Accreditation is a process by which a recognized body certifies an academic institution or program within the institution, including online degree programs. Accredited online PhD degree programs are those that have been certified by an accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). This ensures that the accredited PhD online or campus-based program meets the quality and curriculum requirements set by the accrediting agency, so students are spending money on a useful education that will be recognized by future employers rather than a degree from a “diploma mill” that may be worthless in the future.
In the U.S., the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes national and programmatic accrediting agencies. It also recognizes six regional accrediting organizations that evaluate schools in different parts of the country:
Because evaluation of schools is broken into regions, the CHEA can ensure that schools and programs throughout the country may be evaluated, and its high standards can be enforced.
The U.S. Department of Education also maintains a database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs. Before you apply for an online or campus-based PhD program, check the accreditation status of the school and the program itself. The USDE database is more reliable than the program or school’s website, as some programs have displayed false accreditation from fake agencies or agencies not recognized by the CHEA. However, the database may not include newly accredited schools, or may list programs that have recently lost their accreditation, so be sure to check with the school as well.
The process of gaining accreditation involves the institution as well as the recognized national or regional accrediting body.
In addition to ensuring that the PhD program you are considering is accredited, check that it is from a school with institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation can be career-related, as with career schools, continuing education, or health education schools, or it could be faith-related. A nationally accredited online PhD degree is one offered by an institution accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, which oversees institutions offering distance and online degrees.
First, the accrediting organization develops standards that must be met in order for a school to receive accreditation. The intuition then undertakes a self-study, in which its own staff evaluates whether the school meets standards outlined by the accrediting agency, and which may be submitted to the accreditation agency. Once the staff is confident the school meets these standards, they apply for accreditation, at which time the agency undertakes visits and conducts other research to determine whether or not the institution meets their guidelines. These standards typically require schools to have an adequate number of faculty and staff for the student population. They also look at the education and experience of faculty, technical facilities for online programs, resources such as libraries and laboratories, and student graduation and employment rates. If the school meets the criteria, it receives accreditation, which must be periodically reviewed for the institution to maintain accredited status.
Programmatic accreditation is the review of specific programs within a college or university, such as business or law. At the doctoral level, completing a degree from an accredited program is a requirement of licensing for some professions, particularly healthcare.
It is not enough for a program to be accredited, however, as not all accreditation agencies are recognized by the CHEA. Programmatic accreditation standards vary by subject. For example, a programmatic accreditation agency such as ABET, which evaluates science and engineering programs, will have varying requirements depending on what type of program it is evaluating, such as mechanical engineering, biochemistry, or software engineering, and whether a program is offered at undergraduate or graduate level. However, all programs must meet ABET’s minimum standards of student outcomes, have procedures in place for improvement, meet general curriculum requirements of at least a year for math and science education and one and one-half years of science or engineering, and have sufficient qualified faculty for students.
To see if the accredited online PhD program you are considering is accredited by a recognized agency, browse the directory of programmatic accrediting organizations on the CHEA website.