December 22, 2008

Distance Learning, Part 2: Accreditation

As promised in last week’s post, Is An Online Degree Right For You?, I am back this Monday still talking about distance learning.  Specifically, we are going to take a look today at the accreditation of online programs — what is it and whether it’s important.  Let’s dive right in.

What is accreditation?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality

The DOE meets this goal by publishing an annual list of accredited schools in the United States. The actual rubber stamp of accreditation comes from a private accrediting agency, of which there are several in the United States. (To learn more about the purpose and process of accreditation in the United States, visit the DOE’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs).

Why does accreditation matter with online learning?

Whether you chose an online program or a brick and mortar school, accreditation is always important because:

– Prospective employers may look at a degree from a non-accredited school with dubiety
– Graduate schools will not accept your application for admission if your transcript comes from a non-accredited school
– If you wish to transfer schools (either to another online school or to a brick and mortar school), only students from accredited programs will be accepted for transfer. (Bear in mind, however, that accreditation is not the only factor in accepting transfer credits – GPA, course works and other factors may play a role as well.)

Given that online degrees have been the subject of many scams and schemes (aka diploma mills), choosing an accredited distance learning program is especially important. 

Not only will it help you with perspective employers and grad schools, but accreditation will also give you peace of mind.

Another plus to choosing an accredited distance learning program is that the accrediting agency has done much of your essential researching legwork.  Agencies that accredit distance learning programs look closely at things like faculty support and technological equipment to determine whether the school has sufficient resources to effectively engage students from a distance.  That’s why accreditation is one of the most important distance learning considerations for a prospective student.

Should a non-accredited program ever be considered?
Despite the plusses of accreditation, you may find yourself contemplating enrollment in a non-accredited online program.  That’s not always a bad thing.  If you are seeking a degree (B.A. or higher), definitely go for accreditation for all the reasons above.

If your employer wants you to get certified in a specific skill — like HTML or Photoshop — you may need an accredited program in order to get reimbursed from work for the cost of your classes.

But if you just want to learn a new subject or develop a new skill for your own benefit, you may well find that an unaccredited program is more than adequate.

No matter what program you choose, checking on the accreditation status should not be the end of your research.  In fact, it should be just the beginning.  You still need to check around — online, with friends and colleagues, at the Better Business Bureau — to find out whether the institution is reputable.  There is nothing than worse than giving out your credit card information… only to find out you’ve been scammed.

Tune in next week for Part 3 of this series on Distance Learning when I talk about financial aid for online learners.

And a belated Happy (start of) Hanukkah to all you readers celebrating the Jewish Festival of Lights.

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