Going to school online has become an increasingly acceptable way to earn a degree and boost career options. If you’re seeking a graduate degree, the online sphere can provide one in a wide array of fields.
So the question is not whether or not you can get your degree online, because you can. The question is whether an online degree carries the same respect and offers the same opportunities as a degree earned at a traditional institution.
Happily, while online degrees do still carry some stigma, it is lessening as more and more people opt for the online option. Then what, you might be wondering, is all the fuss about?
Good question. See, it comes down to whether or not an online degree is really worth what the school that’s granting it says it’s worth. If it is, then great: You’re on your way to a better career and life. But if it turns out to be worth less, you may have paid a lot of money and spent months or years of your time earning something that isn’t worth much.
It all comes down to accreditation. If you are a diligent consumer looking into online programs, you’ve probably run across this term before. Even if this is your first foray into online education and you’ve never heard the word, you should learn more about it. We’re here to answer the most common questions you may have.
What Is Accreditation?
The world runs on standards. An inch is always an inch long. A dollar is worth a dollar. An A is a measure of academic success. We don’t question these facts because they are standard, and everyone agrees on what they mean.
Schools must adhere to standards as well: standards of education. When they meet them, according to a lengthy review process helmed by private non-profit organizations, they become accredited.
According to the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, in order to be accredited by the U.S. Department of Education, schools are judged “on ten standards that include attention to recruitment and admission practices, fiscal and administrative capacity and facilities, and success with respect to student achievement. Only those institutions that are accredited by a USDE-recognized accrediting organization are eligible to receive federal financial assistance for their students.”
Aren’t All Schools Accredited?
Unfortunately, not all schools – online or off – are accredited. Any school can promise a degree upon successful completion of their program. That is not the same as providing you with a degree that really means something in the academic or work world.
And even when a school is accredited, that accreditation may not be worth much due to the relatively new phenomenon of accreditation mills. Just as there are no rules preventing online universities from transferring degrees on students, there are no rules preventing organizational bodies from calling themselves accreditors. Unfortunately, not every organization that calls itself an accreditor is in a position to judge a valid degree program. Many students have been burned by paying universities to take classes toward a degree they later find out isn’t worth anything, because it was never accredited by a real accrediting body.
We will talk further below about how to choose a program that is accredited by the right type of organization, so that it provides an excellent education and opens doors to opportunity later in life.
How Does Accreditation Relate to Profit?
In many discussions of accreditation of online graduate programs, you will see mentions of for-profit education. This topic of for-profit education history is an interesting one, and one we don’t have time to cover fully in the course of this article. However, you should know that many online schools that provide graduate degrees are for-profit institutions. That means they are actively seeking to make money from the students that attend. Although this isn’t necessarily bad, it has drawn criticism from education professionals who think the old model of non-profit universities was more philosophically sound.
There is evidence showing that students who attend for-profit institutions are more likely to take out federal loans and to default on those loans later on. However, as long as you know why you are attending school, complete your program and repay your loans responsibly, a for-profit institution can still help you on your path to career success.
What Are the Downsides of a Non-Accredited Education?
A far more dangerous route to career advancement than for-profit online schools are non-accredited online schools. No matter how good a program looks, it is very, very important that you ensure its validity before putting time, effort and money toward it. Here are just a few of the drawbacks of a non-accredited program.
Online degrees that don’t receive accreditation from a valid accrediting body likely have significantly lower standards for their faculty, their students, their resources and their facilities. This means the professors teaching you may not have the experience to do a good job or transfer the right skill set; your fellow students may not be successful, which lowers the worth of the degree you obtained; your school may lack necessary resources to help you be successful; and they may not have the facilities to train the right sorts of people to help you. Furthermore, their admissions standards may be low in order to encourage students to join when they aren’t ready, limiting the effectiveness of the program.
No Financial Aid
Non-accredited institutions aren’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, which means that you cannot get financial aid. Without it, you may not be able to successfully complete your program, or may have to work so hard to fund it that you don’t have enough time to study.
Reduced Chance of Employment
Employers aren’t stupid. Even with online degrees becoming more and more acceptable, most employers will still check the origins of your degree. If they find it is from a school without accreditation, it may not mean much to them. In other words, you could spend a lot of time and money going to school, only to find out later that prospective employers don’t consider the degree worth anything.
Believe it or not, not all online programs are cheaper than on-campus programs. The majority of online programs are cheaper than attending school at a four-year institution, true, but many community colleges provide cheaper educational options to students. Usually, the appeal of online education has to do with flexibility and overcoming the barrier of distance, which many students are willing to pay for. Just note that online programs (especially the for-profit type) may be charging you more than a local community college, which is a shame to pay when there’s no accreditation involved.
Potentially Compromised Skill Set
Again, if you enter a non-accredited program, you may be paying to learn from sub-par teachers and may therefore come out of your program with fewer skills than you would if you had attended a valid degree program. Because so many online graduate programs are aimed at learning skills as opposed to simply academic knowledge (think teaching, counseling, criminal justice, nursing, accounting), it’s incredibly important that you learn the right skills … the ones employers will be looking for.
Last but not least, credits from non-accredited programs often aren’t transferable. Often students wish to transfer credits to other institutions, only to find out that none of the classes they took “count” in the eyes of other schools.
That was a lot of bad news, but don’t give up. Now that we’ve discussed the many downsides of programs that lack accreditation, you no doubt want to make sure that the school you attend online is accredited.
How Can I Check Accreditation?
The easiest way to check accreditation is on the school’s website. If you can’t find an answer there (usually located in the About section), contact the school and ask. If you still can’t get an answer, that might not be a good sign.
Even if you do get an answer, though, it can be hard to tell whether that accreditation actually means anything. The best way to tell is to check the school’s accrediting body against the list of Recognized Accrediting Organizations. If the accreditor is acknowledged by both the Council on Higher Education and the U.S. Department of Education, then it is a legitimate accrediting body. That means, in turn, that the school itself has met certain standards and will provide the education it says it will.
A good accredited online program should
- Offer multiple degree program options
- Have regional accreditation
- Provide strong student support services
- Be willing to talk about its accreditation standard
- Ideally, be a non-profit institution
If you want to know more, watch this video to figure out if the online program you’re interested in applying for is legitimate. If you do a little research and determine that it seems like a good program for you, that’s awesome. But what should you do if you like the program but determine it isn’t accredited?
According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, not all institutions that lack accreditation are bad, but “one should review as much information as possible about the institution before enrollment. An institution or program may be new and may not have met minimum standards to even be considered eligible for accreditation. If an institution or program is not accredited, it should have some other means of quality review.”
In this case, interview former students, faculty and admissions officers to find out what the program provides its students. If you can find answers to such questions and still want to proceed just to learn the skills or knowledge the program offers, that’s up to you. Just make sure it will be worth it.
Where Should I Look for Accredited Programs?
Start with colleges or universities with longstanding history that offer an online education option. Big name institution such as the University of Southern California or Columbia University have years of experience and prestige behind them, so you can be sure your online master’s degree will mean a lot to a future employer.
If none of those programs fits the bill, look next for non-profit online programs, such as Southern New Hampshire University. Even if such schools don’t have an offline presence backing them up, their history and high standards ensure that your graduate degree will take you where you want to go upon graduation.
From there, you might start to consider for-profit education programs. Remember, there is nothing inherently bad about these programs, as long as they deliver the education and skills you’re looking for. They only become negative if you are hoodwinked into joining programs you won’t benefit from, or if you take out a lot of student loans without receiving the education you need to help you pay them back.
What’s the Best Way to Choose a Program?
So now you know a lot about accreditation, and are probably eager to be on your way choosing the program that will bring your career dreams to life. As a final note, we will offer a small list of factors to check before deciding which program is for you.
- Accreditation: See above information for how to check accreditation status and determine whether or not it means anything.
- Graduation and employment rates: Look online or ask an admissions officer about the graduation rates of students coming out of the program, and how many of them receive offers of employment afterward.
- Schedule: Will the class schedule work for you? Will you be able to meet requirements on time? Will you have your degree in the time frame you want it?
- Other factors: Look into student support services, read alumni testimonials, and ask employers what they think of the program. If you’re satisfied it would improve your life, go for it.
Education is important, and a graduate degree can make a huge difference in your life … as long as it is from a worthwhile school. Now you know how to check.