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

 July 31, 2020
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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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1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 8/9/2021. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Approved interest rate will depend on the creditworthiness of the applicant(s), lowest advertised rates only available to the most creditworthy applicants and require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


4 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Ascent loans are funded by Bank of Lake Mills, Member FDIC. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: AscentFunding.com/Ts&Cs.

Rates are effective as of 10/01/2021 and reflect an automatic payment discount of either 0.25% (for credit-based loans) OR 1.00% (for undergraduate outcomes income-based loans). Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: AscentFunding.com/Rates.

1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions, please visit AscentFunding.com/Cashback. Cosigned Credit-Based Loan student borrowers must meet certain minimum credit criteria. The minimum score required is subject to change and may depend on the credit score of your cosigner. Lowest APRs are available for the most creditworthy applicants and may require a cosigner.


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

Sofi Disclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 10.66% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.12% to 11.23% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 10.90% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.10% to 11.34% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.08% to 10.86% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.05% to 11.29% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 10.66% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.20% to 11.23% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 4/1/2021. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (>www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.15% – 11.01% (1.15% – 10.24 APR)Fixed interest rates range from 4.18% – 11.70% (4.18% – 10.83% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 10.66% (1.89% – 10.41% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.64% – 11.23%% (4.64% – 10.95% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 9.22% (1.89% – 8.50% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.38% – 10.44% (4.38% – 9.72% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.89% – 8.02% (1.89% – 7.72% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.28% – 9.24% (4.28% – 8.94% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.97% – 7.06% (1.97% – 7.06% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.94% – 8.58% (4.94% – 8.58% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.44% – 9.58% (4.44% – 9.52% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.40% – 12.83% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.53% – 7.03% (3.53% – 6.76% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.98% – 10.09% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of June 1, 2021, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.09%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. 

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer.  Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank participating school.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.


7 Important Disclosures for Funding U.

Funding U Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change. Loans are made by Funding University which is a for-profit enterprise. Funding University is not affiliated with the school you are attending or any other learning institution. None of the information contained in Funding University’s website constitutes a recommendation, solicitation or offer by Funding University or its affiliates to buy or sell any securities or other financial instruments or other assets or provide any investment advice or service.


8 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown.  If you choose to complete an application, we will conduct a hard credit pull, which may affect your credit score. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.