until July 2020, regional accreditors could only evaluate schools in their designated area. However, recent changes to the accreditation process now allow regional accreditors to operate at the national level and evaluate schools across the country.

National Accreditation

Like regional accreditors, national accrediting agencies evaluate schools as a whole. However, they focus on schools that fit in their area of expertise rather than a geographical region. Some national accreditors work with schools that offer career and technical programs such as massage therapy, cosmetology, or culinary arts. Others specialize in distance learning, healthcare education, or faith-based institutions. If you choose an online degree program, your school may be accredited by the Distance Education Accreditation Commission, the accrediting organization that specializes in online and other distance education programs.

National accreditation is most common at for-profit institutions, especially those that offer career training with a focus on hands-on skills necessary for different trades or professions rather than traditional academic studies.

Programmatic Accreditation

Unlike regional and national accreditation, programmatic accreditation focuses on a particular degree program rather than the entire institution. Programmatic accreditation, sometimes referred to as specialized or professional accreditation, is conducted by accrediting agencies that specialize in a specific area of study. Schools themselves usually have national or regional accreditation, and individual degree programs or departments within the school will often have accreditation in their field of study. Some examples of this include the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, which accredits nursing programs, and the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), which accredits teaching programs.

Accreditation on OnlineU

At OnlineU.org, we only rank accredited online colleges evaluated by an official organization recognized by CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education. We display accreditation information as shown in the visual below:

Example Screenshot

Most schools' websites also list their accreditation status, but some accreditors may not be recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education. To ensure a school's status is valid, check if the accrediting organization is listed on the U.S. Department of Education website or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website.

What is the Best Accreditation for Online Colleges?

Regional accreditation is usually seen as the best option when it comes to academic quality and evaluation, especially for students who are pursuing a degree. If you take classes or earn a degree at a school without regional accreditation, you may have a harder time transferring credits, pursuing a higher level of education, getting licensed or certified, or finding a job.

However, that does not mean going to a school with national accreditation is necessarily a bad choice. Nationally accredited schools are often more affordable and usually accept all applicants, which means they are easier to get into. They might be a good option for students who are interested in vocational or technical training, pursuing a certificate or diploma, or seeking an education rooted in religious studies. For example, online students who plan to pursue careers as pastors, cosmetologists, or welders will likely attend a nationally accredited college. Their chosen program may not be offered at traditional colleges and universities with regional accreditation.

Prospective students considering a nationally accredited school should research how their decision will impact their future options. Students who plan to get their master's degree may struggle to find a regionally accredited graduate school that will accept a nationally accredited bachelor's degree. Professional certifying and licensing boards may require applicants to complete their education at a regionally accredited school. Corporate tuition reimbursement programs and many other forms of financial aid are also only available to students of regionally accredited schools.

What Online Colleges Are Nationally Accredited?

National accreditation is most common at for-profit online schools, and is often reserved for career and technical schools or faith-based institutions, but can sometimes be designated for other types of schools.

If you are pursuing a bachelor's or master's degree at a nonprofit four-year institution, your school will likely be regionally accredited. If you are enrolled in a for-profit school focused on career preparation for a specific career or trade, your school is more likely to have national accreditation.

Schools that offer short-term programs that lead to a certificate, diploma, or prepare you for certification or licensure often have national accreditation. If you enroll in a career-focused college or program, your online school will likely be accredited by one of these seven agencies:

  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission
  • National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences, Inc.

If you attend a program at a faith-based school, including those that prepare you for a career as a pastor or rabbi, your online school may be accredited by:

  • Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation
  • Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission
  • Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies
  • Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission

Many online universities also have accreditation through the Distance Education Accreditation Commission (DEAC), a national accreditor that evaluates online and other distance learning programs. While attending a school that has DEAC accreditation on top of regional or other accreditation is best, it doesn't mean an online school is bad if it doesn't have this accreditation.

Accreditation Across Degree Levels

Online Associate Degrees

Associate degrees are two-year degree programs usually offered through community and technical colleges, although some four-year universities offer associate degrees as well. Many students earn an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS) to satisfy the first two years of their bachelor's degree, then transfer to a four-year university to finish their undergraduate degree. Others earn an AA or AS in to qualify them for more jobs or higher pay. Most schools that offer AA and AS degrees will be regionally accredited.

Enrollment in two-year career preparation programs, such as veterinary technician, registered nurse, or dental hygienist programs, typically results in an Associate of Applied Science Degree (AAS). Career and technical schools are more likely to have national than regional accreditation, and they may have programmatic accreditation as well.

If you attend a school that is nationally accredited, it may be difficult to transfer nationally accredited credits to another school. This might not be an issue for you if your program is designed to prepare you for a specific career pathway or credential and you do not plan on pursuing a higher level of education such as a bachelor's or master's degree. Students exploring vocational or technical programs should look for programmatic accreditation as well as national accreditation to ensure their degree will meet requirements for certification, licensure, and employment in their field, and will meet industry standards.

Examples of programmatic accreditors for associate degrees include the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) for AAS programs in healthcare and the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) for associate degree programs in construction offered online.

Online Bachelor's Degrees

Generally speaking, it's best for students to pursue a bachelor's degree through a regionally accredited school, especially if they might transfer to a different school or plan to earn their master's degree. While regionally accredited graduate schools may accept students with nationally accredited bachelor's degrees on a case-by-case basis, it can be harder to get into a master's program or find schools willing to accept your degree.

That being said, it's not impossible to go to graduate school or transfer colleges with a nationally accredited bachelor's degree. While regionally accredited schools often won't accept credits from a nationally accredited institution, other schools with national accreditation usually have more flexible transfer policies. Students who earn a nationally accredited bachelor's degree may be more limited, but will still likely have some options available to them.

For students with specific career goals that require certification or licensure, it's critical to know what education requirements you must meet to become certified.

Undergraduate students should also be aware of programmatic accreditation for their field of study. For students with specific career goals that require certification or licensure, it's critical to know what education requirements you must meet to become certified. Some certifying boards require programmatic accreditation from the main accreditor for that industry. For other fields of study, programmatic accreditation is less important than regional accreditation. Examples of programmatic accreditors for online bachelor's degrees include the American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation (APA), which evaluates psychology programs, and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which accredits Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and related programs.

Online Master's and Doctoral Degrees

Many graduate students enroll in online degree programs with specific career goals in mind. Master's and doctoral degrees are often required for licensure in fields such as counseling and healthcare or are necessary to qualify for a position as a librarian, postsecondary teacher, or other professional roles. Graduate students pursuing a master's or doctoral degree should research what programmatic accreditation is necessary for their professional goals to ensure their education will meet industry standards.

Accreditors for popular master's degree programs include the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) which evaluates business programs such as the master's in business administration (MBA), and the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), which accredits Master of Public Health degrees and related programs.