The ABC's of Online School Accreditation

The incredible growth of distance learning in the past few years has given rise to a number of new schools (and new programs at existing colleges and universities) offering distance learning programs. The process of choosing a school becomes increasingly difficult since, unlike with traditional schooling, geography is no longer a limiting factor. You can now choose from programs at thousands of colleges across the country.

But with so many new programs (with unfamiliar names), how do you know which ones are legitimate? How do you know that you're not enrolling at some fly-by-night school or diploma mill ("Get your MD in just one month and four easy payments of $29.99!")?

Accreditation is the Answer

Accreditation is basically a process of school approval. Schools undergo a thorough, multi-year review by an outside agency who verifies that the school meets a standard set of criteria (that it has adequate resources, provides basic educational services, etc.). Institutional accreditation covers an entire school and specialized accreditation can be conferred upon individual departments or schools within a university. Accreditation is a tough (and expensive) process to go through, so it's a good way to separate the legitimate institutions from the "diploma mills". Having a degree from an accredited school is extremely important if you want employers and other schools to recognize your degree.

Accreditation, however, isn't quite so simple. Since accreditation is voluntary, some schools, such as some religious schools, don't seek accreditation. Accreditation is also a lengthy process taking years -- which means that newer schools often haven't completed, or even begun, the process. Then add in the fact that, in the U.S., accreditation is done by private agencies and not the government. As a result, it can be difficult to tell which accrediting agencies (let alone the schools themselves!) are legitimate.

Accrediting Online Schools/Programs

The accreditation of online schools has become a tricky issue and still hasn't reached a resolution. For example, most accreditation is done by regional agencies -- but online schools usually cross geographic, and often political, borders. There is a major accrediting agency for distance learning schools -- The Distance Education and Training Council. But, for the time being, distance learning institutions are being judged according to the same standards (and accrediting agencies) as their real-world counterparts.

The world of accreditation can be a murky one, but it's important that, as a prospective student, you aren't afraid to ask questions and get the straight talk on your school's accreditation situation. Check to see if your school is accredited, then double-check to see that their accreditation agency is legitimate, too. If things don't check out, find out why. Are they applying for accreditation? Were they turned down? The value of your degree could hinge on the answers to these questions, so make sure you ask.

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