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Online College Accreditation Guide

Attending an accredited program is vital for your career goals. Learn everything you need to know to make sure your medical and healthcare education meets high standards.

A happy female graduate in a cap and gown embraces another person during a graduation ceremony, with a historical building in the background.

When researching and comparing colleges, it can be all too easy to focus on things like tuition cost and program length while overlooking other critical factors such as a school’s accreditation status. Accreditation acts as a seal of approval for colleges and their underlying degree programs. Whether the coursework is taught on-campus or online, accreditation is a surefire sign a school has achieved benchmark quality standards.

And while many schools now offer online medical and healthcare programs that match the quality of their campus offerings, prospective students may still second guess the legitimacy of online education. Ensuring a school holds proper accreditation can help eliminate any lingering doubts. Keep reading to learn why accreditation is so important to your academic and professional career, what types of accreditation are awarded to schools, who the main accreditors are in healthcare education, and how to confirm a school’s accreditation status step-by-step.

Why You Should Care About Accreditation

Lack of accreditation can cause significant problems for students, both while in school and down the road once they graduate. Here are the four main reasons you should care about attending a properly accredited school.


Financial Aid Eligibility

According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools must meet accreditation standards in order for the federal government to provide financial aid. Students who fill out the FAFSA but attend an unaccredited program will not receive any funding. State governments may also refuse financial aid, meaning students can lose out on thousands of dollars per semester.


Credit Transfers

If you choose to attend a college that is not accredited, you may encounter difficulties when trying to transfer your credits to an accredited institution. Accredited schools undergo thorough evaluations to earn their recognition. As a result, most of them are hesitant to accept credits from an unaccredited institution. It’s challenging to determine how well the student was prepared by a non-accredited college, and that’s why accredited schools are cautious in this regard.


Employer Approval

When sorting through a large pile of resumes for potential job candidates, hiring managers are far more likely to hire a graduate who attended an accredited school. This is especially true in the medical and health fields, as many positions set strict training regulations.


Career Licensing and Certification Regulations

When determining whether a school maintains appropriate accreditation, remember that two main types exist: institutional and programmatic. Institutional reviews the entire school to ensure the campus-wide environment contributes to desired learning outcomes. According to the Higher Learning Commission, metrics measured may include academic programs, financial health, availability of resources, and success of governance and administration. Programmatic accreditation, conversely, looks at specific degree programs and academic departments to determine whether each meets set benchmarks for preparing students to find success and obtain the necessary credentials required to work in specific healthcare career fields.

What Are the Different Types of Accreditation for Online Colleges?

When determining whether a school maintains appropriate accreditation, remember that two main types exist: institutional and programmatic. The former takes a look at the school as a whole to ensure the campus-wide environment contributes to desired learning outcomes. According to the Higher Learning Commission, metrics measured may include academic programs, financial health, availability of resources, and success of governance and administration. Programmatic accreditation, conversely, looks at specific degree programs and academic departments to ascertain whether each meets set benchmarks for preparing students to find success – and obtain the necessary credentials – in particular career fields.

Institutional Accreditation

There are two main categories of institutional accreditation: regional and national. Different types of educational institutions usually seek different types of accreditation. It’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Education and private organizations like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation don’t directly accredit schools. Instead, they recognize and endorse agencies that are responsible for granting accreditation.

Regional Accreditors

Regional accreditation is divided between eight agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education that cover different parts of the country. Given that schools seeking regional accreditation typically go through a far more rigorous process, this type is considered the more prestigious accreditor compared to national accrediting agencies. Four-year institutions typically seek regional accreditation and the process can take several years to move from start to finish.

See which regional accreditors oversee schools in specific states below.

National Accreditors

National accreditation exists for trade and vocational schools looking to signal to future students that they have gone through a voluntary process of evaluation by a third-party body. While typically not as thorough as regional accreditation, this is a good fit for schools that focus on preparing learners for specific careers, including those in medicine and health. While several national accreditation agencies exist, the two most relevant to the medical and healthcare fields are the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. The former focuses on medical and health degrees while the latter specializes in online degree paths.

See the full list of national accrediting agencies here to learn more.

Programmatic Accreditation

Institutional accreditation focuses on evaluating entire schools, but programmatic accreditation goes deeper by examining specific departments or degree programs. It ensures that the curriculum and faculty effectively prepare students for their future careers. To understand the importance of attending a school with programmatic accreditation, imagine yourself as a hiring manager. If you had two candidates—one with a degree from a program that maintained accreditation and the other from an unaccredited program—which would you be more inclined to hire?

Primary Accreditors for Online Medical and Health Programs

Because programmatic accreditation exists for specific disciplines and departments, many different agencies exist within the medical and health program space. Check below to find the main programmatic accreditor for some of the most popular medical and health academic fields.

Area of Study Primary Programmatic Accreditor
Dental Hygiene/Assisting
Massage Therapy
Medical Assistant
Medical Billing and Coding
Occupational Therapy
Paramedic Training
Pharmacy Tech
Physical Therapy
Physician Assistant
Radiologic Technology
Surgical Technology
Veterinary Technology

Accreditation Must-Haves for Online Colleges

  • Holds institutional accreditation from an organization that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Holds programmatic or institutional accreditation that satisfies any state licensing and professional certification requirements for your career field.

How Do I Check If an Online College Is Accredited?

Before going too far down the path of picking a college, check that the schools on your list maintain proper institutional and/or programmatic accreditation. You can follow this 3-step process to check a school’s accreditation status.

Step #1: Check the U.S. Department of Education Database

Prospective students can use the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP) to search through thousands of colleges and universities. Students who already have a list of schools can type each name in to get answers, while those who are early in their search can also check by city or state to determine which schools in their area maintain accreditation. Once you find a particular institution in the database, you can review the individual profile to learn about any institutional and programmatic accreditation the school holds.

Step #2: Check with individual accrediting agencies

Whether interested in institutionally or programmatically accredited schools, students can visit the websites of specific accrediting agencies to get an up-to-date list of schools in their system. This is especially helpful for learners pursuing roles in medical and healthcare as they can check with specific accreditors for their intended discipline.

Step #3: Reach out to individual schools

In some cases, schools may not appear in the DAPIP search results. If you have tried searching for accreditation information about a particular school using the methods mentioned earlier but couldn’t find any information, don’t worry. You can directly contact the school and ask about its accreditation status. If you’re looking for programmatic accreditation details, try finding the program director’s email address or phone number and making contact. For information about institutional accreditation, reach out to the registrar’s office.


Diploma and Accreditation Mills: Know the Warning Signs

While many colleges and universities exist to provide quality educations to learners, a few bad players try to fraudulently make money off over-trusting students. These schools, known as diploma mills, promise fast and cheap degrees but deliver worthless pieces of paper. Accreditation mills aid in these nefarious efforts by pretending to evaluate schools. If unsure whether you might be falling prey to one of these dishonest groups, review the warning signs in this section.

The school uses words that sound official

Many degree mills use impressive words such as “verified”, “recognized”, or “approved” that make students think they maintain accreditation without doing so. Ensure that any school uses the word “accredited” before ever filling out an application.

The school is accredited, but not by an approved agency

After ascertaining whether or not the institution/program has received accreditation, visit the U.S. Department of Education or Council on Higher Education Accreditation to ensure one of these agencies recognizes the accrediting body. Many accrediting mills possess important sounding names so students don’t question their validity.

Tuition exists in flat fee payments

If a school discusses degree programs in a transactional manner (e.g. “For just $3,000, you’ll receive a degree!”), be wary. The vast majority of universities charge tuition rates based on per-credit fees. Legitimate universities also view the conferrence of a degree as more than a simple transaction, so be careful when you see this type of language.

A lack of interest in previous education

If a school doesn’t ask about schools you previously attended, classes taken, or GPA achieved, rethink your decision to move forward in the process. Schools concerned about integrity and rigor want to ensure that any student they accept possesses legitimate education credentials.

How Does an Online College Become Accredited?

Schools and programs must go through an extensive and rigorous process to receive accreditation. Here’s what the process typically entails:

1. Self-Evaluation

Once a school becomes familiar with the accreditation standards, it needs to assess its existing offerings and procedures. If any deficiencies are identified, the school must take the necessary steps to address them and make the required changes.

2. Apply for accreditation

Once a school is prepared for the review process, it should apply for accreditation to the institutional or programmatic agency that fits its goals. The application process requires an extensive package of supporting materials and paperwork, so this process can take some time.

3. Schedule an evaluation

After receiving and approving an application, the accrediting agency pulls together an unbiased team of evaluators who visit the school, meet with members of the learning community, and evaluate the current state of the institution. Visitors may also observe classes, ask for additional documentation, or seek further interviews.

4. Deliberation

Once all the required information is collected, a team of evaluators thoroughly reviews everything to determine if the school or program meets all the requirements. If there are any outstanding concerns, the evaluators provide a list of those concerns and suggest ways to address them. On the other hand, if the school or program successfully meets all the requirements, the panel recommends granting accreditation by the agency.

5. Receive accreditation

After meeting all requirements, schools and programs receive recognition for adequately preparing students in the form of accreditation. Schools must participate in review sessions at appropriate times to maintain their accreditation. Most require reviews every 5-10 years.

Additional Resources on Accreditation


Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs: Students can go here to find the official list of institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.


Accreditation in the United States: This site provides a centralized listing of valuable, official accreditation resources straight from the U.S. Department of Education.


Diploma Mills and Accreditation: Students seeking more information about this deceitful practice can review the U.S. Department of Education’s webpage on how to identify and report diploma mills.


12 Common Questions and Answers about Accreditation: Berkeley City College provides this informative resource for students who still have a few questions about the accreditation process.


Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Students can use the CHEA website to find a database of accredited institutions and programs, review publications and research, and learn more about the accreditation process.