If your educational goals are motivated only by a desire for personal improvement, you are free to use any method to determine the quality and usefulness of the particular online school. However, if you seek an online school to further your career goals or pursue higher education– whether it is for a college degree, an online graduate school, a nursing school online, or an accredited online high school, your needs are much more specific. You should at least be narrowing your search to accredited online schools.
Unaccredited schools may not qualify for financial aid, and an unaccredited degree may not be accepted for employment (at any civil service position, especially). Additionally, some jurisdictions may even consider using an unaccredited degree to be illegal, similar to using false identification. The illegal nature of “degree mills” or “diploma mills” should be a definite concern when seeking online schools, so you should verify accreditation before even considering the online school.
Let us debunk one common myth of accreditation in the United States: it is not overseen by the government. The process of accreditation rests in six regional accreditors and 52 national accreditors, each a self-regulating entity operating under a peer review system. The US Department of Education may recognize the accreditation (in fact, it is required to publish a list of nationally recognized accreditation agencies) but has no ability to grant or deny accreditation on its own.
Regional accreditation is regarded as more desirable than national accreditation. Keep in mind that a degree from a nationally accredited school may not carry the same prestige, and may in fact be regarded as insufficient for admission or transfer to a regionally accredited school.
Professional or vocational accreditation is a slightly different matter. Those who are searching for online nursing schools or other specialized online studies (including various medical, dental, veterinary, legal, business, engineering, air conditioning and automotive education) may prefer to look for the recommendations of specific accreditation organizations.
Finally, religious schools may grant degrees which are exempt from accreditation. Many high-quality religious educational institutions exist, but as any institution that is regarded as a religious institution is exempt from the accreditation process, there is plenty of room for less stringent standards and even fraudulent practices. Some states or organizations may regard religious-exempt degrees as equivalent to unaccredited degrees (i.e., illegal or at least worthless).
Ultimately, accreditation does not guarantee high-quality education. There are many legitimately accredited schools, online and offline, whose standards or reputation may not serve to assist you in your future goals. However, determining accreditation — and especially the legitimacy of the accreditation — should be one of your first steps in narrowing down your list of online school options.