Does 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 explanation of accreditation. It serves as both our description and our opinion of accreditation.

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 higher education.

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 international schools.

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 respective regions.

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 question.

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 regional agencies.

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.”

Non-Governmental Accreditation
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 accredit themselves.

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 accreditation agencies.

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 mills.

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 validity.

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.

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