For many post-college professionals, a bachelor’s degree is more than enough to get started building a successful career. But with the economy in the state it’s in, an increasing number of students are turning to graduate school and masters programs as a way of avoiding a down job market and ensuring employment for themselves with higher qualifications. For these students, the manner in which a masters degree is obtained is a key point. Graduate school can mean quite a bit of debt, and pursuing cheap options often leads students to enroll in either entirely online or hybrid programs that combine online courses with more typical classroom settings. Because the school doesn’t have to maintain a facility for the class, the tuition rates drop dramatically for these courses.
But one of the major downsides to getting a degree online is that you can run into a lot of scam programs designed to trick hardworking students into paying for a false degree. That’s what accreditation was designed to help prevent, and it’s important to know how to judge a school’s accreditation status before enrolling in any online, or even offline, programs.
The most important thing to know about accreditation is which accreditation agencies are reputable. There are almost as many fake accreditation agencies out there as there are scam schools, and many schools will even list accreditation that they don’t have from a made-up agency. Luckily, there’s one major accreditation agency in the U.S., and it keeps track of all of the other agencies in the country. It’s called the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA for short. It’s a non-profit, volunteer organization, which means that it isn’t a branch of the U.S. Government. Instead, it’s a self-regulating agency made up of people from the academic community who help decide what standards colleges and universities should be held to, and then enforces those standards by granting or revoking accreditation.
But CHEA can’t do it all alone. It has several smaller agencies that work under it, each assigned to a different region of the United States. For example, on the east coast, schools are accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. By breaking the work down into different regions, CHEA is able to cover the whole U.S. and maintain the high standards that they’re designed to enforce.
Though CHEA isn’t a government-sponsored program, it does work closely with the Department of Education. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, which is one of the best ways to check the accreditation status of a school before you enroll. While the school’s website and its own information can all be faked, and they can lie about being accredited, they can’t forge their accreditation status on the government’s database. If you’re unsure about the reputation of your school, searching for it in this database is a great way to reassure yourself. However, the database is not 100%–oftentimes newly accredited schools, or programs that have recently lost accreditation, will not show up with the proper status because the database is not immediately updated every time a change happens.
If you’re interested in getting a masters degree from a foreign or international university, CHEA won’t be able to help you determine your school’s accreditation status. Fortunately, there’s an international organization designed to protect even global students. It’s called the Council of International Schools (COIS), and it’s specially designed to ensure that universities across the world are held to the same high academic standard, and reassure students that they’re getting the education they’ve paid for. Just like with CHEA, you should check any foreign university you’re considering attending against the COIS’s database of accredited schools to make sure that it’s properly certified.
If you suspect that a program you’ve found is a scam, the best thing you can do is report it to the U.S. Department of Education. There will always be more scam programs and accreditation agencies than CHEA can keep track of, because they’re so easy to create and difficult to regulate, but every time one gets reported that’s one less scam out there. You’ll be saving both yourself and future students from that scam.
If a masters degree is in your future, but you’re not sure you have the time or money to attend a traditional program, enrolling in an online Masters degree program could be the answer for you. But be careful when you’re deciding which to enroll in. Don’t get caught in somebody’s scam—be sure to thoroughly research your school’s accreditation status before you invest any time or money.