Regional accreditors, of which there are six across the country, are generally seen as the gold standard of accreditation, a perception Lambert says is largely a result of their much longer history. "The federal government does not make any distinction between national accreditors like us and regionals," he says -- though some users, such as potential employers, might.
Regional accreditors are broader in scope, Lambert says, since they evaluate both distance education and traditional colleges and universities. Nationals focus on specific types of institutions, he says, "but the U.S. Department of Education's recognition criteria are the same for national and regional accrediting agencies."
The third type -- programmatic -- is specialized accreditation bestowed upon programs in their field by specific professions.
The best way to sort through the accreditation morass, says Dr. Breneman, is to check the Council for Higher Education's database at www.CHEA.org, which lists all recognized accrediting bodies.
Accreditation is voluntary, and many for-profit institutions accredited by a regional body opt to apply for national accreditation as well, says Lambert.
"We take a very precise, hard-hitting look at the financial condition of a school," he says, "beyond what regionals do. Stockholders and board members like that second look, so they see it as a good investment to get a second accreditation."
Cost of an online education
Getting educated by a for-profit online isn't cheap, but evidently it's not more expensive than the market will bear.
According to the College Board, the average sticker price for tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year schools in the 2007-2008 academic year was $6,185; for private four-year colleges and universities, average cost was $23,712. Tuition and fees at for-profit institutions fell between the two extremes: $12,089.
"Tuition costs tend to be more expensive than at public, nonprofit institutions," says EduVentures' Gallagher, "but less expensive than at private nonprofit schools. But there is value in that students may be paying a premium for an accelerated program. They might be able to complete a degree within half the time it would take at a traditional university."
Because a school without a physical campus doesn't have to support sports venues and student centers, a much higher percentage of their resources are dedicated to instruction, he adds.
"A faculty member doesn't have to be located where the college is based," Gallagher says, "so they can use a national or even international pool. They tend to rely largely on adjunct faculty, so in the majority of cases the instructors have other jobs. The vast majority have degrees from a nonprofit school and have taught at a nonprofit."
Problems of credit and credibility
One of the biggest difficulties for online students is getting their credits transferred to another school -- a problem for many community college students, too, Gansler says.
"Credit transfer is such a subjective thing that there's never a guarantee," he says. "If someone attends a university that has national accreditation and wants to transfer to a regionally accredited school, sometimes there will be a problem."