Guide to Accredited Online Colleges and Universities

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Accreditation Guide

Every year, thousands of students research colleges and universities to find academic programs and determine the overall quality of the institution. In some cases, this is fairly easy. Many traditional brick-and-mortar schools have years to …

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Chances are, if you are considering higher education in this day and age, you have encountered just as many online learning options as traditional programs throughout your research. As college-age students are among the most adept at using technology for nearly every other aspect of their daily lives, it only makes sense that accredited online colleges would ramp up distance education efforts geared toward this demographic. Online programs have become increasingly diverse and have continued to gain respect among educational institutions in recent years. A 2015 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group concluded that the number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course increased by 3.9% since the previous year, especially at private non-profit institutions.

As schools and students embrace the idea of online learning, more and more employers are following suit; programs do not differentiate between degrees awarded by online accredited colleges and traditional campus universities. Just like degrees completed on campus, online programs offer access to the same high-quality instructors, resources, and course materials, but with the added convenience of flexible scheduling that allows students to meet their work and family obligations uninterrupted. Graduates of accredited online universities are eligible for the same top career opportunities and increased salaries as their campus counterparts, in any field or discipline.

What is Accreditation?

Educational accreditation is a form of quality assurance that evaluates services and operations provided by educational institutions. If the external accreditation agency is satisfied that the institution meets its stringent quality standards, the school will receive official accreditation. While there are various types of accreditation, the process of pursuing accreditation of any kind requires a serious commitment on the part of the institution; completing this lengthy and involved process ensures that a school is worthy of achieving the approval of a national or regional accrediting agency. Confirming that your school or program is properly accredited is crucial when researching your education options, and should be at the top of your list of important considerations.


Any college or university worth its salt will be accredited by a national or regional agency. While it may seem confusing that a school can be deemed equally legitimate with either type of accreditation, this is simply because there are different governing agencies and several different types of accreditation; what is best-suited to one institution or program may not be right for another. That being said, regional accreditation is older, more stringent, and tends to be more respected, as the designation is awarded by only six regional bodies to schools within in a particular section of the U.S. Most nationally accredited institutions will accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, though regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions.


Types of accreditation can apply to a whole institution (such as regional accreditation) or a specific degree program, department, or discipline. While institutional accreditation should be a given when researching any school, programmatic accreditation may be particularly important for certain fields of study. Read on for more information on all types of programs offered at accredited online colleges:

Institutional Accreditation
Accreditation for a school as a whole tells you that all departments at a school meet at least minimum standards for general education, and that the school has the necessary support services to help students succeed. Considerations include class sizes, number of qualified faculty, library resources, and organizational concerns. This designation does not confirm that a school offers a comprehensive education in a particular field, but instead assures potential students that the institution can meet their general needs.

Specialized/Program Accreditation
While entire institutions can earn regional or national accreditation to ensure that the school as a whole meets educational standards, specific departments and degree programs may also pursue specialized educational accreditation. Accreditation for a specific program is carried out by organizations that employ experts on the topic and look at the curriculum of the department or degree program, examining whether it keeps up with current developments in the field and make sure that, where necessary, the school has appropriate laboratory equipment or field experience opportunities.


The Department of Education (DOE) is the arm of the federal government designated to oversee accreditation in the U.S. While the DOE itself does not award accreditation, it does authorize federally recognized accreditation agencies to carry out the process and enforce national standards on its behalf. The DOE maintains a comprehensive database of postsecondary institutions and programs that have received institutional and/or specialized or programmatic accreditation through its national and regional agencies.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation is the international equivalent of the DOE. Partnered with the CHEA International Quality Group (CIQG), the organization advocates the same standards in high-level academics and accreditation as the DOE through self-regulation at postsecondary institutions around the world. Like the DOE, the CHEA provides a way to standardize best practices in higher education and provides an authoritative voice to help students choose a top-quality program in a global location.

Check to make sure your school or program is accredited by the DOE or the CHEA.

Featured Online Programs

Choosing an Accredited Online Program

Researching accredited online colleges can be a daunting task, especially since affordable accredited online colleges are often at the top of any student’s list of priorities. Once you’ve determined your school or program of choice is accredited by an authorized agency, you may also need to consider which other characteristics are most important to you in selecting an online accredited college. Cost is a major concern for many students, as is flexibility, so be sure to look into potential savings for online study and financial aid opportunities, as well as convenient scheduling and practicum options, especially if you have existing work, childcare, and/or family obligations. Perception of your college or university is also a concern: does your school and/or program have a positive reputation among its peers within the higher learning community? While this may not be at the forefront of your mind during the selection process, it will be of the utmost importance to employers once you’ve earned your degree and are entering the workforce for the first time.


Types of bachelor’s degrees vary widely in terms of fields of study. Curriculum in an undergraduate bachelor’s program differs depending on the type of career each student hopes to pursue. The most common high-level bachelor’s degree categories encompass disciplines in the arts, sciences, and the fine arts, with distinct differences among programs in each of these degrees. Examples include:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA): The BA is most commonly awarded in a liberal arts discipline, though it may also overlap into a category that could be included in either this or the BS category, such as business. The primary difference between the BA and BS degree is the type of coursework involved; BA disciplines tend to encompass more philosophical and less technical study.
  • Bachelor of Science (BS): The BS is often regarded as more “specialized” than a BA degree; majors include computer science, biology, and engineering. Coursework involves technical, career-oriented practice, as opposed to liberal arts concepts.
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA): A BFA is awarded in a specific category of artistic undergraduate study, such as painting, photography, or performing arts. Considered a highly prestigious award among all types of bachelor’s degrees, the BFA encompasses mostly visual arts courses, supplemented by some, but less, liberal arts courses than the BA.


As the digital world has grown up around us in all aspects of our lives, attitudes towards online education have turned increasingly positive in recent years. In fact, enrollment numbers show college students today are accepting and embracing online learning in full force; the major increase in student enrollment growth in 2015 (especially among two-year colleges) was attributed to distance education, even as overall college student enrollment wavered during that time. As colleges and universities continue to expand their online offerings and develop innovative programs for distance students, online learning gains more and more respect in the U.S.

Many online accredited colleges offer the same coursework and educational resources as on-campus programs. “A degree is a degree” with no delineation between online or on-campus, according to most schools and employers in this day and age. A curriculum developed by accredited online universities does, however, include additional provisions that may be more convenient for students to continue to work and take care of their family while earning a degree. As online accredited colleges are only poised to become more legitimate in the eyes of administrators and academics, career opportunities for graduates also continue to increase in a broad range of fields, disciplines, and industries nationwide.

Applying to an Online Degree Program

Application requirements are different for all accredited online schools. Regardless of an institution’s individual guidelines and the program to which you are applying, these are just some of the most common items you may be asked to submit. (Always check with your school for specific application instructions.)

  • Resume/Portfolio: Many academic programs will request a current, updated resume to describe not only your previous education but also academic achievements, extracurriculars, and professional work experience. A portfolio may be required if you are applying to an art or design program, or an advanced program for which you are expected to have already developed extensive experience in your field.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Most programs request letters of recommendation from colleagues, mentors, or teachers to speak to an applicant’s academic and personal suitability and potential in a program at an accredited online school.
  • Application Fee: Though policies differ from school to school, an application fee is common, to cover the cost of officially processing your submission. Make sure you consult your school’s website to meet all deadlines and pay the fee in its entirety.
  • Transcripts: Schools typically ask for “official transcripts,” or a copy of your permanent academic record that includes courses taken, dates of attendance, major, type of degree awarded, cumulative GPA, and all honors you received. You will most likely need to request the transcripts be sent directly from your previous school(s) to the institution you’re applying to.


You may be asked to submit test scores as part of your application to accredited online universities. Though you may be eligible to take either test, depending on your major, you should also check your school’s application guidelines to see if there is a preference for one test over the other. The following are the most common tests required of bachelor’s degree applicants and international students applying to an undergraduate program in the U.S.:

  • SAT: The SAT is the oldest standardized test in the U.S. It evaluates writing, critical reading, and math skills of high school students and is a common requirement of college applicants for the majority of general programs at colleges and universities nationwide.
  • ACT: The ACT tests in more academic areas than the SAT, and is increasingly accepted among major colleges and universities for standardized test scores in the U.S. and Canada. Students are evaluated in English, math, reading, and science, as well as through an optional writing exercise.
  • TOEFL or IELTS: The Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International English Language Testing System are common standardized tests requested of international students applying to a bachelor’s degree program. The TOEFL may be more widely known, but tests for English proficiency alone; the IELTS is specific to students, measuring their proficiency of the language within the context of academia.

Financial Aid Opportunities for Online Students

Students applying to accredited online schools have a wealth of financial aid opportunities at their disposal. Bachelor’s degree candidates are especially advantaged in many financial aid categories, even those applying to already affordable accredited online colleges, as many scholarships and grants show favor to first-time, undergraduate students. The most common types of aid include grants and scholarships (which do not have to be repaid), federal loans (borrowed aid which does have to be repaid, with interest), education tax credits or deductions (tax reduction to help reduce the cost of higher education), and federal work-study (programs in which students work to help pay for school). Students should complete the FAFSA as a first step, as most schools and programs request submission of this form before determining eligibility for other forms of financial aid.

Average federal financial aid per full time enrolled student for the 2015-2016 school year

Type of Aid Average Amount per Student
Grants/Scholarships 58%
Federal Loans 33%
Education Tax Credits/Deductions 9%
Federal Work-Study 0.4%

Source: College Board


Point Foundation Scholarships

Who Can Apply: LGBTQIA undergraduate or graduate students enrolled full time at a four-year accredited college or university in the United States.
Amount: Varies each year

Miss America Foundation Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Young women enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs in all majors, from medicine to the performing arts, as well as students involved in military service and community projects.
Amount: Varies each year

Gates Millennium Scholars Program

Who Can Apply: Minority undergraduate students in any discipline, and minorities studying computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science at the graduate level.
Amount: Average of $12,785

Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation

Who Can Apply: High school seniors who are entering college and have demonstrated exceptional academic accomplishments, leadership potential, and community service experience.
Amount: Up to $20,000