Compared with brick-and-mortar schools, these online schools provide the education of the same quality while allowing the students to study at their own pace.
Therefore, today more busy professionals turn to online education for a higher degree or advanced knowledge and skills.
Accreditation is the most important credential for online schools, which proves that a school or program has met the standards set by the accrediting agency. Since accreditation puts a direct impact on your education and a further impact on your career prospect, it seems to be necessary for you to know some facts about how an online school gets accredited and what the process is.
Think these online schools are accredited by the US Department of Education? Well, you are not alone, but that is not true. These online colleges, universities and educational institutions are actually accredited by private accrediting agencies which are recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
The goal of accreditation is to make sure that the higher education institutions meet the acceptable levels of quality. In the US, there are three major types of accreditation: regional accreditation, national accreditation, and specialized accreditation.
Regional accreditation is the most widely accepted accreditation in the US, offered by six major regional accrediting agencies. National accreditation is typically considered interior to regional accreditation. However, it is also widely accepted in the workplace. Different from general accreditation applied to the entire institution, specialized accreditation goes to a specific program of a school, which is required for specialized career fields.
In the US, accreditation is a voluntary process for educational institutions. Typically, if an online school wants to get initial accreditation, it should take the following steps.
1. Preparation and Application
An online school which seeks accreditation must have been in operation for at least 2 years before starting the accrediting process. There is no legitimate accrediting agency recognized by CHEA or USDE that does not have this requirement.
In this case, a school, if wanting to be accredited to award associates, bachelors or masters degrees, must have graduates of all three before applying for the accreditation.
If an online school believes that it is ready, it can begin to prepare the materials that demonstrate its accomplishments based on the standards set by the accrediting agency.
After preparation step, the school can submit a completed application to the accrediting body, along with the any possible fees involved.
Then next, the online school needs to submit a self-evaluation report, detailing its effectiveness and compliance with the agency’s standards on accreditation. This step is also known as self-study or self-examination.
In the self-evaluation report, the school must demonstrate:
• its structure, including its trustees, directors, administrators and officers
• the professional experience of its directors, administrators, and faculty members
• the evidence of financial stability and professional degrees of faculty
• the admissions, recruitment and credit transfer requirements
• the curricula for all programs
• the availability of library recourses and services
After the school submits the self-study report to the accrediting agency, the general result is that the school will be in candidacy status. However, this does not mean the school gets accredited, but just indicates that the school has provided sufficient evidence so accreditation may be awarded in the future.
During the candidacy period, the school continues to submit reports to the accrediting body, analyzing its processes and standards.
4. On-site Evaluation
The accrediting body will arrange an on-site visit to the school campus for the first-hand information. During the on-site evaluation, the faculty and students will be surveyed and the school’s curricula guidelines would be reviewed.
Usually, after the on-site visit, each member of the evaluation team which consists of the faculty or administrators from other schools that have been accredited by the same accrediting body, needs to provide an individual report on the school’s compliance with the standards set by the accrediting agency.
5. Judgment Action
Based on the on-site visit evaluation, the accrediting agency will make the decision – granting accreditation to this online school, or keeping it in candidacy status for additional improvements, or terminating its candidacy.
If the online school is accredited, the accreditation status will be valid from three to ten years, until the next review is scheduled during which all the steps above should be applied again. The purpose of the continuous review is to make sure that the school continues to stick to the required accreditation standards.
Above five steps for online school accreditation are quite typical and do not vary significantly among national and regional accrediting bodies. However, for the Distance Education and Training Council accreditation (the accreditor for distance education institutions), there is no candidacy period. All online schools that apply for the accreditation are simply the applicants until the accreditation is awarded or denied.
Then how long does the accreditation process last? Well, the answer would vary considerably, but typically it is quite rare for an online school to go through the entire accreditation process in less than one year, except for that the school has been in operation for a long time, has well-recognized faculty and is well funded.
If one accrediting body denies the accreditation request of an online school, this would not prevent the school from getting accreditation from another accrediting agency. Actually, in many cases, when an online school believes that it is in danger of losing accreditation, it can seek accreditation from another, though this will indicate the financial instability of the school.
Just like initial accreditation, the renewal of the accreditation also requires an on-site visit paid by the reviewers appointed by the accrediting agency. To renew the accreditation, the school must demonstrate its continuous compliance with the accreditation standards.