Are online degrees accredited? How to identify quality distance learning programs
Once considered simply a trend, online education is becoming the norm as students increasingly gravitate toward the modality to accommodate their busy lives. This is true for learners at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In fact, data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that more than 35 percent of all postsecondary students were enrolled in at least some online courses in 2018 — this was well before colleges switched to remote instruction during the spring semester in 2020.
It’s clear why online programs have become so popular. Distance education offerings allow students to complete their coursework at the time and location that’s most convenient for them. That level of flexibility makes it easier to juggle school with work, family life and numerous other obligations.
Despite the obvious benefits online education provides, it’s important to ask some key questions when looking into programs. For starters, are online degrees accredited? You might be surprised to learn how much quality can differ among institutions.
Why is online degree accreditation important?
Accreditation, an evaluation that’s conducted by a third party, effectively verifies that an institution or program meets certain criteria that are considered essential for providing students with a quality education. You must be enrolled at a regionally or nationally accredited institution to be eligible for federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. It’s important to know that these two primary types of accreditation are quite different.
As a general rule, you’ll want to look for institutions that have regionally accredited online programs. National accreditation is typically granted to for-profit institutions that offer vocational and trade programs, and the standards usually aren’t as stringent. Should you ever decide to switch schools, transferring credits between institutions is far easier if they’re both regionally accredited. In fact, most regionally accredited institutions will not accept credits earned at a nationally accredited school.
Attending an institution that maintains a designation from a regional agency is also important for meeting employer expectations, because many companies conduct education verification screenings. Since regional accreditation usually requires a school to meet stricter criteria, it typically holds more weight with employers. But as long as you attend an appropriately accredited institution, you can rest assured knowing that employers increasingly respect online degrees.
To verify that a particular online program is regionally accredited, you can use the directories available from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE). Simply look up the name of the school you’re considering.
You should also be aware that professional accreditation is often preferred for certain disciplines. This is particularly true of fields like nursing, teaching and social work, which all require graduates to obtain licensure. For instance, you would want to verify that an online social work program you’re considering has been reviewed and approved by the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE’s) Commission on Accreditation (COA).
While choosing an appropriately accredited online program is essential, it’s not the only criteria you should be evaluating. There are numerous other factors to consider when determining which distance program best fits your needs.
5 Other questions to ask when evaluating online programs
The Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition outlines eight standards that can help you uncover whether a distance program provides students with a good education. Some, such as how easy it is to navigate the course, will only be apparent to current students. But it’s possible to uncover how well a program adheres to the other benchmarks well ahead of time by thinking through each of the following questions as you research and speak with enrollment representatives.
1. Is the course technology adequate?
There are some basic tools that are really required for effective online course delivery. At a bare minimum, every institution should have a video conferencing system, collaboration platform and course management tool — or more robust learning management system (LMS). Without the right combination of tools, instructors and students alike are going to struggle.
It’s also worth considering how an institution leverages technology to foster engagement. What platforms are used to facilitate discussions? Do instructors make use of ways to connect with students on an individual basis? Consider, for instance, that researchers have found live virtual office hours can be beneficial for students.
2. Do the instructors have experience teaching in an online environment?
While online education is certainly nothing new, many faculty have spent their entire careers solely teaching in-person classes. A survey of college administrators revealed that as of April 2020, 97 percent of institutions employed faculty with no prior experience teaching online for some of their courses. While this has certainly changed since that time, many of those faculty are still inexperienced when it comes to remote teaching. An instructor who runs a traditional classroom might be a fantastic educator, but conducting class virtually is a lot different.
One study that polled award-winning online instructors reveals they assume five different roles: facilitator, course designer, course manager, subject matter expert and mentor. Each role comes with its own set of responsibilities, which include holding virtual office hours, being present and available, connecting students to support resources, grading assignments, keeping up with current techniques and advising students on career paths.
That is a lot of hats for one person to wear, so it’s important to make sure any potential faculty member is up for the task. You should look for instructors who have industry experience, not just extensive teaching experience, because they understand what it takes to be successful in their respective fields. They can even serve as mentors who can better prepare you for life after graduation.
3. How are the courses developed and reviewed?
The Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric makes it clear that the best online programs should adequately prepare learners to achieve measurable learning objectives. It’s worth considering exactly how faculty identify those learning objectives, weave them into the curriculum and use them to evaluate their students’ academic achievement.
Also keep in mind that degree offerings with program-specific accreditation need to adhere to the standards that accrediting bodies set, and those can change over time. A course that was considered excellent a few years ago may not be relevant today if it doesn’t keep pace with updated benchmarks. You may also want to find out whether feedback from expert professionals is woven into how programs are designed and reviewed. At University of Massachusetts Global, for instance, industry leaders help guide curriculum development to ensure the programs align with workforce needs.
4. Does the program provide adequate support services?
Just because online education is predominately self-directed doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to struggling through difficult courses, unfamiliar tools – or even your job search. Quality distance programs provide online learners with the same array of support services that on-campus students have come to expect.
According to the Online Learning Consortium, institutions should provide support for online students across 11 primary areas:
- Financial aid
- Pre-enrollment advising
- Veteran’s services
- Career counseling
- Post-enrollment services
- Students with disabilities services
- Technology support
- Graduate student services
Students make use of provided resources, particularly those related to career development. According to a recent report on distance learners, résumé help, working with a career advisor, job search assistance and self-assessments are the most used career services among distance learners.
5. Are program graduates successful?
Looking into graduate outcomes is perhaps the best way to identify whether an online program is a good option. There are a number of ways you can do this. First, look into graduation rates to find out what portion of students are able to successfully complete their studies. As a benchmark, note that the average six-year graduation rate for first-time undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor’s degree is 62 percent. You should feel good about any institution that rises above this benchmark.
It’s also wise to look into student loan default rates. The national average is 10.1 percent, and you can easily research how different institutions compare using a searchable database from the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a good sign when an institution boasts a smaller default rate, such as the 5.2 percent rate at University of Massachusetts Global, because it indicates that most graduates are successful in making their student loan payments.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about where alumni have found employment upon graduating. Doing so may even lead you to a finding a career mentor who can provide advice and guidance during school and beyond.
Select your online school carefully
Quality online education absolutely exists — you just need to know which elements to look for when researching specific programs. It’s not so much about asking, “Are online degrees accredited?” but “Is this particular offering accredited?” Beyond accreditation, you should always verify that a program meets each of the above quality standards before deciding to enroll.
As you continue to narrow your options, you’ll want to start scrutinizing programs in even greater detail. To ensure you’re prepared as you near your final decision, take a look at “The adult learner’s guide to choosing a college.”
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