The goal of educational accreditation, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is to ensure that programs provided by institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality. In the area of online education, it is important to avoid diploma mills that offer fake degrees at a cost. Students seeking valid online degrees should obtain proof of accreditation from a regional or national/specialized accrediting body in the United States. Online colleges that are fully accredited have earned a widely recognized form of university accreditation from one of six regional accreditation boards.
Each of the six geographic regions of the United States has a non-governmental, regional agency that oversees and accredits degree-granting institutions headquartered in their areas. There are
six regional accreditation boards:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
New EnglandAssociation of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools & Colleges
The recognition of the quality of online degrees compared to on-campus degrees varies. While most major online colleges are regionally accredited, the public perception of their quality is in dispute. Some experts argue that degrees in certain fields are more accepted online than in others, while some programs are less suited for online-only schools.
A survey by the Distance Education and Training Council found that 100 percent of employers who responded felt that distance education program graduates performed better on the job as a result of their degree (as compared to their previous performance). Additionally, employers felt that an employee receiving a distance education degree compared favorably, in terms of knowledge learned, to someone with a resident degree.On the other hand, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in January 2007 on a Vault Inc. survey that found 55 percent of employers preferred traditional degrees over online ones. 41%, however, said they would give "equal consideration to both types of degrees."
The Sloan Consortium, an organization funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to maintain and improve the quality of distance education, publishes regular reports on the state of distance education in the U.S. In its 2006 report "Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006," it stated that "in 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now 62 percent, a small but noteworthy increase."
In some instances, an online degree may be no different than a degree earned in a campus-based program. The instruction is often exactly the same, and the online degree contains no special designation. An example of this is the degree offered to Columbia University students who earn a degree through the Columbia Video Network (CVN) versus the campus-based program.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a distance education study based on the 2001-2002 academic year at 2-year and 4-year Title IV (Federal Student Aid)-eligible, degree-granting institutions. The study reported that 56 percent of all institutions surveyed offered distance education courses. The study also found that public institutions were more likely to offer distance education than were private institutions.
The Sloan Consortium, based on data collected from over 2,200 colleges and universities, reports that nearly 3.2 million students took at least one online course during 2005 (a significant increase over the 2.3 million reported in 2004). According to the same report, about two-thirds of the largest institutions have fully online programs