November 10th, 2010
Online colleges have contributed to the evolution of education, making it possible to earn a degree from wherever your laptop resides. Prominent schools like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University have set the standard, but what about the lesser-known schools you may be considering? Not all online colleges are created equal, so it's important to do your research before determining which one is right for you. A starting point is to find out if the schools you're considering are accredited.
Accreditation is the process of ensuring an institution provides an acceptable level of education, meeting the standards set by an accreditation agency. There are several accreditation agencies in the US — they're private, region or national, and determine their own evaluation criteria. In order for an agency to be legitimate, it must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Accreditation agencies must apply for recognition just like academic institutions must apply for accreditation, which entails a comprehensive evaluation process. The list of recognized accreditation agencies can be found here, and the list of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs can be found here.
During the accreditation evaluation process, an institution or program must monitor its performance and measure it against the standards of the accreditation agency. A team from the accreditation agency also examines the institution or program by making an on-site visit. If the applicant meets the standards, then it's given accreditation or preaccreditation status and is listed in an official publication. The institution or program must maintain those standards, which are continually monitored by the agency, during their accreditation period. The agency will later reevaluate the institution or program and determine if it deserves to keep its status.
You'll want to avoid so-called diploma mills — non-accredited institutions that award substandard degrees with the motive of making a profit. Their programs typically require less work, but the value of education provided is severely lacking. There are no federal laws prohibiting the function of such institutions, but you can avoid them by simply searching the accreditation list — where the good schools reside.