Accreditation Matters: What to Look for in Universities and Degrees Online
As online education has become more mainstream, thousands of universities now offer degree programs online. However, all online programs do not proportionally meet certain criteria, and shouldn’t be equally compared. To ensure the quality of a program, a student should evaluate the school’s accreditations before registering.
Accreditation is defined as a status that a college or university holds for maintaining high standards set by an outside, legitimate authority. There are a number of accrediting agencies and different types of accreditation. A clear understanding of what these accreditations mean is essential to effectively vet any educational opportunity.
Basic Types of Accreditation
There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional and specialized or programmatic. Institutional accreditation refers to the entire school, and means that all of the program and parts of the institution are contributing to its goals and objectives, although not necessarily at the same quality level.
Specialized or programmatic accreditation usually refers to the accreditation of a unit as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. It can also refer to a specialized vocational or trade school that stands alone, meaning the specialized accreditation is certifying the entire institution.1
To determine if a school’s accreditation means anything, a student should check with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. Both publish lists of accreditors they recognize because they adhere to appropriate standards when evaluating schools.
Regional accreditors evaluate schools within a certain region of the United States. The council recognizes six of these, while the government recognizes seven.2
Both also recognize less than a dozen national accreditors who evaluate faith-based programs or career oriented programs. Some profession-specific accreditors exist as well, such as the American Bar Association which evaluates Law Schools.
The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is another program designed to ensure a uniform standard in online education so that credits meet the requirements of each state, ensuring students that their credits will transfer.3
Students who choose Arizona State University online can be assured that not only is the university accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, but many programs carry specialized accreditations specific to their fields.
Arizona State University has earned fifteen specialized accreditations including being one of the first online engineering programs to receive accreditation from the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. Other specialized accreditations range from business (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) to Mass Communication and Media Studies (Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications).
Other programs with special accreditations include the Master of Sustainable Tourism (Council on Accreditation for Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Related Professions) and the Master of Healthcare Innovation (Arizona State Board of Nursing/Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education).
Vetting Online Universities and Programs
To ensure you are getting the best online education, students should thoroughly vet any program before enrolling by taking the following steps:
Check the school website for accreditations the institution claims.
Search the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation4 databases to make sure the accreditor is recognized by one or both of them.
Look at the specific program you intend to apply for, and see if it has a specialized accreditation.
Research and determine if the specialized accreditation is accepted by employers and those who license professionals in your chosen career area.
By understanding the types of accreditation and vetting universities and programs you are interested in, students can be assured they are getting the best online education possible.