Accreditation is one of the most important things for you to consider when picking a college, but it’s probably the last thing on your mind. This is understandable: selecting a school means choosing a major, deciding what classes to take, balancing the hours spent in a classroom with the hours spent at a job, and finding a way to pay for it all. Accreditation becomes one of those things that students don’t bother to learn about, and if they do, it’s usually with the assumption that any problems that pop up will take care of themselves.
This is completely normal behavior, but that doesn’t make it any less risky. Accreditation is the clearest indicator that an online program is not a diploma mill. It’s far more important than many students realize, especially when it comes to getting a good job just a few short years after heading off to school. But there’s good news, too: There are steps you can take to make sure you’re on the right educational path.
What is Accreditation?
Put simply, accreditation is a school’s stamp of approval from its peers and a sign that it’s a quality learning institution. Think of accrediting boards as gate keepers: they keep the bad schools out and let the good ones in. There are dozens of different types of accrediting agencies, too, ranging from boards that certify entire schools to those that focus solely on certain degree plans or specialties. To become accredited, colleges are examined to see what kind of instructors they employ, whether they’re keeping up with changes in industry, and more.
Every accrediting body uses different criteria, but they’re all similar in their focus on quality. For instance, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a regional accrediting body focusing on almost a dozen Southern U.S. states, publishes its accreditation guidelines for students curious about just what the group looks for in a school. The group examines a school’s board, its financial structure, graduation rates, admissions policies, faculty credentials, and many more areas that make up online universities.
According to the Distance Education and Training Council, there are about 80 recognized accrediting agencies working today to cover thousands of colleges and universities and almost 20,000 individual degree programs. If the school is worth attending, it’s been accredited.
Types of Accrediting Agencies
Accreditation is performed by groups that usually fall into one of two camps: regional and national. A regional accrediting body focuses on schools within a specific area, while a national accrediting agency covers schools anywhere in the United States. The DETC, for instance, is a national accrediting body that works with schools across the country.
From a practical standpoint, there are no significant differences between those schools that have been nationally accredited and those that have been regionally accredited. The only time that the difference might ever come into play is if you decide to transfer schools before completing your education. Because of the different types of accrediting bodies, it can be slightly more difficult to transfer credits between schools with differing accreditations. Regional accreditation is more popular and therefore more recognized, and as a result, some regionally accredited schools can be reluctant to accept credits from nationally accredited institutions.
What’s more, accredited schools only accept credits from other accredited schools. Ashford University’s website lists requirements for students to be accepted, one of which is a “high school diploma or GED or completed secondary school through home schooling as defined by state law, or 60 transferable credits from an appropriately accredited post-secondary institution.”
The thing to remember is that all legitimately accredited schools have been given the OK from a governing body. How do the governing bodies themselves get accredited? In much the same manner as schools.
The Government’s Role
The federal government does not accredit schools, so if any college or university claims to have gotten a direct sign-off from a federal office, you can assume they’re not being honest. However, the government does enforce standards for accrediting bodies, meaning that every agency that wants to confer accreditation has to be recognized by one of two groups: the Department of Education or the non-profit Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Those two ranking bodies are the only groups that officially recognize accrediting agencies.
They don’t do the accrediting themselves; rather, they monitor the national and regional accrediting groups that do the actual investigating, which makes them invaluable resources for students who want to know if the credentials their school is touting are legitimate. For example, the DETC is a “nationally recognized accrediting agency” in the eyes of the Department of Education, and it’s also a respected charter member of the CHEA. That means that if a school has been accredited by the DETC, it’s a legitimate institution that’s met the same standards to which all colleges and universities are held, and students can be safe in knowing that the education they receive there will be worth their time and money.
Even accrediting agencies have to get accredited. They’re examined by outside parties and re-examined periodically to make sure they have continued to meet the standards required of all universities. Accreditation is something that has to be continually earned, which makes it more like a way of life for a school and less like a simple goal. Being accredited isn’t about checking something off a list, but constantly working to make sure that every course and program are of the highest caliber. Accreditation is a voluntary process that schools pursue, but it’s also in their interests to maintain accreditation because it grants them legitimacy and attracts a more serious student base.
How to Check Your School’s Accreditation
Checking the accreditation status of an online college is easy, though the process is unfamiliar to most students simply because they’ve never thought about it. Any reputable school’s website will have an area discussing accreditation that lists their credentials. From there, it’s a matter of checking that the accrediting agency has been recognized by the Department of Education, the CHEA, or both. For instance, Ashford has been regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, a group that’s been recognized by the CHEA and the government, so the school is a safe bet for any who would choose to attend.
In order to simplify the research, the CHEA and the Department of Education maintain online databases of approved accrediting agencies, so you’ll know if the group your school is bragging about is legitimate. Good schools aren’t going to hide this information, either. It’s in their interest to be direct about accreditation. If a school isn’t willing to disclose accreditation statistics online, that’s a bad sign. Similarly, it’s a red flag if a school claims to be accredited, but doesn’t reveal who did the actual accrediting. The less honest or forthcoming a school is about its accreditation status, the more cautious you should be about attending.
Accreditation research is a vital step in the process that’s up to the student to complete. According to Brianna Bates, an information and accounts specialist with the DETC, “It’s not enough anymore to simply ask an institution if they are accredited.” Students have to take an active role in their education.
Certain fields of study are subject to specific accreditation as well, meaning that students need to be on the lookout for recognized degree programs as well as recognized institutions. For more information on this, click here.
“Even if a program is accredited, students should double check that the accreditation is sufficient for the occupation they intend to pursue,” said Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid author and publisher of FastWeb.com and FinAid.org. “Some occupations require that the specific educational program be accredited according to certain standards before a student can sit for a licensing exam. In some cases, the college may be accredited, but not the specific degree program.”
Courses in subjects like law, business, and medicine typically receive additional examination and accreditation to ensure they meet the standards of knowledge and practice held by their individual communities. Depending on what school you’re interested in attending and what you want to study, you might need to verify multiple types of accreditation. For instance, if you’re pursuing a Master of Business Administration, then you need to make sure your business school has been accredited by the body devoted to investigating MBA programs: AACSB International, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The AACSB was founded in 1916 and exists to maintain educational standards for business degree programs, and students interested in careers in business need to make sure their programs make the cut.
Similarly, some fields require graduates to sit for licensing exams before beginning their practice, but those exams are only available to students who’ve earned degrees from accredited programs. These tests are a major part of the health care industry: anyone wanting to apply for the licensure exam for nursing, for example, will be turned down by the local nursing board without an accredited degree.
A Choice for Your Future
Because of this, accreditation isn’t just important in the short-term. Education largely determines career and earnings potential, and anyone who doesn’t perform their due diligence before selecting a school will pay for it in the job search process. “The risks of enrolling in an online school that is not accredited are many,” Bates said. “Your education may suffer, and most likely you will have difficulty securing employment with an unaccredited degree.”
Employers don’t want to hire people with flimsy degrees from disreputable schools or diploma mills. They’d be getting a worker with a bad education, but more than that, they’d be hiring someone who’s demonstrated a willingness to cut corners and an inability to make smart decisions for the future. That’s enough to have an employer send someone packing.
The benefits are limitless. If you want to have a quality learning experience and to be marketable in your job search, you need an accredited degree. It’s worth so much more than the few minutes it takes to research a school and find out if it’s up the standards you deserve. Going to college is a major investment of time, money, and effort. Getting a degree from an accredited program is an important way to ensure that investment pays off.