How Does DEAC Accreditation Work for Online Colleges?

Doug Wintemute
Updated September 20, 2023
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Since the establishment of the University of Chicago’s correspondence program in 1892, distance education has grown leaps and bounds. Schools have offered programs via mail, TV, and radio. But it was the internet that made distance education what it is today.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 59% of students enrolled in online courses in 2021. In 2011, that percentage was just 32%.

But not all online schools are created equal. This is where the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) comes in. DEAC verifies the quality of online schools in the U.S. through a process called accreditation.

But how does DEAC accreditation work exactly?

Did You Know…

According to NCES, nearly 11% of postsecondary schools were primarily online as of 2020.

What Is the Distance Education Accrediting Commission?

DEAC was originally founded in 1926 as the National Home Study Council (NHSC), an organization focused on promoting quality correspondence programs.

Since 1955, DEAC has provided accreditation to distance education programs. In 2015, NHSC officially changed its name to the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

DEAC has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education since 1959 and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation since 2001. These recognitions allow the agency to set and uphold standards for academic quality among online schools, from online high schools to online colleges and universities.

Today, DEAC is the only recognized national accreditor focused exclusively on online and distance education programs.

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Benefits of DEAC Accreditation

Although technically voluntary, accreditation is critical for both schools and students.

DEAC accreditation provides quality assurance to online students, employers, and other institutions. Unlike other institutional accrediting agencies, DEAC considers the specific needs of online students.

All DEAC-accredited schools meet a high standard for education, student-teacher interactions, and delivery methods.

Accreditation ensures you receive proper preparation and support. It also improves post-graduation outcomes — many employers and schools will only hire or accept graduates of accredited schools.

Additionally, DEAC accreditation enables online schools to pursue certain professional and programmatic accreditations.

Finally, attending a DEAC-accredited school means you can apply for federal financial aid, as only schools accredited by a Department of Education-approved agency are eligible for federal funding.

Eligibility Requirements for DEAC Accreditation

For DEAC accreditation, postsecondary institutions must run all programs predominantly online or using other distance education methods.

The school must also have state authorization, maintain a permanent physical facility, and be financially sound, with ownership in place for at least two consecutive years.

Other DEAC accreditation requirements include:

  • Formally enrolling students for at least 12 consecutive months
  • Hiring qualified staff and faculty
  • Providing regular feedback to and interaction with students
  • Offering quality curricula and educational materials
  • Having a system of measurement in place for student success and satisfaction
  • Being free of any illegal or damaging activities or reputation

To qualify for federal financial aid, distance education programs must distinguish themselves from correspondence programs. According to the Department of Education, correspondence programs typically run self-paced courses and feature limited and student-initiated interaction with instructors.

Did You Know…

In 2020, online student enrollment in the U.S. grew from 6 million to nearly 12 million, according to NCES.

What Does DEAC Look for in Schools and Programs?

Online learners have specific and unique needs that the best schools address head-on. As a result, squeezing online programs into a system and infrastructure meant for on-campus programs often doesn’t suffice.

DEAC uses 12 standards to guide and inform its accreditation process. Not only do these markers help with evaluation, but they also help schools target the most important areas for improvement.

For DEAC accreditation, online schools must have each of the following standards in place:

  • Clearly defined mission and commitment to educational quality
  • Process for monitoring offering and operations effectiveness and planning for the future
  • An up-to-date curriculum that is appropriate for the program level
  • Active student support, guidance, and interaction
  • System for monitoring and analyzing student outcomes
  • Experienced, qualified, and regularly monitored leaders and faculty
  • Accurate and ethical marketing communication and strategies
  • Admissions criteria that accurately evaluates applicants
  • Accessible and equitable financial information, including tuition and refund policies
  • Sufficient and fair management structures and processes
  • Financial resources and sustainability to continue the school’s mission
  • Appropriate facilities, equipment, and supplies to follow through on that mission

How the DEAC Accreditation Process Works

The DEAC accreditation process takes about 12-18 months to complete.

To start, a representative of the school must complete the “Preparing for DEAC Accreditation” course through DEAC’s Online Training Center. The course must be completed within one year of submitting an accreditation application.

Prospective schools must also submit a $4,500 application fee. The application must demonstrate that the school meets all eligibility requirements. Approved institutions will then be notified by letter within 30 days.

Self-Evaluation Report

Once approved, institutions can submit a self-evaluation report and a $3,000 readiness assessment fee to DEAC via electronic submission. A successful report verifies that the school meets all of DEAC’s accreditation standards.

Within 10-12 weeks, DEAC returns an assessment report deeming the school ready or not ready for a formal evaluation.

Schools deemed not ready have the opportunity to revise and resubmit their reports and assessment fees.

Schools deemed ready receive guidance to polish up their self-assessment reports. They also get instruction on the next steps, which includes submitting curricula for review within three months.

Completed with the help of subject-matter specialists, curricula reviews last 3-6 months. DEAC and subject-matter specialists review and evaluate 50% of courses for every degree offered.

The school also submits a revised and updated self-evaluation report a minimum of five weeks before the on-site visit.

On-Site Visit and Evaluation

A team of on-site evaluators visits the school to meet staff members, observe operations, and review processes and procedures. Within about six weeks, the school receives the chair’s report, which details the findings of the evaluation.

Twice a year, DEAC meets to review completed accreditation applications. The agency then issues one of the following decisions:

  • Accredit
  • Defer
  • Show cause (meaning more evidence is needed for accreditation)
  • Deny

Depending on the decision, schools can show good cause or appeal the decision. Initial DEAC accreditation lasts three years, whereas renewals last five years.

Does Accreditation Differ for Online Colleges?

The accreditation process for online colleges features most of the same steps and requirements as it does for traditional schools. That said, there are some differences to note.

For example, DEAC ensures that online students have access to online conferences throughout their programs. The agency also requires adequate access to library services, online chat rooms, peers, instructors, and support staff.

An accredited online school must provide acceptable online materials and use accessible and reliable technologies. DEAC reviews each school’s online platform to ensure it can handle the traffic load and student body requirements.

Part of the accreditation process for online schools includes a review of faculty members’ abilities to teach online. Accredited schools must have a program in place to help faculty upskill when it comes to creating and teaching online classes.

Did You Know…

The University of Arkansas Grantham has held DEAC accreditation continuously since 1961.

What Colleges Have DEAC Accreditation?

The list of DEAC-accredited institutions includes high schools, correspondence schools, and online schools across North America.

The commission has awarded accreditation to more than 60 degree-granting schools in the U.S., including:

  • Abraham Lincoln University
  • American National University
  • Atlantic University
  • California Intercontinental University
  • EC-Council University
  • Huntington University of Health Sciences
  • Lakewood University
  • Moreland University
  • National Paralegal College
  • Penn Foster College
  • Quantic School of Business and Technology
  • Taft Law School
  • University of the People
  • WorldQuant University

Frequently Asked Questions About DEAC Accreditation

Why does accreditation matter?

Accreditation matters because it verifies that schools and programs have met industry standards for quality and accountability. Accreditation also ensures that students can access federal financial aid and easily transfer credits to other schools if needed.

As a whole, the accreditation process promotes institutional transparency and continuous improvement.

Can a school hold accreditation from multiple organizations?

Yes, schools can receive accreditation from multiple organizations. In fact, many schools hold accreditation from both DEAC and another institutional accrediting agency.

For example, American National University has accreditation from DEAC and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

Due to the time, money, and effort involved in the accreditation process, most schools pursue accreditation from a single organization — if possible, often a regional accreditor.

Are degrees from DEAC-accredited schools accepted in all states?

Yes, all states recognize DEAC accreditation. That said, schools must be authorized to offer online degrees to residents of each state.

Regional compacts and the National Council on State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements help streamline the authorization process for schools looking to offer distance education across the U.S.

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