The accreditation status of a college, university, or program can give you an indication of its general quality and reputation. But just what does accreditation mean, and how does it affect distance learning?
In the U.S., authority over postsecondary education is decentralized. The states have the authority to regulate educational institutions within their borders, and as a consequence, standards and quality vary considerably for state-approved schools. You will find many state-approved schools that are not accredited and many that are.
In order to ensure a basic level of quality for all institutions, including those that offer distance education, the practice of accrediting academic institutions arose. Private, nongovernmental educational agencies with a regional or national scope have adopted standards to evaluate whether or not colleges and universities provide educational programs at basic levels of quality.
Institutional and specialized distance learning accreditation
There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional and specialized.
Institutional accreditation is awarded by one of 6 regional accrediting agencies and many national agencies, such as the Distance Education and Training Council. The regional agencies play the largest role in institutional accreditation. If a distance learning college or university is regionally accredited, that means that the institution as a whole has met the agency's standards. Within the institution, particular programs and departments contribute to the institution's objectives at varying levels of quality. Institutional accreditation is often the type of accreditation that applies to overall providers of accredited distance learning programs.
Specialized accreditation generally applies to a single department, program, or school that is part of a larger institution. The accredited unit may be as big as a college within a university or as small as a curriculum within a field of study. Most specialized accrediting agencies review units within institutions that are regionally accredited, although some also accredit freestanding institutions. There are specialized accrediting agencies in more than 50 fields. Specialized accreditation might apply to individual accredited distance learning programs.
How accredited distance learning programs became accredited
Institutions that seek accreditation conduct an in-depth self-study to measure their performance against the standards. The accrediting agency then conducts an evaluation and either awards accreditation or pre-accreditation status — or denies accreditation. Periodically the agency reevaluates each institution. To that end, accreditation is not a one-shot deal; an institution must maintain high standards or it runs the risk of jeopardizing its status.
Seeking accreditation is entirely voluntary on the part of the institution. The initial process takes a long time — as much as 5 to 10 years — and it costs money. For that reason, a very new online learning school will not have been in operation long enough to be accorded status as an accredited distance learning opportunity. Of course, being awarded candidacy status does not ensure that an institution will eventually be granted status as a fully accredited distance learning opportunity.
Distance learning accreditation and your online degree
In some professional fields, you must have a degree or certificate from a program with specialized accreditation in order to take qualifying exams or practice. In others, specialized accreditation has little or no effect on your ability to work.
That said, there are several benefits to enrolling in accredited distance learning programs:
- You are assured of a basic level of quality in education and services.
- Credits are more likely to be transferable to other regionally accredited institutions.
- Your online degree or certificate is more likely to be recognized by colleges and employers as a legitimate credential.
Distance learning accreditation also has financial implications. If you attend an accredited distance learning program, you may qualify for federal loans and grants because regional institutions earning distance learning accreditation are eligible to participate in Title IV financial aid programs.
Your education is an investment — in yourself and in your future. It's important to find out what role distance learning accreditation plays in your field, since it may affect your professional future, as well as the quality of your distance education. Obtaining a distance learning master degree isn't going to be of much use if you can't use that master's degree within the field because it doesn't come from an accredited program. Finding good, accredited distance learning programs is a promising way to ensure the best course for your future.