When Ryan Yousefi decided to go back to school to get his degree, he knew it had to be online. He came across a news segment that featured Western Governors University (WGU), an online-only school.
“I took my time and made sure WGU was accredited,” Yousefi said.
Regardless of where you decide to get your college education, researching schools is a vital part of applying. Weeding through accredited online colleges might seem like tiresome work, but choosing the right school is important. There are a few steps you can take to find the right online college or university for you.
How does accreditation work?
Accreditation is when an agency verifies that an online college is providing the courses and degrees that it says it does. There’s no federally mandated accreditation for online colleges. But the Department of Education oversees federally recognized accrediting agencies. It holds these agencies accountable and ensures they’re enforcing accreditation standards.
Schools must be accredited in order to take part in federal student aid programs. If an online college or university isn’t accredited, it means an agency hasn’t been able to verify its legitimacy. It could also mean the school isn’t up to standards established by a federally recognized agency.
Types of college accreditation
There are two types of accreditation: institutional and specialized. Some colleges can have both, but they should always have at least one or the other.
Institutional accreditation applies to a school overall. Specialized accreditation applies to specific programs or a department of schools. For example, WGU touts on its site that it’s accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Its teaching programs are also accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. The latter is a specialized accreditation.
Usually, institutions are accredited by regional agencies, and specialized accreditations are granted by agencies focused on a unit, course, or degree, according to the Department of Education. Be wary of international accreditations; there’s no such thing. Check out these fake agencies to see if the school you’re interested in lists any of them.
Why you want to search for accredited online colleges
If you’ve decided to get a degree online, there’s some risk involved. Attending a school that isn’t accredited could leave you open to scams. You could sign up for something thinking it’s a school but then find out you’ve been scammed out of money and will never get to attend a class or earn a degree.
“The U.S. Department of Education publishes a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the department has determined to be reliable authorities,” Collins said. “Accreditation is a must have to ensure that employers and other academic institutions will respect and recognize your degree.”
How to spot an accredited school
If you’re looking for accredited online colleges but aren’t sure where to find out if the school is legitimate, start with the school’s “About Us” page. Colleges will usually publish their accreditations so that anyone can see that they offer real degree programs.
If you’re unsure about an accreditation, check with the Department of Education to see if the agency listed on the school’s website is real. If you don’t see any accreditations listed on a school’s website, use this tool from the Department of Education.
A school might no longer be accredited but still list its previous accreditations online. In that case, search through the history of accredited institutions on the Department of Education’s site. There’s also the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which lets you see if a school you’re interested in is real.
Yousefi made his way to GradReports.com, where college graduates can review the schools they’ve attended. It’s helpful for online colleges where you can’t meet alumni in person to ask about a specific institution.
“It lets students review colleges just like one might review a restaurant on Yelp,” Yousefi said. He’s been enrolled at WGU’s business healthcare management program since November.
6 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:
- 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 cannot earn a degree by clicking a button. Getting a degree should never be instantaneous.
- The name is familiar but not the same: If a school sounds like a university you’ve heard of but looks a little off, it’s worth investigating.
- They have flat fees and demand lots of money upfront: Most accredited online colleges and universities charge by the course or credit hour, not by how much a degree costs. You should also avoid any place that doesn’t offer financial aid. Remember: If they’re accredited, they qualify for federal financial aid programs.
- You haven’t checked out the accreditation agency: A fake college can list any fake agency. Double-check all accreditations before signing up.
- Credits don’t transfer: If you’re thinking about later attending another college or university, call in to see if your future school will accept credits from the online program you’re checking out.
Collins said there are a variety of schools that offer different ways of learning, so it’s up to you to make sure you know your personal learning style.
“Make sure you understand whether the school is part of a privately or publicly held company or a nonprofit institution,” he said. “This may not be the factor that governs your choice, but it is important to know all you can about the university you select.”
Finding accredited online colleges is possible
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 optimistic but cautious when you’re combing through accredited online colleges. The more research you do in the beginning, the less likely you are to encounter fraudulent companies.
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