How to Find an Accredited College Online (and Avoid the Scams)

How to Find an Accredited College Online (and Avoid the Scams)

There are many college options out there, and one of them includes online schooling. But if you’re looking to get a remote degree, it’s important to know how to find an accredited college online.

Many traditional universities offer online-only programs along with on-campus learning, and some colleges are mostly or even 100% online. And while lesser-known online college programs can get a bad rap, there are good programs out there that don’t have marquee names. However, it’s important to avoid the poor programs and scams that do exist.

Here are four things to know as search for the right accredited online college for you.

How does accreditation for online colleges work?

In order for an online college — or any college — to become accredited, a federally-recognized accrediting agency must verify that it meets the standards for academic excellence, and is providing the courses and degrees it claims to. The Department of Education oversees these accrediting agencies, and holds them accountable to ensure they’re enforcing proper accreditation standards.

The department notes the most important functions of accreditation as:

  • Assessing an academic program’s quality
  • Developing a culture of improvement of academic quality and a raising of standards over time
  • Involving faculty and staff in institutional planning and evaluation
  • Establishing professional certification and licensure criteria

Schools must be accredited in order to take part in federal student aid programs.

If an online college or university isn’t accredited, that means it likely hasn’t been verified as legitimate by an agency. This could indicate the school isn’t up to snuff academically and otherwise, and isn’t a good school to pursue a degree through.

There are two types of accreditation: institutional and specialized (or programmatic). Some colleges can have both, but they should always have at least one or the other. Institutional accreditation applies to a school overall, while specialized accreditation applies to specific programs or a department of a school. Typically, institutions are accredited by regional agencies; specialized accreditations are granted by agencies focused on a unit, course or degree, according to the Department of Education.

How to find an accredited college online

If you’re looking for accredited online colleges, but aren’t sure how to find out if a school is legitimate, here’s what you can do:

  • If you’re looking into an online program with a well-established and well-respected school, you’ll have no doubts about the school’s accreditation. Colleges such as the University of Florida, the University of Arizona and Purdue, for example, offer online programs. On the other hand, some far lesser-known schools, such as Western Governors University, are 100% online. If you’re looking at a school with a lower profile that offers online degree programs, you should definitely ensure that it’s accredited.
  • Start with the school’s website. Colleges will usually have a link to their accreditations so anyone can see that they offer real degree programs.
  • If you’re unsure about an accreditation just from looking at a school’s website, or if it doesn’t list any information on accreditation at all, you can use the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP) to search for the school’s accreditation records. A college may no longer be accredited and still list its previous accreditations online — in that case, search through the history of accredited institutions on the department’s site. You can also check out the Council for Higher Education Accreditation site, which allows you to investigate a school you’re interested in.
  • If you cannot find the information you are looking for on these sites, you can also go directly to the sites of the top college accreditation agencies. The Education Department website offers this section with a list of approved U.S. educational accreditation agencies. You can study the list to find an agency that seems right for your situation and search their websites or contact them directly about a particular school. The six key regional accreditation agencies are:
    • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
    • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
    • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
    • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
    • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
    • Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • If all else fails, you may consider contacting your prospective school directly and asking them questions. However, if you can’t find outside information on them that confirms its accreditation, you should be wary about what it tells you.

9 red flags of a shady online school

Researching an online school can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what to look out for. There are a few ways to spot a scam — be wary of schools that have any of these red flags:

You can’t prove accreditation. Double-check all accreditations before signing up. Understand as well that a scam college can list any fake agency, so always ensure its accreditation is legitimate. In addition, if a school says it is internationally accredited, then run fast — no legitimate U.S. school will be internationally accredited.

They’re pushy over money. If you’re getting harassed about paying for classes you haven’t started yet, it may be a sign that a fake school is only out to get your cash.

They promise quick degrees. Even at your fastest pace, you can’t earn a degree by simply clicking a button. Getting a degree should never be instantaneous.

The name is familiar, but not exactly the same. If a school sounds like a university you’ve heard of, but looks a little off, you should be on alert.

There seem to be no student services offered. If there is no sign of student services, such as academic advising or tech support, you should be very wary.

They have flat fees and demand a large amount of money upfront. Most accredited online colleges and universities charge by the course or credit hour, not by how much a degree costs. In addition, you should also avoid any place that doesn’t offer financial aid. Remember: If they’re accredited, they’ll qualify for federal financial aid programs.

There is no physical address, or the address seems strange. Even if a school is 100% online, it should have a physical address for its headquarters, not a P.O. box or any other kind of odd-seeming address. It should also have legitimate contact information, such as a phone number. Look at the URL as well; if it does not have an .edu extension or seems otherwise off, pull out that red flag.

Credits don’t transfer. If you’re thinking about later attending another college or university later on, call in to see if your future school will accept credits from the online program you’re checking out. If not, it’s likely you should reconsider this school.

If the college is for-profit. Not all for-profit schools are scams. However, it can be risky to go with one: They are private businesses looking to make money off you, and some are shady and offer a lower-quality education while promising much more. They can also be very expensive.

A final word of caution about online colleges

Online degree programs can be valuable and rewarding. However, if you haven’t verified whether an online school is legitimate, you might be setting yourself up to get scammed. That means you’ll be out of a degree — and money.

Stay cautious but optimistic when you’re combing through accredited online colleges. The more research you do in the beginning, the less likely you are to encounter fraudulent or lower-quality schools.

Whatever type of degree you are mulling, you can make use of these free search tools to find your dream school.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.

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