Online College Accreditation

Online College AccreditationFor any higher-learning institution, online or otherwise, accreditation is essential for course credits and degrees to be truly genuine. Accreditation assures the distance learner that licensed professionals have reviewed the education offered by an online program for acceptable practice and procedure standards. Every online distance learning Web site should prominently display the accreditation agency that approved the program.

Online students should be made aware that the U.S. Department of Education does not accredit colleges or universities. In fact, the government takes a noncommittal position on higher education when it comes to measuring performance. According to the policies stated on the Department of Education Web site (, colleges and universities are “permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy.”

What the government does do is recognize accreditation agencies. The Secretary of Education is responsible for maintaining a list of licensed accreditation agencies and overseeing how these organizations operate. Upon passing a rigorous application process, an approved accreditation agency then makes evaluations according to guidelines that assess a school’s merits. Accreditation agencies function as quality-control inspectors for higher education. However, accreditation agencies have no legal authority over colleges and universities, and therefore cannot enforce minimum standards beyond withdrawing accreditation.

The most respected type of accreditation is regional accreditation. Generally, distance learning schools with a regional agency stamp of approval rank higher in estimation than programs rated by other accreditation auditors. The reason is simple: better-than-average achievement is necessary to obtain regional accreditation.

As indicated by the name, a regional accreditation agency covers a geographic area of the United States. These associations direct attention only to the institutions of higher education operating in the states that make up a particular region. The regional accreditation agencies and the states or territories encompassed by region are as follows:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont)
  • New York State Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education (New York)
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
    (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, including Native American tribal institutions)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, including distance learning programs associated with institutions in the region)
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission
    (Christian institutes of higher learning, including associated distance learning programs)

Accreditation by a regional or other agency is not always a guarantee of excellence, but without accredited status an institution may not be eligible to receive federal or state-funded loans, scholarships, or grants. A student applying to an accredited distance learning program has a better chance of getting financial assistance, and course credits earned from an accredited program usually transfer easily to another accredited institution. Credits picked up from an unaccredited distance learning outfit rarely transfer at all.

Finally, accreditation agencies do not evaluate or accredit foreign colleges, universities, or distance learning programs.

Distance Learning: Admissions

Enrollment at a conventional “halls and walls” institution used to involve long hours spent going from office to office, filling out forms, submitting transcripts, registering for classes, and paying tuition and fees. Information technology changed all that with online admissions applications. From the start, Web-based distance learning programs dispensed with the tedious paper chase that accompanied “old-school” admissions procedures. The step-by-step process of getting into a higher-learning establishment, whether long distance or local, is now much less complicated and time consuming.

The admissions policies for distance learning programs differ from each other according to the type of institution and its standards. A distance learning program administered through a college campus usually follows the admissions policies of the host college. If you are applying to a distance learning program affiliated with a traditional college or university, be prepared to fulfill all of the admissions requirements listed in the student catalog.

Higher-learning institutions that function primarily online generally have less stringent admissions requirements than comparable campus-located schools. Flexible admissions policies do not necessarily indicate a lower-quality distance learning experience, though easy admission may contribute to a lower retention and graduation rate for students not fully prepared for college-level responsibilities and coursework. An “easy in, easy out” mentality reduces the likelihood of consistent progress towards a degree.

Although no two distance learning programs have identical admissions policies, many share similar requirements with similar standards. Typical online admissions guidelines stipulate some basic prerequisites for enrollment. These online schools generally require:

  1. A high school diploma, general equivalency diploma (GED), state or local high school proficiency certificate, or similar secondary education certification for foreign students.
  2. Minimum ACT or SAT scores (or minimum secondary school grades) acceptable for admission.
  3. Citizenship or permanent residency in the United States or possession of a valid visa allowing attendance at a college in the United States.
  4. Submission of all necessary transcripts, test scores, and admissions documents by the enrollment due date.
  5. Assignment of an advisor to give students scholastic counsel and guide them through enrollment, registration, scholarship opportunities, and other administrative routines.
  6. Proficiency in English pertaining to foreign students taking distance learning courses in other countries.

As with all colleges and universities, distance learning outlets expect payment of tuition and fees before enrollment is official. Avoid online institutions that require fees or tuition paid by credit card upon application or prior to full registration. Pay only after acceptance and enrollment into an accredited distance learning program. Find out if admissions fees, if any, are refundable if an application is rejected or an applicant fails to meet minimum qualifications for admittance.

Distance Learning: Tests

Along with credits earned through study courses, distance learning provides a way to earn credit for certain subjects by taking an exam based on what someone already knows or what has been learned independently. Straight testing is the most economical way to earn college credit because no prior enrollment in any higher-learning program is required. At a fraction of the expense of a three-hour college course, the same credits can be obtained by passing an hour-and-a-half exam. Of course, thorough knowledge of a subject without a semester of study and preparation puts a lot of expectation into the outcome of that hour and a half.

Two programs administer single examinations that award college credit based purely on knowledge of a subject rather than accumulated coursework and repeated testing. The College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, which is affiliated with the College Board, administers tests by computer at a monitored location. The DANTES Standardized Subject Test (DSST) is similar to CLEP, except DSST issues tests on subjects not offered by CLEP. Both CLEP and DSST examinations are accredited and the hours awarded are accepted by the vast majority of colleges, universities, and distance learning programs. Scores are tabulated and reported to the test taker immediately after an exam is completed.


Along with SAT exams, high school students become familiar with CLEP tests as graduation approaches and they prepare to enter college. Although not a distance learning study system, CLEP is an affordable way to gain credit hours if the test taker possesses sufficient knowledge of a subject. Passing a CLEP general exam earns six hours of college credit per course (or 12 credits per language exam for French, German, Spanish, etc.). Anyone, at any grade level, can take a CLEP test for course credits, and the results remain archived for 20 years. A failed CLEP exam cannot be retaken for six months.

General exams cover English Composition, Humanities, Mathematics, Natural and Social Sciences, and History courses. The CLEP tests are multiple choice, except the English Composition test, which includes an essay. CLEP tests are scheduled at an authorized location and supervised by proctors to prevent cheating. The hours earned from a CLEP general exam allow a student to jump past the corresponding entry-level classes required of freshmen and sophomores, and perhaps to advance to a higher-level course. Some college degree programs limit CLEP credits, but otherwise up to 30 hours of general exam credit can be accumulated.

The other type of CLEP test is the subject exam, which awards three credit hours per course. Subject exams are more limited in scope than general exams, but offer a wider selection of course topics. Currently, 34 CLEP exams are available under the categories of Business, Composition and Literature, Foreign Languages, Science, and Mathematics.

Although CLEP exams grade results using a 10-point system—with 50 being the lowest passing score and 80 a perfect score—credits are awarded on a pass-fail basis. CLEP credits transferred to higher-education establishments are recorded as “satisfactory” or some other designation, so no letter or numerical value affects the cumulative grade point average. Some colleges and universities may not grant full or partial CLEP credit based on pass- fail, relying instead on the actual score to determine the value of the credits.

No assigned course study prepares a candidate for a CLEP test, but many who plan to take a test either study independently or take a CLEP preparation course. Study guides are also available for the topics covered by the general and subject exams. Descriptions of the CLEP exams and sample questions can be found on Web sites about distance learning and online educational resources. Online learning Web sites feature CLEP practice tests for anyone who wants to know if he or she is ready for a real CLEP test.

CLEP tests are a bargain compared to similar college credits. A CLEP exam costs $77 per title, plus smaller additional fees for essays, the testing center, and proctors. In the event that a computer testing center is not an option, CLEP still publishes paper-and-pencil tests for a limited number of exam titles (currently 14). The paper form exam costs $122 and does not provide immediate test results, which take up to three weeks to return. To accommodate candidates with learning or physical disabilities, suitable facilities and schedules can be arranged. CLEP tests are free to active military personnel.


Similar to the CLEP tests, the DANTES Standardized Subject Test (DSST) administers credit examinations for subject categories not offered by CLEP. As with CLEP, DSST uses a computerized online system to conduct exams at controlled and monitored locations. Grades are also posted immediately once an exam is completed. DSST has a limited selection of paper exams that are graded and processed under the same conditions as CLEP. At one time, all DSST exams were scored using the same grade scale as CLEP (50- 80, passing to perfect), but lately DSST has switched to a 300- to 500-point scale with 400 being the minimum to pass. Credit is awarded based on pass or fail. The acronym “DANTES” stands for Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support.

The DSST program differs most significantly from CLEP in that DSST is closely aligned with the U.S. military. DSST makes its purpose clear in its organizational mission statement:

DANTES mission is to support the off-duty, voluntary education programs of the Department of Defense and to conduct special projects and development activities in support of education-related functions of the Department.

Because U.S. service personnel are deployed around the world, DSST emphasizes distance learning programs even though it does not offer online courses. The organization does refer to three catalogs listing distance learning courses and the institutions that administer them. All of the institutions listed work closely with the military to assist servicemen and servicewomen seeking educational opportunities. Considering DSST’s military origins and affiliations, it should come as no surprise that many of the exams conducted by DSST concern military topics. As with CLEP, an extensive selection of study guides, preparation exercises, and course descriptions are available for DSST exam titles.

There is no charge to active-duty military personnel for DSST exams except registration fees applied for off-base testing centers. No fees apply if a serviceperson takes a DSST exam at a military facility, a DANTES test site, or a National Test Center. Civilians are charged $80 per DSST exam plus applicable registration fees.



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