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Accreditation and Online Psychology Degrees

Accreditation is a status schools gain by voluntarily going through a process to show they meet established standards of quality. It assures the public that a program or institution provides a practical, quality education.

Graduating from an accredited psychology program confirms you have a certain level of knowledge and expertise about psychology. Many licensing boards won’t consider candidates who haven’t graduated from an accredited program or will put the burden on applicants to show equivalency.

Read on to understand more about accreditation in the field of psychology in general and particularly for online programs in psychology.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

No one wants to go through the time, effort, and expense of getting a degree only to discover it isn’t recognized by other institutions, licensing boards, or employers. Accreditation allows students to have confidence in the program they’re considering, whether it’s a traditional campus or an online psychology degree program.

Accreditation is critical, especially at the doctorate level, because many states require graduation from a school accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) for psychologist licensing. It can also impact funding, as you must attend an accredited school to be eligible for federal student aid.

It is possible that a school will claim they are accredited even if isn’t, so it’s important to confirm accreditation through a recognized authority, such as the accrediting body or through the Department of Education’s database search.

You also need to understand the differences between accreditation, licensing, and certification.

Educational institutions are accredited.

Individual professionals are licensed.

Personal achievement may also be recognized with a certificate.

What Are the Different Types of Accreditation?

There are three different kinds of accreditation in psychology: national, regional, and professional. When comparing programs, it’s important to ensure the psychology program you’re considering is accredited and you know what type of accreditation the program holds.

  • Regional accreditation covers an entire educational institution. There are six regional accrediting bodies in the United States, and each accredits institutions in their designated geographic region.
  • National accrediting agencies are approved by the Department of Education (DOE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Like regional accreditors, they provide accreditation that covers the whole school’s programs.
  • Programmatic accreditors cover a specific degree program.

The APA Commission on Accreditation (CoA) is a specialized programmatic accreditor. That means APA accreditation only extends to specific doctoral graduate programs, pre-doctoral internships, and post-doctoral residencies in professional psychology. The accredited status of one specific program does not extend to other programs in the same department or institution.

APA-accredited programs are only found in institutions that have regional accreditation. It is possible for an institution to have regional accreditation but not have any APA-accredited programs.

Who Accredits Psychology Programs?

Because recognized regional and national accrediting agencies accredit entire educational institutions and not specific departments or programs, these agencies will confer accreditation to schools that will cover all their psychology degree programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level.

However, especially at the doctoral level, programmatic accreditation for the specific psychology doctorate program becomes much more relevant to state boards or future employers. The APA is authorized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit doctoral-level professional psychology programs. The APA provides a searchable database of programs that are accredited by its CoA. CHEA also provides a searchable database.

Additionally, there are specialized accrediting boards for predominantly master’s degree or doctoral degree programs, including:

Below the graduate degree level—for associate or bachelor’s degree programs in psychology—typically schools will rely on regional and national accreditation to demonstrate educational quality.

Though the status conferred on programs will differ by accreditor, typical ones may include:

Accreditation Statuses

Accredited

The program is consistent both substantively and procedurally with the standards of accreditation.

Accredited, on probation

This indicates an accredited program is no longer consistent with the standards, and its accreditation is at risk.

Accredited, inactive

A doctoral program that has not admitted students for two successive years or has provided notice that it has decided to phase out and close the program.

How Does a Psychology Program Obtain Accreditation?

Schools seeking accreditation submit a written application that includes goals and objectives, competencies, and outcome data. They provide information about their students, faculty, and financial resources, as well as copies of policies and procedures.

The application is thoroughly reviewed by the accrediting agency and, if approved, the school receives a site visit. That means a team of professionals visit the school for an in-depth investigation of the program. They look closely at operations to make sure the program’s application matches what they see and hear. They confirm all standards meet requirements set by the accrediting organization.

After the visit, the team submits a report to the accrediting agency, such as the Commission on Accreditation (CoA) of the American Psychological Association. The school is allowed to review the report and comment. The CoA then determines whether to award or deny accreditation.

Will My Online Psychology Degree Be Respected? Is It Accredited?

Are online psychology degrees considered valid? Will they be accepted by other schools or employers?  Are they respected?  These are all good questions.

Respect for online degrees has improved since the early days of online learning. Today, online degrees are considered an integral part of the education world because they allow students who, for various reasons, would be unable to continue their education otherwise. Many accredited colleges and universities offer online study programs.

It’s crucial to thoroughly research your programs of interest to ensure they meet your needs. For example: Does it offer a degree that will help get you where you want to be professionally? Does it have connected faculty with teaching or research interests that overlap with your interests? Is the price right for your expected earnings and ability to finance or pay?

One piece of research to conduct early on is to find out if your program of interest is accredited and who accredited it. If the accrediting agency isn’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, the accreditation claim has little value. Check the accreditation status of a school by searching on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. The CHEA also provides a searchable database on its website.

If you are pursuing a Ph.D. or Psy.D.—doctoral degrees in psychology—you should also realize that the APA does not accredit any online programs at that level currently. Instead, many online schools are accredited at the institution level with national or regional accreditation. If you’re interested in a psychology doctoral program delivered online, you should check with alumni to understand how this may affect your options after graduation. For example, lack of APA accreditation could be fine if you plan to be a business psychology consultant but may pose obstacles if you want to become a licensed psychologist. Many state boards of licensing put the onus on the applicant to demonstrate that their non-APA-accredited doctorate was of equivalent quality to an APA-accredited doctoral education.

Students who have “been there, done that” have offered some nuggets of advice for students interested in pursuing a psychology degree online. Here are a few of the things users shared information about their online psychology degree experiences:

  • “Do your research about the schools you consider. Be wary of heavy pressure pushing you to make a quick decision and start classes ASAP. The biggest red flag for me was a school that wanted my social security number and private information over the phone and tried to get me to start FAFSA before I’d even made a decision.”
  • “I was hesitant at first, but now I’m really happy I decided to pursue my education online.”
  • “Most traditional schools that have added online programs don’t indicate anywhere on their transcript or diploma a degree was earned partially or completely online. No one really has to know if you prefer not to say.”
  • “I’m in a top psychology Ph.D. program. When I represented our department at a recent grad fair, I’d say about 80% of the students who approached me were interested in our online program.”

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