Will employers value the online qualification you have received? Will you be able to transfer credits from your online course to another institution? Will the online programme you select provide a rigorous and worthwhile learning experience? A key to answering these questions is an understanding of accreditation and the accreditation process. The following article will provide you with the basic information you need to make wise and informed decisions when selecting an online programme or course.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is simply a validation process by which course providers are evaluated against established standards to ensure a high level of quality. In most countries in the world, institutions of higher education are licensed and or accredited by government. In the USA however, there is no federal government control of higher education, and accreditation is typically accomplished through a peer-review process in which faculty from accredited institutions help to conduct evaluations of either new non-accredited institutions or accredited institutions seeking renewal. The standards used to conduct these evaluations vary but in general they assess: the institution's mission, goals and objectives, resources and resource allocation, student admission requirements, student support services and the quality of the faculty and educational offerings.
Why should I care about accreditation?
Knowing something about a school's accreditation can tell you a lot about the value of the course for which you are paying. If you take a course from a non-accredited institution you may find that the any qualification is not recognized by some employers or that the course credits may not transfer to other institutions.
To begin, it is important to understand that the term "accredited" is used rather loosely by some institutions and therefore you have to know what to look for when checking an institution's or organization's accreditation. All institutions of higher education, online or "brick and mortar," should openly provide information on their accreditation to prospective students. The first thing to pay attention to are the words used. The documentation should clearly state that the institution is "accredited" and should list the accrediting agency.
Are distance learning institutions accredited differently than "brick and mortar"?
The answer is yes and no. Most governments and official accreditation bodies hold universities and degree-granting distance learning institutions to the same high standards as other colleges and universities. At the same time, they have recognized specific standards that are applied to "brick and mortar" institutions need to be adapted for distance learning to ensure that they continue to promote high quality education. For example, one of the fundamental distance learning standards looks at faculty support and whether they have the resources, facilities and equipment needed to engage in effective instruction at a distance. For certificate and diploma courses or other non-degree programmes, offered by both government and private course providers, accreditation is usually a voluntary process.
Is accreditation a "cut and dry" issue?
Absolutely not. First, just because an institution is accredited does not mean that you are guaranteed high quality education or training. It simply means that the infrastructure needed to get a good learning experience are present. What you get from these resources depends a lot on what you put in.
Second, even if two institutions are accredited they may not allow you to transfer credit form one to the other. Other factors, such as your GPA, current and past education and training programmes, duration of the course, etc. may also factor into your ability to transfer credits.
Is not having accreditation always a bad thing?
No, not at all. It is important to stress that just because an institution is not accredited it does not mean that they are inferior or illegal. For example, there are innovative non-traditional schools that may have not sought accreditation for legitimate reasons. In addition, some types of institutions that offer only professional or vocational training or continuing education may not be required, or are not eligible, to seek accreditation from national or government organizations.
As a result, it is likely that your reasons for undertaking distance learning will play a role in how important accreditation is to you. For example, if you are seeking an MBA from an online programme then you will likely want an accredited university or college. If you are simply looking to learn word processing then an online training institute that is not accredited would probably be fine. When making decisions about which online programme is best for you, it is important to not only consider the institution's accreditation status but your learning goals and needs as well.