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Accreditation & Online Doctoral Programs

To ensure the online PhD or doctoral program you attend adheres to the same stringent requirements and rigorous course of study found in on-campus programs, it should be accredited. Learn about accreditation and what you should look for in your online graduate program.

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Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Apr 21, 2023

For doctoral students, proper accreditation is an important factor when deciding on a program. Accreditation acts as a quality assurance measure, demonstrating that the school you choose meets rigorous standards of excellence and awards you a degree from a reputable institution. Choosing an accredited university or program can protect the integrity of your academic efforts and hard work throughout your pursuit of the highest level of recognition, achievement, and credentialing possible.

Researching and understanding the accreditation process is essential for students considering an online doctoral program. This guide provides an overview of what’s involved in getting and maintaining accreditation, explains the differences between different types of accrediting organizations, and includes a comprehensive list of some of the top-recognized organizations that administer accrediting processes. Knowing this information helps prospective online PhD and doctoral students make informed decisions about their future in higher education.   

Types of Accreditation for Online Doctorates

There are various forms of accreditation, each with their own important distinctions. Institutional, programmatic, specialized, and professional accreditations are all different and it’s essential to understand the differences. Knowing these key distinctions can help you make an informed decision when selecting a postsecondary education school or program.

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation is the most important form of accreditation for postsecondary schools and programs. Without institutional accreditation, any additional forms are meaningless and cannot be used to indicate that the school or program is high-quality. This type of accreditation applies to the whole educational institution, not just specific programs, and all postsecondary schools should have this certification.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) promote public education policy and establish accreditation guidelines, but they do not play a direct role in the process. In order to safeguard the independent nature of institutional accreditation, they instead recognize autonomous accreditation bodies. Those organizations oversee the process largely based on geographical region.

The CHEA and the Department of Education both maintain active directories of recognized accrediting agencies. These bodies work to maintain quality assurance by granting institutional accreditation. They ensure that schools and the programs they administer meet acceptable standards of rigor and excellence.

Once a school or program has successfully obtained institutional accreditation, it will appear in the agency’s directory. With this form of accreditation come many benefits and advantages for both the educational institution, its students, and its graduates. For instance, without this certification, a school’s students would not be able to receive federal financial student aid. Achieving institutional accreditation is just one step though – maintaining this status requires ongoing effort from the educational institution.

Institutional Accrediting Organizations

The list below outlines the main institutional accrediting organizations for universities that administer online PhD and doctorate programs. It includes all six regional accrediting agencies as well as four additional institutional accrediting bodies.

Regional Accrediting Organizations
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)The HLC offers accreditation to institutions in over a dozen states in the central U.S. Its service area includes Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)Established in 1887, the MSCHE covers the mid-Atlantic region and accredits schools in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)The NECHE accredits hundreds of regional institutions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)Colleges and universities in the Pacific Northwest receive regional accreditation from the NWCCU. It covers schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and British Columbia.
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)Headquartered near Atlanta, Georgia, SACSCOC oversees accreditation for schools in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
  • WASC Senior College and University CommissionSince 1962 this organization has granted regional accreditation to institutions in California, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and other Pacific Island nations.
Additional Institutional Accreditation Organizations

Program & Specialization Accreditation

In addition to institutional accreditation, some schools and programs may hold forms of other accreditations which can provide specialized backing in certain fields. These certifications are beneficial and supplement institutional accreditation, but they do not replace it and should never be used as a substitute. Therefore, it is important to check the accreditation status of the school or program you’re interested in studying at before making any decisions. 

Like institutional accreditation, these forms of accreditation are often administered by organizations officially recognized by the either the ED, CHEA, or both. The terms programmatic, specialized, and professional accreditation are often used interchangeably in this regard, but there are important differences.

Professional accreditation refers to the credentialing and quality assurance process for programs that prepare students for very specific occupational roles. In some instances, the accrediting body also doubles as a trade organization as with the National Architectural Accrediting Board or the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education. In other cases, like the American Bar Association, for example, there is significant overlap with doctoral study.

Programmatic or specialized accreditation works differently and ensures the quality of individual sub-fields or concentrations within an academic program. As with other forms of accreditation, this credential offers further, more specialized verification. It validates expert-level programming within a department at an institutionally accredited college or university. Examples of prominent accrediting organizations include the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, and the American Library Association Committee on Accreditation.

Programmatic Accrediting Organizations

While not exhaustive, the list below outlines some of the most prominent programmatic accreditation organizations.

PhD- and Doctorate-Specific Accreditation

For students enrolled in PhD or doctoral programs, there may be additional accreditations specific to those fields. Programs such as pharmacy, psychology, and counseling may benefit from these certifications while other disciplines may not have access to them. It is important to note that any doctorate-level program should be part of a school or institution which already has institutional accreditation from either CHEA or the Department of Education. Additionally, having one of these doctorate-specific accreditations can give students an added advantage.

If you’re interested in a doctoral course of study without doctorate-specific accreditation, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the program. It just means the accrediting body doesn’t extend to doctorate programs or that you’re in a discipline that does not use additional forms of accreditation. Depending on your field, doctoral-specific accreditation may be low on your priority list, so be sure to do your homework. Start with institutional accreditation — the most important form — and then move to consider programmatic, specialized, or professional accreditation, saving doctorate-specific accreditation for last.

PhD and Doctorate Accrediting Organizations

Below are a few organizations that provide accreditation to PhD and doctorate programs. As with the other lists, this one is not comprehensive, but it does provide a good sense of what these organizations offer.

Why Online Doctorate Accreditation Matters to You

Accreditation is an important consideration for prospective PhD and doctoral students, as it will have a major impact on their future. Not only will accreditation affect the quality of education and training they receive, but it can also influence job prospects upon graduation. It is essential to be aware of accreditation requirements before enrolling in any program, as this could have a major bearing on future career success. A lack of institutional accreditation or doctorate-level accreditations could lead to difficulties finding employment and other professional opportunities down the line.


It ensures academic quality at the highest levels.
Proper accreditation safeguards your education. It is a way of verifying that the school you’re attending offers high-caliber programming that meets benchmarks widely recognized across institutions and industries. It also ensures that graduates hold a degree from a college or university that values solid education, rather than a diploma mill that offers illegitimate credentials in exchange for a fee.


It provides additional backing for your doctoral credentials.
Earning a doctorate means that you qualify as a top expert with the ability to meet all the challenges, rigors, and demands specific to your field. That standing is only recognizable to others if it is granted by a reputable school or program with sound accreditation.


It verifies and validates your status as a solid job candidate.
Accreditation not only protects the integrity of your education, it also validates your potential as a desirable candidate on the job market. Employers across job sectors often check the schools granting degrees to their job candidates as a regular part of the vetting process. Holding a doctorate from an accrediting institution puts you in a better position to get a second look from a recruiter.


It means you can transfer credits in the future.
There’s a reason why virtually every higher education transfer policy only accepts credits earned at an accredited institution. This practice ensures sound learning objectives and uniform outcomes. If you plan to pursue additional continuing education opportunities at some point, holding transferable credits from a school with institutional accreditation will save you a lot of time and effort. It means you won’t need to retake courses or satisfy remedial requirements.


It qualifies you for broader financial aid opportunities.
In most cases financial aid eligibility and proper accreditation go hand in hand. Only schools with institutional accreditation have access to the benefits that come with federal financial aid and student loan opportunities. Even other organizations that sponsor scholarships — like national nonprofits and local businesses — typically make accreditation a primary part of their eligibility criteria.


It makes you more mobile and versatile.
Unlike professional licensure and certification, which are often state-specific, a degree from an accredited institution is universally recognized and keeps its staying power over time. That means you can cross state and even national lines without needing additional skills or knowledge to back up your hard-earned credentials. Depending on your profession, you may still need to obtain licensure or certification, but those credentials almost always require a degree from an accredited college or university.


It ensures your professional standing as an expert in your field.
Accreditation provides general quality assurance in education, but it also offers additional, discipline-specific validation. Depending on what you study, this could make a significant impact. In psychology, for example, accreditation from organizations like the APA goes a long way toward solidifying your status as an expert. It can provide more opportunity for future success and career advancement as a result.


It can lead to higher earning potential in the long run.
Agencies assess many things when determining whether a school or doctoral program deserves accreditation. According to CHEA, one of the pieces of information they look to verify is the earning power of graduates and their likelihood of obtaining gainful employment with their degree. By attending an accredited institution, you are ensuring that your degree will put in you the best possible position for success after graduation.

Accreditation Process

Higher education accreditation is a process that requires multiple tasks and deliverables to ensure ongoing compliance and satisfaction. Both CHEA and the Department of Education provide guidelines that most accrediting bodies adhere to, although each organization implements them in different ways. However, the process itself tends to remain the same across the board and includes multiple steps widely recognized across institutions.


The process typically begins with a self-study produced by the institution up for accreditation. This is usually done by a committee comprised of staff, faculty, and administrative officials. The study acts as a wholescale performance review and the goal is for the school to determine how it measures up against the standards set by the accrediting agency. Once the agency has had a chance to review the study, they perform an on-site evaluation. A team of officials will visit to verify the self-study and determine if the school meets acceptable standards of quality and excellence.

Probationary Period

That team of officials will then generate a report and publish their findings, both internally and across the school seeking accreditation. If everything is in order and all requirements are met, the school becomes a “candidate for accreditation” or receives “pre-accreditation status” (the language on this varies by agency). During this probationary period the agency continues to monitor the school to verify its compliance and make sure its performance matches appropriate benchmarks.

Continual Monitoring

Monitoring continues even when the school finally obtains full accreditation status. Each accrediting agency regularly reevaluates their institutions in an effort to maintain quality control and ensure further compliance. Most institutions continue their accreditation status, but in some special cases schools may go back to their pre-accreditation status. In those cases, the agency may ask for additional deliverables (another self-study, etc.) but could also revoke credentials depending on the situation.