Are you looking into online high schools and wondering if they're legitimate? Have you come across the word "accredited" and want to know what it means? Online high schools have been exploding in popularity in recent years, and, as more are created, it can be difficult to tell which are legitimate schools and which are little more than diploma mills.
Read this guide to learn more about online high schools, what it means for a school to be accredited, where to get an accredited high school diploma online, and how to ensure that you are choosing the best school for you.
Note: If you're interested in getting your GED online rather than an accredited high school diploma, read this article instead.
What Is an Online School?
As you may have guessed, an online high school is a school or program where students can earn their high school diploma by taking classes online. Some of these classes are completely online, while others are mostly online but require students to visit a testing center or other location to take final exams.
If you enroll in an online high school, you can either take a few classes to supplement your degree at your regular high school, or you can earn your entire high school diploma online. Some of these programs are affiliated with traditional brick and mortar schools while others are solely online. Online high schools can be public, private, charter, or university/college affiliated.
To learn more about why people choose to attend online high school and how it can benefit you, check out our guide to online high school, and learn how to decide if it's a good choice for you.
What Does Accreditation Mean?
Accreditation is a process of evaluation that schools (both online and traditional) undergo in order to ensure they meet certain quality standards for education.
Accreditation is evaluated regularly, and a school can lose accreditation if a large number of students don't meet educational standards for their grade level, there aren't enough teachers for the students, teachers don't have necessary educational backgrounds, or a different reason. Before a school becomes unaccredited, it is often given a warning and probationary period first to try and improve. A school can regain its accreditation if it has shown sustainable improvement, but becoming re-accredited can often take several months or even years.
For high schools, accreditation requirements vary by state. Public schools must follow guidelines set by their state government in order to be accredited, while the requirements for private and charter schools often vary widely, depending on the state. Accreditors must be approved by the US Department of Education (USDE) in order to be considered legitimate.
A school that is legitimately accredited will provide information about who it is accredited by (such as a regional accreditor), and who accepts that accreditation, such as "Fully accredited by the State Department of Illinois."
A school that simply lists "accredited" without mentioning who it is accredited by or who accepts that accreditation may not be officially accredited, which is pretty much the same as not being accredited at all. Unfortunately, fake accreditors do exist.
Accreditation is important because it lets students know they are attending a school that provides them with a quality education, and, when they graduate, it lets others know that their education met certain standards. Colleges want to accept students from accredited high schools because it gives them confidence that those students were taught what they need to know to be prepared for and succeed in future classes.
For students who are younger than 16, accreditation becomes even more important because you will only be considered enrolled in school (which is required until you turn 16) if the online school you attend is accredited.
Are There Non-Accredited Online High Schools? What Are the Dangers of Taking Classes Through Them?
As online education continues to grow in popularity, more and more online high schools have been created in order to keep up with demand. Some of these online high schools have gone through rigorous development and reviews and can provide an education equal to that of a traditional high school; however, others are nothing more than diploma mills that take your money and give you a pretty useless piece of paper in return.
Accreditation is the best way to pick out the highest quality schools and prevent yourself from getting scammed. But what if you find a really great online high school that offers great classes, but it isn't accredited? Is it really that bad to take classes at an unaccredited school?
In short, yes. The first reason taking classes from a non-accredited school is bad is that you likely won't get a good education.
For a school to not be accredited, it either didn't put in the effort to attempt accreditation (a bad sign, considering how important it is), or it failed the accreditation process because it didn't meet certain education standards. Simply put, this means that you will be taking classes from a school that hasn't been found to provide a quality education.
Any person can set up a website and claim to run an online high school. Some online high schools will give you a "diploma" as long as you pay their fee and take a short multiple choice exam. While that's an extreme case (and that company was eventually shut down), there are many other non-accredited programs that claim to offer you a high school education but don't deliver.
Getting a diploma from an unaccredited school could cause problems for you in the future. Image Source: Flickr/Enokson
While getting a high school diploma so easily may seem nice, if you don't learn much before getting it, you likely won't be prepared for whatever the reason you're attempting to finish high school, whether that's college classes or a more advanced job. That can lead to you feeling confused and overwhelmed, and you may end up dropping out of school or quitting your job because you didn't have the knowledge you needed to do well.
Another important reason to not take classes from a non-accredited school is because most other schools and people won't accept the classes you took. This means that, if you took classes at a non-accredited online school, they probably won't transfer to your regular high school, and if you receive a diploma from a non-accredited high school, most colleges and employers won't accept it. Colleges want students from accredited high schools because it increases the likelihood that they received a rigorous education and are prepared for college classes.
For almost all jobs and colleges, having a diploma from a non-accredited high school is just about the same as not having a high school diploma at all. Taking classes at a non-accredited online high school can leave you with a poor education and an expensive piece of paper that likely don't help you further your education or career.
The majority of college applicants are high school seniors, and most of the college application advice out there is aimed at them. But what do you do if you don't fall into this narrow category? Our eBook on how to prepare for and apply to college as a nontraditional student will walk you through everything you need to know, from the coursework you should have under your belt to how to get letters of recommendation when you're not a high school senior.
Is It Ever OK to Take Classes at a Non-Accredited Online High School?
Now you know the risks of studying at an unaccredited online school, but would there ever be a good reason to take classes at a non-accredited school? For almost all high school students, it's a bad idea to classes at a non-accredited school. However, there are a few times when it could be OK to take classes at a non-accredited online high school. The reasons are listed below; however, for each of them, remember that there is still some risk involved if you ever change your plans and would like those classes to transfer to a school that only accepts credits from an accredited school. Whenever possible, you should still choose an accredited school.
One reason you may take classes at a non-accredited school is because you don't plan on pursuing additional education afterward, so you don't need to worry about other schools accepting the classes. This may be the case if you are attending a technical school or certificate program where your qualifications will be based on a specialized test you need to pass and not the accreditation of your school.
Another reason you may take classes at a non-accredited online school is if you are only taking a few classes for your own personal use and not looking to receive academic credit for them. This could be the case if you want to take some online classes for fun, to brush up on a particular skill, or to prepare yourself for future classes where you will receive academic credit (such as taking an online calculus class before your actual calculus class begins). This may also be true for home-schooled students who want to supplement their education with online classes.
A third reason is that the traditional (i.e. not online) school you are attending or will attend has agreed to accept classes from a non-accredited school. Some high schools and colleges have partnerships with certain online class providers, and they may give you academic credit for classes you take through them, even if those online schools aren't accredited because your school studied their syllabi and knows they meet their standards. However, you should absolutely check on this before enrolling in an unaccredited online class, and you should get confirmation, preferably in writing, that the class will be accepted.
If you're going to attend an unaccredited online school, be careful, and don't jump in right away.
How Can You Find Out If an Online High School Is Accredited?
So now that you know how important accreditation is, how can you find out if the online high schools you're interested in are accredited? There are several different steps, and each is outlined below.
Step 1: Check the School Website
Typically, the easiest way to see if a particular school is accredited is to check its website. If the school is accredited, it will state that somewhere on its website, often on the first page or in the "about" section. Some schools have specific pages just to show their accreditation. Once you find this information, sure the school also states who it received its accreditation from and/or who that accreditation is recognized by (such as a regional accreditation or a department of education).
A school will rarely come out and state that it's not accredited, however. If you can't find any accreditation information on the school's website, move on to the next step.
Step 2: Check Online Resources
While the US Department of Education has created a database for people to check the accreditation of colleges and universities, there is currently no such resource to check for high schools, so it can be slightly more difficult to learn if a high school is accredited. First try doing an internet search for "accreditation + [School Name]". You can also search for online reviews to see what past students are saying about the school.
Step 3: Contact the School
If you are unable to find information online, contact the school itself. Look on the school's website to find its contact information, and either call or e-mail them. Ask if the school is accredited and, if so, by whom. Be aware that many schools do not like to admit outright that they aren't accredited, so they may give you a roundabout answer.
You should be extremely wary of any answer that isn't a plain "Yes." This includes "We're almost accredited", "No, but we're just as good as accredited schools," and similar responses. This is often just a way to try and convince you to enroll in the school anyway. If they are accredited, ask for more information on who accredited them. It may be a regional accreditation, national accreditation, or a state accreditation.
If a school isn't accredited, move on to another one that is. There are many options for online high school now, and more and more of these schools are becoming accredited.
- Online high schools can be a great way for people who can't attend traditional schools to obtain their high school diploma.
- However, as online education becomes more popular, some schools have been created solely as a way to make money for their owner, with no regard to quality of education.
- Accreditation is a way to easily find out which schools provide a good education. If a school is accredited, that means it met certain education standards.
- If you enroll in an online high school that isn't accredited, you will most likely not get a good education, and your diploma and coursework won't be accepted by almost any colleges or employers, making it pretty much useless.
- You should always check to see if a school is accredited before enrolling. You can do this by looking on the school's website or contacting them directly.
Wondering if you should earn an accredited high school diploma online? Check out our guide to online high schools and learn how to decide if they are the best choice for you.
Thinking about getting a GED instead? We discuss what a GED is, how to get your GED online and the best GED practice tests to help you prepare here.
Want an in-depth look at an online high school? Read our review of the prestigious Stanford Online High School and see if it's something you're interested in.
Why is your high school transcript so important? Learn about what information a transcript includes and why it's often the most important piece of information colleges look at.
Do you even need a high school diploma to get a job? Find out what careers require a high school diploma and when you can get away without one in this article.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.