Choosing the Right College

The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions and/or programs. However, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the
institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit.

The U.S. Secretary of Education also recognizes state agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational education and nurse education.

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then “accredited” by that agency.

Find out about a college’s accreditation, costs, financial aid, graduation rate and loan information including default, typical costs, etc.

Accreditation organizations:

Helpful resource:

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) is committed to developing and maintaining high standards of excellence by accrediting and thereby granting membership to educational institutions in the 19-state North Central region: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Before you begin your online degree, you’ll want to select a college or university that is accredited. Accreditation means that a school has been evaluated by education authorities, to ensure it is offering high quality learning opportunities.

Accreditation is not a “one size fits all” concept. There are different types of accreditation – including regional accreditation and national accreditation. Colleges and universities voluntarily apply to receive their accreditation from different bodies, or different accrediting agencies. The following information outlines why some schools are regionally accredited, while others are nationally accredited, while others may have a “specialized” accreditation.

Once you understand the different classifications, you’ll be better equipped to make the college choice that’s right for you.

Regional Accreditation

In the United States, there are 6 regional accrediting agencies. Each agency covers a different section of the country. For example, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accredits schools that are located in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.) The other 5 agencies evaluate schools that are based in other states.

The 6 regional accreditation agencies are:

If an online college chooses to apply for regional accreditation, it is evaluated by the regional agency that presides over its home state. These are the only 6 bodies that can award regional accreditation. They are all recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). You can learn more about these regional accrediting agencies, including which schools they accredit, by visiting their individual Web sites.

National Accreditation

National accreditation is not based on geography. National accreditation was designed to evaluate specific types of schools and colleges. For example, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT) evaluates career schools and technology programs. The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accredits colleges that offer distance education.

Often, schools apply for national accreditation when their model of instruction or their course content is different from most “traditional” degree programs. Regional accrediting agencies may not be able to compare a career school with a liberal arts college, because the modes of study are so dissimilar. To use an old expression, it would be like comparing apples and oranges. National accreditation allows nontraditional colleges (trade schools, religious schools, certain online schools) to be compared against similarly designed institutions. Different standards and categories are measured, depending on the type of school in question.

Specialized Accreditation

Specialized accreditation, also known as program-based accreditation, is awarded to specific programs or departments within a college or university. Specialized accreditation is offered by agencies that represent specific fields of study or profesional organizations. These agencies do not accredit entire colleges. Instead, they accredit the programs within certain colleges that prepare students for their industry.

For example, the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits engineering programs within various colleges and universities. If you plan to become a licensed engineer, you may want to limit your search to programs with this accreditation. If you plan to become a teacher, on the other hand, you don’t need to worry about whether or not a college’s engineering program has specialized, ABET accreditation.

Other professionals should also investigate specialized accreditation. Students who study medicine, dentistry, nursing, law, or engineering (to name a few) generally need to graduate from an accredited program with specialized accreditation. The American Medical Association (AMA) accredits medical programs; the American Dental Association (ADA) accredits dentistry programs; the National Nursing League (NLN) accredits nursing programs; and the American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law school programs.

What Regional and National Accreditation Have in Common

Regional accreditation and national accreditation have a number of important things in common:

  • Both are voluntary. Colleges do not have to apply for any type of accreditation.
  • Both types of accreditation involve a lengthy and detailed review process. Agencies evaluate schools’ programs, campuses, faculty, finances, and educational delivery methods.
  • All regional and national accreditation agencies are nonprofit organizations. Accrediting agencies do not make money off their evaluations, and they do not work for the government.
  • Both types of accreditation qualify colleges to offer federal financial aid to their students. If a college is neither regionally nor nationally accredited, you cannot receive federal financial aid to attend that institution. (Note: accreditation is not the only factor that allows for Title IV or federal student assistance funds. Be sure to ask your admissions counselor whether or not his/her college is eligible.)

Differences Between Regional and National Accreditation

Regional accreditation agencies concentrate on specific areas of the country. National accreditation agencies can represent colleges across the United States and even in some other countries.

Historically, regional accreditation agencies started as leagues of traditional colleges and universities in a specific area. National accreditation agencies started as associations of schools with a common theme. Many served schools that were not initially founded as colleges or universities.

Several national accreditation agencies, such as the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Association of Theological Schools, and the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, accredit faith-based schools. These national agencies can assess faith-based schools more freely. If a faith-based school were to apply for regional accreditation (which is secular), it may be asked to make compromises in its religious teachings.

Issues to Consider

When deciding which type of accreditation is right for you, there are several issues you may wish to consider.

The main issue is the transferability of credits from one school to another. While nationally accredited institutions will usually accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions.

This also means that if you hold an associate’s degree from a nationally accredited school, you may have to start over if you later decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited school. Similarly, if you hold a nationally accredited bachelor’s degree, you may not be eligible to enter a master’s program at some regionally accredited institutions. Considering that state colleges and universities are all regionally accredited, and that state schools are an inexpensive local option for many students, this is definitely something to keep in mind.

Another important issue is cost. There are a few nationally accredited schools that are extremely inexpensive, and that low tuition rate can be enticing. However, with financial aid and scholarships, you can often minimize the cost difference that comes with a regionally accredited school.

The final issue to consider is acceptability by prospective employers. To be frank, most employers don’t know the difference between the two types of accreditation. Very few employers will question the name of the college you attended, let alone its accreditation status. If you do run into concerns about your school or its accreditation, you may want to direct your employer to the U.S. Department of Education’s Web page on accreditation issues. An explanation from this government authority will confirm that both types of accreditation are valid.

If you have a specific employer in mind, or if you hope that your degree will lead to a promotion at your current job, you might want to ask a Human Resources employee about the school(s) you are considering.

For-Profit & Not-for-Profit Colleges and Universities

The major difference between For-Profits and Not-for-Profits is the school mission. For-Profit schools operate like other businesses. They are backed by investors, and they work towards a profit. Not-for-Profit schools may charge similar tuition prices, but all of the proceeds are put back into the schools.

For one example, NFPs usually incorporate sports programs into their schools. They pay for uniforms, coaches, athletic fields and sports scholarships. FPs, by contrast, are less likely to have significant campus facility and maintenance expenses (many of their school grounds and buildings are leased space).

Another example: NFPs spend money to support faculty pursuits. Instructors at NFP schools design their own courses and lesson plans. They also conduct their own research. FPs, instead, hire a small group of academics who build all the lesson plans. In this way, FP schools can pay lower salaries to the large group of instructors who actually teach these predesigned lessons.

While all of this information is good to know, many online students find that sports teams and faculty research don’t really affect their decisions. Below are some bullets that compare the 2 types of schools in a more relevant way.

For Profit Schools are…

  • Flexible and highly responsive to the needs of adult learners.
  • More focused on job-specific curriculums.
  • Interested in serving lower-income, minority, and first-generation college students along with “traditional” college students.
  • Financial aid ready. 70% of full-time undergraduates attending for-profit institutions receive federal, state, or institutional grant aid.

Not-for-Profit Schools are…

  • More likely to be regionally accredited. If you decide to switch schools later, this might make transferring your credits easier.
  • Sometimes more equipped to provide student support/career services after enrollment.
  • Generally thought to have “name recognition.” They are sometimes considered more prestigious.
  • Financial aid ready. 82% of full-time undergraduates enrolled at private, non-profit colleges and universities receive financial aid.

What is a diploma mill?

A diploma mill is a fraudulent business that disguises itself as a legitimate college, university, or career school. A diploma mill (or “degree mill”) will pose as a real university, and award degrees without truly evaluating academic work from its “students.” Diploma mills make money by selling printed degrees and providing academic references or falsified transcripts to individuals who may or may not be aware that the credentials are meaningless.

A degree mill may sell degrees at all levels, from bachelor’s degrees to doctoral degrees. A degree mill might also allow its customers to pay higher rates for academic honors (like summa cum laude). Degree mills typically attract two types of customers:

  • Individuals searching for a genuine academic program, who are unaware that they are enrolling at a degree mill.
  • Individuals who are aware that they are committing fraud, but nevertheless want to build their credentials quickly for academic or professional reasons.

How do diploma mills get started?

Online education is still a fairly new option in the world of colleges and universities.  Traditional colleges and online colleges develop new programs every day, according to the career needs of changing student populations. It’s difficult to keep track of all the new schools and new degrees that enter the higher education arena.  And since Web sites are fast and easy to build, a fraudulent school can create a convincing facade – one that mirrors the look of a legitimate online school.

Can you provide a specific example of a diploma mill?

There are two kinds of diploma mills: those that offer low quality courses, and those that merely sell you a piece of paper with your name on it.

One noteworthy example of a diploma mill involved Brian McNamee, a personal trainer for professional baseball athletes, including Roger Clemens. Reportedly, McNamee earned his doctoral degree from Columbus University, a diploma mill that had operated out of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

On its Web site, Columbus University claims to be, “The Established Name in Distance Education,” and also claims to be accredited by the Adult Higher Education Alliance. This is a fake accrediting agency.

The Adult Higher Education Alliance is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education’s Web site lists several established accrediting agencies including the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET).

And there are other indicators that demonstrate Columbus University’s illegitimacy. If you look up the registration information of the school’s Web site, you can see that they list a third party company rather than a mailing address. This is not typical for a legitimate educational provider. Most schools disclose their complete contact information and mailing addresses with their registration information. Diploma mills have every reason to hide and mask their location, because they sell fraudulent degrees.

How can I tell if a school is a diploma mill?

  • They often have names similar to well-known colleges or universities, but fail to mention an accrediting agency or name a fake accrediting agency.
  • The organization frequently changes addresses, sometimes moving from state to state.
  • Written materials typically include numerous spelling and grammatical errors, sometimes on the diploma itself.
  • Overemphasis on the speed and brevity with which someone can receive a degree (e.g. “Call now and have your degree shipped to you overnight!”).
  • Degrees can be earned in far less time than normal (e.g. 27 days) or the diploma is printed with a specific backdate.
  • There is no selectivity in admissions, or any questions about previous test scores or detailed academic history.
  • No interaction with professors or faculty (e.g. only two emails are received from a professor).
  • Degree requirements are vague or unspecified, lacking class descriptions and without any mention of how many credit hours are required to complete a program.
  • Tuition and fees are typically on a per-degree basis.
  • Grade point average (GPA) and academic honors (e.g. Summa Cum Laude) can be specified at the time of purchase.

What’s being done about these degree mills?

Unfortunately, fraudulent schools continue to spread and are increasingly sophisticated in their scams. These diploma mills survive by operating in states that lack strict laws regarding school accreditation, such as California, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana. They assume identities of well-known schools, or market themselves as a religious organization.

Because of constitutional safeguards, the United States guarantees separation of church and state. Most states are reluctant to pass any laws restricting the activities of churches, including their right to grant degrees. Diploma mills take advantage of this reluctance.

To further protect themselves and to take advantage of less rigorous laws, diploma mills often operate out of multiple political jurisdictions. They sell degrees only in other states or other countries. Many degree mills operate from England, selling fake degrees only to people in other countries, primarily the United States, Africa, and Asia.

It can sometimes be difficult to prove fraud in the case of a diploma mill. In some cases, a diploma mill may immunize itself from prosecution by being forthcoming about its business, fully acknowledging that it is a diploma mill. The individuals that buy degrees from this particular type of diploma mill are fully aware that they are getting a degree without having to complete any academic work. In this case, the diploma mill is arguably acting only as a business.

It is very risky to buy a fake degree, or claim to have a degree without having completed an accredited degree program. Consumers with bogus degrees are liable to find themselves embarrassed professionally, or even out of a job. The most severe consequence is having to face criminal charges. In Oregon, it is illegal to use a degree from an unlicensed institution to get a job or gain a promotion.

How can I protect myself from diploma mills?

If you are looking to enroll in a degree program, it is important to research your online school thoroughly. If you have any doubts about an online program, take the following precautions:

  • Check the school Web site, to see if the school is accredited. If an agency is named, check to see if that accrediting agency is officially sanctioned. Legitimate accrediting agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Both of those organizations list legitimate agencies on their Web sites.
  • Check with the licensing boards and professional associations that regulate your industry to see if the program delivers an acceptable level of training.
  • Don’t conduct your college research through newspaper classified ads.
  • Call or write the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general’s office to make sure the school is operating legally in its home state. Ask if any complaints have been filed against the school.
  • Ask about the school’s faculty: Who teaches the courses? What degrees do they have? What is their area of expertise?

How are fake degrees sold?

At first glance, diploma mills may be difficult to detect. Their Web sites contain scenic campus photographs and promises of a dedicated faculty. Some diploma mills send vague email advertisements. Typically, the email doesn’t mention a college or university name. Most simply state, “earn a degree from a prestigious, non-accredited university,” and list only a phone number.

If you respond to a diploma mill ad, the customer representative is likely to deliver some (or all) of these sales pitches:

  • “Receive your degree from a prestigious, non-accredited university.”
  • “Do you want a diploma without the dreary classes, droning professors and annoying exams?”
  • “You can receive a diploma from our university based on your present knowledge and life experience. No classes necessary!”
  • “There will be no required tests, classes, books or interviews.”
  • “Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are available in the field of your choice.”
  • “You have been selected to earn your MBA.”
  • “$425 will certify you for a bachelor’s degree from John Doe University.”
  • “You will receive your diploma within days.
  • “With an additional payment of $75 in tuition, you will earn Magna Cum Laude.”
  • “If you enroll today, we will send you your diploma, a laminated, wallet-sized replica of your diploma, honors of your choice, transcripts, and letters of recommendation.”
  • “You will receive unlimited support from us, including verification of your credentials to prospective employers.”
  • “Get your bachelor’s degree AND a master’s degree today for $1,200.”

Online learning is fast

But not that fast. Don’t confuse accelerated degrees (which are offered by many legitimate online schools) with instant degrees (which are fake.)

Many online schools offer students the ability to earn their degree at an accelerated rate. Earning your MBA in as little as 10 months, for instance, is not an uncommon feature of online business colleges. But this does not mean less work. Rather, it means the online format allows you to participate in online classes, lectures, and projects as quickly as you can properly complete the required assignments.

If you encounter a school that offers you an “instant degree” or anything similar, you’re looking at a scam. Any worthwhile degree will involve the completion of specific courses. Each course should involve new content lessons, graded assignments and/or graded exams.

Trust your instincts

If you have any persisting doubts, move on.  There are a lot of schools out there. Most have them have quality programs to offer. You can also rest assured that the colleges and universities listed on our site are, without exception, well-respected and well-known. We have established, active relationships with all of them. So if you find a program on our Web site, you can trust that it is reputable.

Public & Private Colleges and Universities

The main difference between public schools and private schools is that public schools are government-run, while private schools operate on funds from tuition and private donations. Another big difference is that public schools usually cost less, particularly if you’re a resident of the state where the school is located.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to draw general distinctions. Private schools can be small or large, highly selective or not so selective. Some state schools are very small, and are attended mostly by students who live in the area. Others are large, flagship schools that are widely known, and attract applicants from across the country.

While you’re weighing options, consider these factors:

  • Choosing a public school in your home state could cut your tuition in half. You can expect to pay far less at your state’s public school(s) than at any other type of school.
  • Private schools sometimes have smaller class sizes and a better student/teacher ratio, but that’s not always true. Most schools will publish data for you to compare in this regard.
  • Even the most expensive schools — public or private — don’t always offer your program of choice. Make sure that what you’re interested in is available before deciding on a school based on its stature.

Is the accrediting council for independent colleges and schools a good accreditation to look for in a school?

The preferred accreditation and the one you should be looking for is the regional accreditation. With a regional accreditation the coursework and degree you complete will be recognized by all other colleges and universities as well as employers. The six regional accrediting agencies and their areas of responsibility are indicted below. Make sure the school you choose is accredited by one of these agencies.