Accreditation Matter To A Program Offering Online Degrees?
One question that seems to come up constantly when Virtual Students are
looking for an online degree program is, “what about accreditation?”
Accreditation is an important issue, important to understand and important
to handle in your search for a good distance learning school.
Like many issues related to education, “accreditation” is an issue
shrouded in a mist of vagueness that almost borders on secrecy. It is as
if “mere mortals” (such as Virtual Students) cannot be trusted with the
secrets of accreditation. Therefore, we are to simply believe what the
schools and the accreditation agencies tell us about accreditation.
Consequently, there is a lot of misinformation and hype out there
regarding this subject. Even though they often wrap themselves in a cloak
of academic purity, every school has an agenda. They want you to believe a
particular concept about accreditation, preferably the one that puts them
in the best light.
So here we present the hype-free VirtualStudent.com explanation of
accreditation. It serves as both our description and our opinion of
What is “accreditation” exactly?
Accreditation is one process by which institutions of higher education
measure their effectiveness against a set of common standards. It is a
voluntary process that schools undergo in order to validate the quality of
their programs and the value of their degrees.
The effect of accreditation is to provide the public, prospective
students, and various interested parties (such as grant makers, vendors,
etc.) with an assurance of a school’s legitimacy. Saying that a school “is
accredited” is a way of assigning a linguistic “mark” to that school as a
legitimate higher education player.
Types of Accreditation
There are several groups that can handle accreditation. They include trade
associations, private agencies set up for the specific purpose of
accrediting schools, and, outside the US, government departments.
All accreditation agencies are not considered equal. Within the broad
group of organizations that accredit colleges and universities, some are
considered “more equal than others.” There is a pecking order within the
elitist pantheon accrediting agencies, just as there is with most of
At the top of the pecking order are accrediting agencies that have been
approved by the US Department of Education. These include a group known as
“regional” accreditation agencies, “national” accreditation agencies, and
“specialized” accreditation agencies.
The regional accreditation agencies are actually big trade associations,
made up of member colleges and universities that reside in particular
geographic regions. Their primary areas of jurisdiction are the several
regions of the United States, although some also accredit offshore and
You will often see regional accreditation referred to as the “best” or
even the “only” mark of “real” accreditation. This is mainly because the
regional agencies accredit the largest, most powerful schools in their
It is not necessarily true to say that a regionally accredited school is
better than any other. However, we do concede that regional accreditation
is the most widely, generally accepted mark of approval for a college or
university. It is the “retail” brand of accreditation, in that it is most
commonly known and most commonly accepted without investigation or
National accreditation agencies are generally private organizations that
have been constructed for the specific purpose of accrediting colleges and
universities. In many cases they are also membership associations, much
like the regional agencies.
Often, the national agencies are special purpose accreditors. There are
agencies, for example, that accredit just distance learning schools, or
just Christian schools, or just business schools.
In the marketplace of accreditation, in the US at least, national
accreditation is considered an acceptable but not ideal mark of
accreditation. The national accreditors, despite their sometimes excessive
efforts at self-importance, do not have the retail panache accorded the
The specialized accreditation agencies exist to accredit study programs in
particularly concentrated areas. There are specialized accreditation for a
great variety of subjects, ranging from nursing to landscape architecture,
each with its own dedicated accreditation agency and process.
The specialized agencies differ from the national agencies in that they
accredit individual programs. The national agencies provide accreditation
for entire institutions. Specialized accreditation is program-specific,
while national accreditation is considered “institutional.”
There are two other types of agencies that are worth our attention, both
of them private organizations. The first is a group of private,
non-governmental agencies that have purposefully chosen not to affiliate
with the United States federal government. The second is a group of
unethical “agencies” set up by diploma mill schools so that they may
There are several reasons a legitimate school might wish to be accredited
by an agency that is not affiliated with the United States Department of
Education. Each of these reasons is valid, assuming a foundation of
integrity for the school.
Some schools are philosophically opposed to government intervention. Some,
especially those with religious missions, believe their allegiance is to a
Higher Power, and not to a secular authority. And some, especially in the
nontraditional and distance learning space, offer models that, while
legitimate, are too innovative for the more plodding pace of the approved
For any of these schools, non-governmental accreditation is an appropriate
choice. In the public marketplace of higher education, legitimate schools
that embrace non-governmental accreditation simply choose to take their
stand and attract students who share their values.
Finally, sometimes illegitimate diploma mill schools will set up
“accreditation agencies” that serve no purpose except to accredit
themselves. These “agencies” are not, strictly speaking, accreditors, as
much as they are front organizations and possibly scams.
If you are considering a school that is accredited by a non-governmental
agency, be careful to check out the agency. One quick way to discern an
agency’s legitimacy is to ask to see its accreditation standards and to
see a list of its member schools. If an agency cannot quickly provide a
list of standards (even for a fee), or a list of schools (with at least
ten members), then it is probably not legitimate.
Is the government involved?
As noted above, in the United States, the federal government’s Department
of Education has an authorization process for those agencies that wish to
operate under its auspices. Contrary to widely held opinion, though, the
federal government does not itself accredit individual schools.
Constitutional law in the United States holds that education is the
responsibility of the individual states. Consequently, the individual
state governments are very involved in higher education.
Every state holds the authority to determine the standards for granting a
degree within its state boundaries. Therefore, every college or university
operating within a state does so only with that state’s approval. Every
degree legally granted in the United States is granted under state
authority, not federal.
Outside the United States, government agencies often become involved with
accreditation. The concept of “accreditation” originated in the US and has
largely not been a part of international education.
However, with the rise of Internet-based distance learning schools, many
governments have seen the need to establish accreditation boards. These
boards impose a standard of legitimacy on schools that seek to operate
within their borders. Although new, this movement is a welcome attempt to
limit the ability of illegitimate operators to easily set up diploma
Is accreditation necessary?
Accreditation is necessary only if it is necessary for you. If your
purpose calls for an accredited degree—or, more specifically, for a
“regionally accredited” degree, or for a degree accredited by a particular
agency—then accreditation is of course necessary.
However, for many learners, the purpose for achieving the degree is a
personal or professional goal that does not require accreditation. In
those cases, it is up to each individual to make a decision about a school
based on its merits and offerings, apart from accreditation.
The primary consideration is the integrity of the school. A school should
present itself exactly as it is.
If a school is unaccredited, it should say so, rather than trying to hide
behind a phony accreditation agency. If it is accredited by a
non-governmental agency, it should state its reason for choosing that
agency. If a school has chosen an offshore location, it should explain
clearly why it has chosen that domain.
Many schools have legitimate differences with US Department of
Education-authorized agencies. If you are considering such a school, it
should articulate those differences, and let the learner determine their
Accreditation is one method by which schools can indicate their
reliability. It is not the only method, but it does provide a gauge by
which learners can measure one school against many other of its peers.