When you are looking at a number of colleges and universities, the first thing you should do is determine whether they are accredited. In the case of distance learning, this is particularly imperative. When you are attending an accredited learning institution, you immediately have the reassurance that you are getting a quality education and that future employers will be confident that you have acquired all necessary knowledge and skills.
Accreditation is a process in which the proficiency and credibility of an institution is determined by peer review. Schools voluntarily choose to be evaluated and are expected to be able to make evident that their programs include specific features before they're permitted to become members of the association of accredited institutions.
There are two types of accreditation. One is institutional accreditation, which means an entire school is accredited. That bestows a high level of credibility on a university as a whole. Institutional accreditation can be provided by a regional or national accreditation group. The United States is divided into six geographic regions, and each has its own regional accrediting organization. Only those accrediting groups that are acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Education are considered legitimate.
The second type of accreditation is of individual programs within a school rather than the whole institution. There are specific evaluating groups for this type of accreditation.
Program appraisers will look at faculty, curriculum, students, resources and administrative structure. Accreditation groups want to make sure that all students are offered the same standard of supervision, advisement, support and access to relevant program resources.
Programs that are looking to become accredited are expected to have created and executed an overall plan in which the faculty members have the freedom and accountability to run the program the way they see fit.
If the program you are interested in is accredited but the school that offers it is not, do not necessarily disregard your choice. Earning full accreditation for an entire school can be challenging and costly, and thus some institutions skip the process. But individual programs within those schools can still be accredited and valuable.