With a growing number of colleges and universities offering courses for online credit, it’s easy to assume that a nice-looking website translates to a high quality program. Unfortunately, not every learning institution that offers online courses for credit can claim the same quality as a traditional brick-and-mortar school. How can you find a school that offers a quality education online? Accreditation.
Understanding National Accreditation
Accreditation provides students an assurance that the programs offered meet or exceed national standards for education. Schools can choose whether or not to apply for accreditation. Most do, but many don’t. The accreditation process is rigorous and ongoing. It begins with a comprehensive self-evaluation, proceeds with a peer-led review of the institution, and continues its mission of continuous improvement by implementing the feedback made during the review. Suggestions for improvement may relate to everything from academic rigor to job placement rates to financial stability. This commitment to improved quality puts the best interests of the students first.
Accreditation is also temporary. The institution must restart the approval process once the accreditation period ends. The peer reviewers will study the institution’s attempts to resolve past problems, record changes in retention rates, participate in unannounced site visits, and more.
Why Accreditation Matters
When you search for an online college, your first step should be to check for national accreditation. All nationally accredited online colleges meet or exceed a minimum standard of quality in academic, financial, retention, and placement areas. If you plan to transfer credits in or out of your online college, accreditation goes a long way. It’s also an effective way for potential employers to learn whether or not your courses truly prepared you for a job. If you’re already working and you plan to submit your tuition for reimbursement, your employer will probably require that any courses you take come from an accredited school.
If you don’t choose an accredited school, you may not be eligible for federally subsidized loans or grants. You also may not be able to take certain certifications exams. If you need proof that your degree comes from an accredited college or university, the school you choose must have taken the time to get accredited.
Choosing an Online Program
The reasons for choosing accreditation are clear. Now you just need to find the online program that best meets your needs. According to U.S. News & World Report, more than 3,000 colleges and universities teach online courses. In 2009, about 1,700 offer fully-online, degree-granting programs. Six years later, there is no reason to expect those numbers will slow down.
National accreditation is an important first step when narrowing down your list of potential schools. You also need to consider whether professional associations are willing to offer their own accreditations. A student with an interest in law should insist on studying in a program that earned accreditation from the American Bar Association, for example. Other programs, such as vocational nursing, should be regulated by a state board such as the Board of Nurse Examiners.
You’ll also need to consider whether or not you’ll have access to a physical campus. Although studying at home sounds comfortable, sometimes you’ll want the comfort and security of knowing there is a place you can go to see other students and teachers. The federal Department of Education agrees. According to U.S. News, blended instruction is “more effective at improving student achievement across a variety of subject matters than purely online or face-to-face instruction.”
Before you enroll, investigate the faculty. Is your teacher accessible online or in-person in case you have questions? What kind of experience does the faculty member have? The answers to these questions will let you assess the overall quality of your program.