Accreditation is a fairly simple concept – it’s a process where a person, group, or organization, is certified against a finite set of standards. For our use, we are talking about schools and universities being accredited. For this to happen, the school needs to be verified by an outside board, an accreditation board. If the school meets all of the criteria for the board, then it will be accredited. After this happens, the school needs to maintain those standards, or else it might lose its accreditation.
When a school is accredited, it means that the governing board certifies it, and then the school is recognized as a legitimate school. The school’s credits will transfer to other schools, for example, and attending the school will qualify you for certain financial aid programs through the federal government.
So if a school is accredited, that means its legit, right?
Well, not so fast. Normally, yes, if a school has been granted accreditation that means it meets the standards and is a respectable school. But there are always exceptions, and I think its important you know all the ins and outs of what can go wrong with the process.
You might have heard of “diploma mills” – these are schools that have no interest in education, they just want to make money and hand out diplomas. Attending one of these schools will be easier and cheaper than a real school, but the diploma will be virtually worthless – diploma mills are usually not accredited and not recognized by the government, the state, or most prospective employers.
But there are also “accreditation mills”, which are accreditation boards that will sell accreditation to any school, legitimate or not, that will pay their fee. What this means is that just because your on line school says it is accredited doesn’t mean it is REALLY accredited. Schools that area accredited by a board that is not itself certified by the Department of Education are not valid schools, and your diploma might be worthless.
This means that you must be particularly careful in vetting any distance learning program you may want to take. If you are taking on line courses from Harvard, or the University of Florida, then it’s not such a mystery – these are state run schools. But for smaller schools, schools you have never heard of, or schools that don’t exist in the physical world and ONLY to distance education, then it’s time to put on the Sherlock Holmes hat and track down clues. Find out who accredits the school, and find out who accredits the accreditors. If need be, check with the U.S. Department of Education, who should be considered the final word on the matter.
As on line schools become more numerous, there will be more and more examples of people using higher education as a scam. Do not throw away your time and money; before you make a decision about a school, do the research and make sure it’s not too good to be true.