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Last updated on August 29th, 2023.

Receiving a college education is becoming increasingly expensive and challenging for individuals of various ages and backgrounds to incorporate into their lives. Some are forced to balance work and family commitments with this higher form of education, which can prove exceptionally challenging when you need to attend classes and use resources in-person on campus. Luckily, several programs allow students to receive accredited degrees online.

Many colleges worldwide offer online programs to receive an accredited degree, which means the degree has been recognized for meeting specific educational standards set by a certified accrediting agency. These agencies might function on a regional or national level, and choosing the right type of accreditation could be crucial for a student’s future.

If you’re contemplating pursuing an accredited degree through an online program, you’ve come to the right place. Here, we will discuss whether students can obtain legitimate degrees through this process and provide vital information regarding what types of accredited degrees there are and which is best for you.

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Can I Get an Accredited Degree Program Online?

Individuals who are forced to work part-time or full-time jobs in addition to other responsibilities, such as raising and supporting a family, might believe that a college degree is out of their grasp because they don’t have the time or the means to take courses on campus. Luckily, they don’t have to.

Not only is it possible to obtain an accredited degree through an online program, but it is becoming increasingly popular nationwide as well. In fact, there are online degrees focused on at least 137 popular subjects, with 37,061 unique accredited programs offered by countless online schools.

In 2018 alone, 14% of undergraduate college students and 30.7% of graduate students received their degrees through exclusive online programs. This educational path is only becoming more popular, especially considering the repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak on colleges and their students.

Most schools that offer these programs have prominent in-person facilities with even more exceptional online teachings. Two examples include the University of Illinois and the University of Florida, both of which are listed as some of the top institutions with accredited online programs.

Not only is receiving an accredited degree online much more convenient and achievable for most enrolled students, but they are completely legitimate as well, as long as they are recognized by a credible accrediting agency.

To be valid agencies, each must be recognized and adhere to strict guidelines created by the U.S. Department of Education.

What Types of Accreditations are There?

When it comes to pursuing a degree online, the first step after choosing your desired career path and program should be enrolling in the program with the proper type of accreditation.

Although there are arguable three types of accreditations with specialized or pragmatic accreditation, the predominant two types are regional and national accreditation.

Each type of accreditation comes with its specifications, requirements, and benefits. Some are much better suited to certain careers or programs than others, so it is important to know what each type entails to choose the best option for you.

Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is by far the most popular when it comes to online degree programs and benefits most educational and career paths.

Although this type of accreditation is typically the most prestigious and widely recognized, it tends to be the most expensive and selective with two admissions. These institutions adhere to high educational standards with their programs set by stringent guidelines most nationally accredited schools don’t enforce.

Regionally accredited schools also only accept credits exclusively from other regionally accredited schools, so you might have more limitations in transferring credits here depending on the career you’re pursuing.

Fortunately, one significant benefit of regional accreditation is that institution students are eligible for all corporate tuition reimbursement plans.

Regarding funding, regionally accredited schools are usually non-profit to fundraise via private donations, federal grants, and legacy giving. But the most significant difference between the two accreditation types is the agencies that oversee them.

Programs accredited by regional accreditation agencies are offered by institutions considered to be either state-owned or non-profit. Ultimately, six regional accrediting agencies oversee specific states within the nation. Each agency and its designated states are detailed in the chart below:

Regional Accrediting AgencyOverseen States
Higher Learning Commission (HLC):• Arizona
• Arkansas
• Colorado
• Illinois
• Indiana
• Iowa
• Kansas
• Michigan
• Minnesota
• Missouri
• Nebraska
• New Mexico
• North Dakota
• Ohio
• Oklahoma
• South Dakota
• West Virginia
• Wisconsin
• Wyoming
• Federally authorized sovereign nations
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)• Delaware
• the District of Columbia
• Maryland
• New Jersey
• New York
• Pennsylvania
• Puerto Rico
• the Virgin Islands
• Some geographical areas outside the United States.
New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)• Connecticut
• Maine
• Massachusetts
• New Hampshire
• Rhode Island
• Vermont
• Some programs offered internationally
Northwest Commission on College and Universities (NWCCU):• Alaska
• Idaho
• Montana
• Nevada
• Oregon
• Utah
• Washington
• Some programs are offered internationally, along with the accreditation of programs offered via distance education within these institutions.
Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC):• Alabama
• Florida
• Georgia
• Kentucky
• Louisiana
• Mississippi
• North Carolina
• South Carolina
• Tennessee
• Texas
• Virginia
• Latin America
• Other Commission approved international sites, including the accreditation of programs offered via distance and correspondence education within these institutions.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC):• Institutions offering baccalaureate degrees or higher in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Basin (along with some institutions that offer programs outside the United States) are accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).
• Institutions granting associate degrees in these same regions are accredited by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).

Each of these agencies has extremely high standards set by the U.S. Department of Education that they enforce passionately in each institution and their online degree programs.

National Accreditation

Considering the majority of institutions are regionally accredited, those that remain are nationally accredited, which typically includes:

  • technical colleges
  • vocational colleges
  • trade schools
  • for-profit online universities.

These schools focus on specific careers or religious education rather than covering a wide range of subjects and career paths the way regionally accredited schools do.

Schools with national accreditation are recognized by national accrediting agencies that oversee schools nationwide instead of splitting the nation into different sections, as seen with regional accrediting agencies. Agencies will fall under one of three major categories recognized by both the Department of Education and the CHEA:

  • National Faith-Related Accrediting Organizations
  • National Career-Related Accreditation Organizations
  • Programmatic Accrediting Organizations

Within each category is a lengthy list of organizations and agencies dedicated to the education of their students as dictated by their area of focus.

Unlike their non-profit rivals, nationally accredited institutions receive revenue through student enrollment, educational products sales, and some answer to or partner with shareholders.

Some perks of these schools are that they tend to be cheaper and a little more relaxed with their admissions standards versus their regional counterpart.

Nationally accredited schools also accept credits from both nationally accredited and regionally accredited schools, so students don’t have to worry about where their credits came from when enrolling in these institutions.

However, some drawbacks are that graduates are not always eligible for corporate tuition reimbursement plans, and you’re more limited with your degree and program options.

Which Accreditation is Best for Online Degree Programs?

The decision between regional accreditation and national accreditations for your online degree program largely depends on the career and level of education you intend to pursue.

Generally, most students will attend regionally accredited institutions because of the larger and more diverse list of programs, subjects, and degrees they offer.

These schools are good for individuals who aren’t entirely sure what they want to do in life and want a lot of freedom to pursue different paths, whereas most nationally accredited institutions are more specifically tailored to a smaller set of career paths, such as trades.

Regionally accredited schools are also frequently pursued their financial aid benefits alone, considering the average college online bachelor’s degree alone ranges from $38,496 to $60,593 in total program tuition cost.

If you’re still on the fence, we’ve created a more concise chart below that pins the two accreditation types against each other and states in what situations you are better off siding with one versus the other.

Choose Regional Accreditation if You:Choose National Accreditation if You:
• Value attending more prestigious and well-known institutions
• Intend to obtain a degree in an academic subject
• Are pursuing a career that will require licensure or some type of credential
• Plan to apply for financial aid
• Will or are contemplating pursuing a higher level of education (ex. a Masters or Ph.D.)
• Value a school that focuses on more specialized skills and careers versus offering a wide, over-generalize selection
• Intend to pursue a career-based, trade-centered, religious, or vocational degree
• Prefer the freedom of having your credits accepted regardless of what accreditation they have
• Need the most cost-efficient option for your education

Considering 85% of all colleges in the U.S. have been regionally accredited, it is far likelier that you will attend a regionally accredited school in pursuit of your online degree, but there are definitely instances where a nationally accredited school is the optimal choice.

In the end, students have to weigh the pros and cons of each and ask themselves if the career they want to pursue is best suited to the programs offered by regionally accredited or nationally accredited schools.

What is an Example of an Online Degree Program That Isn't Accredited?

The clearest example of an online degree that isn’t accredited is scams offered by illegitimate schools, typically lesser-known institutions exclusively online.

Some like to refer to these schools as “diploma mills” as they lack any proof or credentials to verify the quality of their education or integrity. Accredited schools adhere to strict guidelines and expectations set forth by the U.S. Department of Education, which include:

  • Academic quality
  • Ethics
  • Integrity
  • Learning experience
  • Student experience

These ensure the institution is functioning at the highest standards possible and students are receiving an exceptional education. Without this verification tied to its name, any non-accredited school or program could be a complete shot-in-the-dark regarding its level of education and ethical transparency.

Many employers and other institutions will perceive a degree program’s lack of accreditation as a significant black mark on the individual’s credentials and might make them unviable for employment in certain regions or states.

Therefore, it is important to know the risks of receiving an unaccredited online degree and know how you can ascertain whether a school is offering accredited programs.

Final Thoughts

Online degree programs are a legitimate and convenient alternative to the traditional on-campus style of learning and can open countless doors for students regardless of whether they attend a nationally or regionally accredited school or program. Most students will enroll in regionally accredited programs, but if you intend to pursue a religious or trade-oriented career, we strongly urge you to consider nationally accredited schools instead.

Apart from that, if we were to leave you with one word of advice, it would be to avoid non-accredited schools and programs. It is a dangerous game to attend a non-accredited school since you have no way to guarantee the quality of education you are receiving, and many employers won’t recognize degrees from these schools. There are countless accredited schools, both nationally and regionally, that offer exceptional and affordable educations you can turn towards instead.

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