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The FAQs on Accreditation of Online Universities

written by: Sarah Malburg•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 12/2/2011

Understanding the college or university accreditation process and having information about these organizations will help you to make the right decision on which college is the perfect fit. Attending an accredited online university is a very important key to a successful career in the future.

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    Sorting Through Common Questions

    Here are a few frequently asked questions on online university accreditation and other qualifications of higher learning institutions that you will need to know and become familiar with if you are planning on applying for one of these colleges:

    What does accreditation mean in terms of higher learning?

    Accreditation is really a result of a process that ensures the US Department of Education and prospective students, parents, and administration that a particular institution is providing a quality level of education to its students in order to achieve credentials that will make them successful and qualified professionals after graduation.

    Are there different kinds of accreditation?

    There are two main types. One is called "institution", where the institution is being accredited as an entity, and the other is called "specialized" which is where specific programs are accredited.

    What are some other reasons for accreditation? Why does it exist?

    If a college has accreditation by a US-approved accreditation organization, then this also helps that institution to know if transfer credits from other universities are acceptable and valid to their students. In addition, accreditation helps institutions to become eligible to receive financial aid for their students. Actually, being an accredited college is one of the mandates for obtaining financial aid programs.

    So then, what is an approved accreditation organization or agency?

    It is one that determines whether or not an institution meets the standards necessary to provide a quality education to its students through its programs.

    Are these accreditation organizations established and run by the US Department of Education?

    Yes, but in a roundabout way. See this is what happens:

    An accreditation agency must be recognized by the Secretary of Education in order to become an accrediting organization. There is a list of criteria and procedures associated with this that the accrediting agency must meet in order to qualify. They first have to apply through the US Department of Education and then be reviewed by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. For more details on this criteria, click here.

    Once the Secretary of Education approves an agency, then that agency or organization is deemed responsible for evaluating the criteria involved with accrediting an institution directly. As a result, the US Department of Education is then responsible for publishing and constantly updating a list of nationally government-recognized accrediting agencies for higher learning. In summation, an institution is accredited by the government through a second-hand party (in this case, the agency). The government approves the agency, the agency approves the school.

    What is the criteria used by an accrediting agency to "approve" an institution for accreditation status?

    • Standards-Each institution must meet the educational standards set forth.
    • Self-Evaluation-The institution must prepare a self-evaluation that will prove their ability to meet the standards and meet performance expectations.
    • On-Site Evaluation-The accreditation organization or agency will make a visit to the institution to see for themselves how the school performs. This is like an assessment type situation.
    • Publication-After the institution meets the standards through a successful evaluation, they then become accredited and are put on a list of accredited universities in the same category.
    • Monitoring-The accrediting agency will often monitor the status of the institution's performance to make sure they remain in compliance with the standards.
    • Reevaluation-The accreditation organization will occasionally revisit the school for another evaluation.

    For more information on the university accreditation process,click here.

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    What are the main US Department of Education university accreditation organizations recognized?

    There are some regional and some national accreditation organizations/agencies. Here are some of the most common ones referenced:

    Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Higher Education - for institutions in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including distance education programs in these states.

    New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education - for institutions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont including distance education programs.

    North Central Association of Colleges and Schools,The Higher Learning Commission - for institutions in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming and including distance education.

    Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities - for institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington as well as distance learning programs.

    Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges - for institutions in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Distance learning programs in these institutions are also included.

    Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities - for institutions in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, including distance education programs.

    Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission - for institutions in the US that have distance learning programs at all levels.

    This is a very important agency if you are planning on pursuing a degree online or through distance learning.

    Are there any nongovernmental agencies that recognize institution accreditation organizations?

    Yes. The main one is called the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) . It approves its accrediting agencies in a similar way the Secretary of Education does, however, it does provide all three (regional, national, and specialized) types of agencies and it also does not use federal spending to establish these agencies. The agencies involved must meet the standards of the CHEA in order to qualify for becoming an accreditation organization. For more information on the CHEA, please visit their website at www.chea.org.

    If you are interested in more information on higher learning accreditation or want to check the online university accreditation of a school of interest, then you can visit the Us Department of Education website at www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html.