How to Know If a School Is Accredited

You know accreditation is important – it helps distinguish legitimate programs from ones that, in the worst-case scenario, are fly-by-night operations that sell you a meaningless diploma. But how do you know if a school is accredited? And, even if it’s not accredited, if it’s still a program worth pursuing? There are several ways to find out. You just need to do your homework.

Checking a school’s credentials is more important than ever. With the rise in online education opportunities, providing more and more people with access to higher education, there’s also unfortunately been a rise in diploma mills as well. These are institutions that literally sell you a degree, diploma, or certificate, and offer the allure of a quick, easy degree in a matter of days or weeks. The problem is that they offer no real education, rendering the degree you receive completely worthless. Some claim that you can earn a degree based solely on "life experience." In addition, there are ones that, as the Higher Education Opportunity Act notes, lack accreditation by a recognized accrediting agency. These are often the most deceptive diploma mills, as they can convincingly pose as legitimate schools to trick prospective students. But no matter the scenario, any degree or certificate you receive from a degree mill will not be recognized by other schools or employers.

Accreditation is often associated with online schools, but it is an important detail to know for both online and brick-and-mortar educational institutions. And, thanks to the Internet, finding out a school’s accreditation status takes just takes a few clicks of the mouse. The most obvious place to look first is the school’s website. Any reputable school will have an area that discusses its credentials, including the agency it’s accredited by and when it was last accredited. Good schools aren’t going to hide this information, so if you can’t find it, that should raise a red flag. Similarly, if a school claims to be accredited, but doesn’t reveal who did the actual accrediting, that’s another warning sign.

Even if a school tells you it’s accredited, it’s never safe to assume that is the case – the school could simply be lying. To find out for sure, we recommend confirming a school’s credentials against the website of the accrediting agency the school is citing, as well as using the U.S. Department of Education (USDE)’s database of accredited institutions, where you can search for accreditation information by inputting the school’s name or the name of the accrediting agency. College Navigator, another USDE-operated site, is another excellent resource where you can research accreditation status by school, state, and program. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), an association of degree-granting colleges and universities that recognizes accrediting organizations, also provides a database of institutions and programs accredited by U.S. accrediting organizations it has recognized. If a school is accredited, you’ll find it on these sites.

If you still have your doubts about an institution’s credibility, we recommend consulting the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general’s office to make sure the school is operating legally, and if anyone has filed a complaint. We also recommend checking that your school of choice has proper state or federal licensing to operate. The National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools lists contact information for state licensing agencies.

Lastly, once you determine a school’s accreditation, it’s important to check that the accrediting agency itself is also legitimate and not an accreditation mill or simply made up. For that, you can use both the USDE’s List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies, or the CHEA’s online database of recognized regional and specialized accrediting agencies. If the association comes up on either or both sites, it’s legitimate.

But even though accreditation is important, an important thing to keep in mind is that in some cases, there may be reputable institutions that choose not to be accredited. To help sort the reputable schools from the diploma mills, the USDE recommends these Better Business Bureau warning signs:

  • Be wary of schools that promise degrees that can be earned in a few weeks or short months. Real college programs will require much more time and effort.
  • Be wary of schools that offer college credits for life experience. While some reputable institutions may offer 2-4 credits for life experience for those who have been working in the field for years, good schools will not offer any more than that because they still expect you to earn your credits through your courses.
  • Be wary of schools if tuition is paid on a per-degree basis. Reputable institutions charge by credit hours, course, or semester.
  • Be wary of schools that offer little or no interaction with professors. While you won’t ever have face-to-face contact with your instructors in an online class, you will receive emails and other communication from them. Don’t trust a school that doesn’t allow this.
  • Be wary of schools that have names similar to well-known, reputable universities. This could simply be a trick to make students think they are enrolling in a good school.
  • Be wary of schools that have addresses that are P.O. box numbers or suites. Even online institutions should have a real, physical office address.

Sometimes, legitimate institutions offer similar perks as diploma mills, such as allowing you to get credit for life experience, but these perks come with much more restrictions. For instance, to earn life experience credits in a good school, you must have extensive documentation. However, if you are looking at a school that raises several of the red flags mentioned above and it lacks accreditation, we recommend that you think twice about whether or not to apply.