One of the transfer students in my course at a community college, let’s call her Nichelle, came to me last month to talk about the paralegal program she had just enrolled in. She was beside herself with anger and fear, because she had attended a for-profit college for the past two years, and none of her credits would transfer to the community college. Nichelle essentially lost over $20,000 and two years time, because she had made a bad choice in schools—she had attended a non-accredited college. She now had to take those courses all over again.
I sympathized with her plight, but was not surprised by it. Nichelle is not alone. Stories of students in similar situations were broadcast on June 28, 2011 on the PBS investigative news program Frontline, which detailed the ways in which predatory colleges target members of the military and veterans, who use all their G.I. Bill education funds to attend, only to find that their degrees are not recognized and their credits won’t transfer to other schools. (View the entire episode for free here.) They are left with little to no education funds and no degree to show for all their hard work and money.
The sad truth is that a little-known part of choosing a college is to learn what kind of accreditation a college has. With the proliferation of new programs and the aggressive recruiting practices of many schools today, it is very difficult for students to determine which programs are legitimately accredited and which will cost time and money with little result. This is an enormous loss for students, both personally and financially. For soldiers, veterans, and regular working people like Nichelle, not knowing about their school’s accreditation was a costly mistake. With the rising costs of college today, this is a mistake no one can afford to make. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent figures on college costs, from the 2008-09 academic year, price average annual undergraduate tuition, room, and board at over $12,00 at public institutions and over $31,000 at private institutions. This rate keeps on rising, as more and more federal funds are cut from education budgets, students have to pay more to enroll in college programs. This is why it is more important than ever to make sure that whatever college you decide to attend, whether it is public or private, online or at a bricks-and-mortar campus, you learn what accreditation the school has, and why it matters to your future.
What is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a process in which a college or university submits to an extensive review by outside examiners, usually faculty and administrators from other colleges, who work for an accrediting agency. Every aspect of a program, from graduation employment rates down to the classroom activities of professors, is examined, to determine if students are actually getting what they pay for, if the college is run ethically and with appropriate academic standards. It is a voluntary form of quality-control. Usually, if a college is approved by its accrediting agency, it must continue to undergo accreditation review on a regular basis, usually every ten years or so, though that varies depending on the kind of accreditation they seek (for example, two-year colleges have different accreditation measures than four-year colleges). This insures consistency in the quality of the college’s programs. Accrediting agencies are private associations divided by profession, region, or other relevant category. In the United States, the most important and respected accrediting agencies are regional.
While the United States Department of Education does not itself accredit educational institutions, it oversees the process and is legally required to publish lists of all reliable accrediting agencies and the results of their reviews. It is important to note that all accrediting agencies are carefully scrutinized to ensure that they are not fraudulent, because this has been a problem in the past. Diploma mills are infamous for creating their own accrediting agencies, so that they can claim, on their websites and printed materials, that they are “accredited” In reality, though, there are only a limited number of nationally approved accreditation agencies. Also, there are frequent calls for review of the rules for approving accrediting agencies. In September 2010, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation revised its policies for reviewing accreditation groups. What all this means is that quality control is maintained at every level of higher education. Not only are colleges and universities examined, but the agencies that examine them are reviewed for quality.
What You Should Do
The entire accreditation process is done to ensure that colleges provide appropriate college-level education to American students, who have paid tuition and enrolled with high expectations for the ways that college can improve their lives. Credits from non-accredited or fraudulently accredited colleges and universities will not transfer to other schools, so if you wish to earn another degree or transfer to a different college, you will have to start all over again. The best way for students to ensure that their school is accredited by an approved agency is not to ask a recruiter, because they may not know or may have been given information that is inaccurate. Instead, conduct a quick internet search to see if the schools they apply to are accredited by the approved agencies specified by the Department of Education. When you consider a college or university, find out in writing whether or not credits will transfer to other schools. In the end, a little research can save you thousands of dollars.