Accreditation: what you should know about online colleges

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Online learning can be an excellent way to further your education. Find out how to make sure you get the most from your online studies by choosing from accredited schools and programs.

Online education has become increasingly popular as an alternative to traditional, face-to-face learning. According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, the year 2009-2010 saw the largest ever increase in enrollment into online programs–a rise of almost one million students.

The ever-growing number and range of online programs point to the growing demand for online degrees and other credentials, and a growing confidence in the quality of online education. Nevertheless, some learners are still unsure about the value and credibility of online colleges and programs. There’s no doubt that some online credentials are of little value. So how can you tell whether online colleges and online degrees are worth the money and effort you plan to invest?

The accreditation process

Accreditation is a mark of quality and credibility. To gain accreditation, online colleges and other institutions of higher education request an assessment from an accrediting agency which then uses its evaluation criteria to determine the quality of the education provided by a program or institution.

The Database of Accredited Post-secondary Institutions, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Post-secondary Education, provides a list of programs and educational institutions that have been accredited. The U.S. Department of Education also publishes a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that are deemed to be reliable authorities regarding the quality of education provided by a program or institution.

Accreditation is voluntary. The fact that an online college or program is not accredited does not necessarily mean that it is low quality, but it is wise to be cautious. Contact the admissions offices of some established, bigger-name colleges and universities to find out whether they accept credits from the online school you are considering. If they do, that’s a good sign that the program is of good quality and will likely be be recognized by employers and other higher education institutions or professional bodies.

You could also use the Better Business Bureau’s website to check out whether there is negative information filed about a for-profit school, indicating low quality or potential fraud.

Learn online with confidence

Online education has gained in prestige as well as popularity over the past decade. For-profit colleges and universities were the first to maximize the opportunities of the online education market, and the Sloan survey reveals that online learning is now a critical part of the long-term strategy for almost two-thirds of for-profit institutions. Many highly-regarded non-profit schools and colleges that had previously remained committed to traditional, classroom-based learning have also now begun to embrace the opportunities offered by online learning. Clearly, these schools and colleges do not believe that online degrees will damage their brand or undermine their credibility. Do your research and you could get an online education that fits neatly into your lifestyle, helping you reach your career or life goals without the need to commit to the rigid timetable and attendance required by classroom-based education.

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