Distance Learning Accreditation & Online Degrees
By Sharon Greenslade
Will employers value the online degree you have received? Will you be able to transfer credits from your online course to another institution? Will the online program you select provide a rigorous and worthwhile educational experience? A key to answering these questions is an understanding of accreditation and the accreditation process. This article will provide you with the basic information you need to make wise and informed decisions when selecting an online program or course.
What is accreditation?
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Accreditation is simply a validation process by which institutions of higher education are evaluated against established standards to ensure a high level of educational quality. It is typically accomplished through a peer-review process in which faculty from accredited institutions help to conduct evaluations of either new non-accredited institutions or accredited institutions seeking renewal. The standards used to conduct these evaluations vary but in general they assess: the institution's mission, goals and objectives, resources and resource allocation, student admission requirements, student support services and the quality of the faculty and educational offerings.
Unlike the practices of most other countries, in the United States accreditation of institutions of higher education is not conducted by the government. Instead, it is a voluntary process that is implemented by private nongovernmental accrediting agencies. At present, there are both regional as well as national agencies involved in the accreditation process. The only role that the government plays is to evaluate these accrediting agencies using well developed criteria in order to identify those considered to be "reliable authorities" on the quality of institutions of higher education.
Why should I care about accreditation?
Knowing something about a school's accreditation can tell you a lot about the value of the degree or course for which you are paying. If you obtain a degree or take a course from a non-accredited institution you may find that the degree is not recognized by some employers or that the course credits may not transfer to other institutions. Understanding accreditation can also help you identify and avoid "diploma mills" (i.e. an unaccredited institution that grants degrees without ensuring students are properly qualified.)
To begin, it is important to understand that the term "accredited" is used rather loosely by some institutions and therefore you have to know what to look for when checking a school's accreditation. All institutions of higher education, online or "brick and mortar," should openly provide information on their accreditation to prospective students. The first thing to pay attention to are the words used. The documentation should clearly state that the institution is "accredited" and should list the accrediting agency. Some unaccredited schools use terms that give the appearance of accreditation when in fact none exists. Phrases that you should be wary of include: "pursuing accreditation", "chartered", "licensed or registered", "recognized", "authorized" or "approved." If these phrases are used without the term "accreditation" you should be sure to conduct a more detailed investigation.
It is also very important to review the qualifications of the accrediting agency which has evaluated and approved the institution in question. The "American Association of Accredited Colleges and Universities", for example, may sound rather official but in reality this fake organization was invented several years ago by a less than prestigious college. This example illustrates the point that although, as noted earlier, the U.S. government via the Department of Education evaluates accrediting agencies, there are many that are not approved but that still operate, often in less than reputable ways.
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