Before signing up for an online college, it is critical to find out whether the school is accredited. Attending a non-accredited college, whether online or a traditional brick-and-mortar college campus, can make your degree much less valuable to both yourself and prospective employers. Accreditation is also your best defense against "diploma mills," schools that under-educate students or provide a diploma for a fee.
Why It Matters
Attending an accredited online college makes it easier to get financial aid. Some grants and loans, such as Pell Grants through the federal government, are not available at all for non-accredited schools. If your online college is accredited, you also have a better chance of being able to transfer your credits to another college and that your degree (or credits) will be recognized by other institutions of higher education, should you wish to transfer or earn a higher-level degree, such as a bachelor's if you have an associate degree, or a master's if you have a bachelor's. When you are ready to start looking for a job, prospective employers are likely to give more weight to a degree from an accredited college, as well.
Consult the U.S. Department of Education's Website
The U.S. Department of Education's website has a Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, designed to let you find out if a college or university is accredited. The database includes online colleges. Go to the database at ope.ed.gov/accreditation/ and hit the link "Get Data for one accredited institution/campus site." This takes you to the page "Accreditation > Institution Search." On that page, fill in the name of the online college in which you are interested and click "Search." The next page you will see has a list of colleges with names similar to the one you searched. Locate the college you want to know about and click on it to access the "Accreditation > History" page. This page shows the name of the accrediting agency and also presents a list of any specialized accreditations the college has and the name of the agency that issued the special accreditation.
Check the Major Accrediting Agencies
If your college is not on the list, it may be because the information in the database is not fully current or complete (an eventuality the Department of Education states in a disclaimer). As of 2013, most accredited college or universities in the U.S. have been investigated by one of the six major accrediting agencies: The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Colleges and Schools, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Go to the website of the accrediting agency that includes the region where the school you are considering has its business address and search for the school or contact the agency to ask about your school. Even if your school did turn up on the Department of Education's database, you might want to check with the accrediting agency to make sure you have the most up-to-date information.
Check Accrediting Agencies for Career Schools
The U.S. Department of Education also provides the names of accrediting agencies for institutions of higher education whose mission it is to educate students for occupational, trade and technical careers, including online colleges. They are the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges; Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools; Council on Occupational Education, Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission; Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training; New York State Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education; and Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission.
Get in Touch with the College
If you have not found evidence that the college you are considering is accredited, call them. Ask them whether the school is accredited and which agency accredited it. Ask the college to send a copy of the documents that show it is accredited. A school must operate for at least two years before it is eligible to be considered for accreditation, as well, so you may want to take such information into account when making your decision on what online college to attend.