How Accreditation Works and Why It Matters

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A school's accreditation status often serves as one of the most important decision-making factors for students selecting a college to attend, and rightfully so. When a school holds accreditation, it means an outside agency vetted its academic programs for quality, rigorousness, and adherence to certain educational standards. Accreditation agencies create set criteria for accreditation, and the Department of Education trusts these outside agencies as authorities in determining whether colleges and universities meet that criteria. The federal government sets its own criteria for accreditors to gain approval, but the government does not actually accredit any individual institutions.

Because it lacks a central agency to govern postsecondary institutions, the U.S. government relies on these accreditors to ensure that institutions meet academic and quality standards. Without this kind of assurance, the quality in education from school to school could vary dramatically, and students would not know if the education they received met any kind of academic standards.

Students need to actively seek out accredited schools for a variety of reasons. Ineligibility for federal aid, inability to transfer earned credit, and a potentially detrimental impact on career prospects serve as just a few reasons to avoid unaccredited institutions. Keep reading to learn more about the importance of accreditation and how attending an unaccredited school could impact your education and career prospects.

While researching online colleges, prospective students should keep accreditation as a top priority. The federal government looks to accreditation to determine whether the education offered at an institution merits the tuition costs. In order for any student to receive and use federal aid, they must enroll in an accredited institution. This also applies to students who plan to use federal aid for members of the military. Many states also offer their own forms of aid, and these programs also require students to enroll in accredited programs to qualify.

Credits from an unaccredited school likely won't transfer to another institution. For example, if you earn a two-year degree at an unaccredited school and transfer to an accredited four-year school to earn a bachelor's, you may have to start over completely if the four-year school rejects the credits previously earned. Accreditation may not actually guarantee that other institutions accept transfer credits, but it certainly improves the chances of acceptance.

A degree from an unaccredited school may also hinder career prospects. Employers usually prefer that students hold a degree from an accredited institution, and some career fields like social work and nursing require an accredited degree in order to sit for licensure examinations. Keep in mind that if you plan to use a corporate tuition reimbursement option through your employer, the employer may not reimburse tuition for an institution that lacks regional accreditation.

While looking into a school's accreditation status, consider what type of accreditation the school holds. Schools can hold two different types of accreditation: regional or national. Typically considered the "gold standard" of accreditation, regional accreditation dates back further, and 85% of schools hold regional accreditation. It serves as the most common form of accreditation, and also the more prestigious, as it dictates stricter academic standards. Regional accreditation agencies oversee schools based on geographic location, with each agency covering certain groups of states.

These six regional accreditation agencies include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the Higher Learning Commission, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission. Nonprofit and state-owned institutions tend to hold regional accreditation, while for-profit schools often have national accreditation.

National accreditation accounts for 15% of accredited schools. Primarily for-profit, trade, and vocational schools constitute nationally accredited institutions. Agencies for national accreditation establish criteria for accreditation through comparison against other similar institutions with the same accreditation status, and these agencies do not cover schools based on geographic location.

Credits earned at nationally accredited institutions generally transfer only to other schools with national accreditation. These schools often have more generous admissions standards and may cost less than regionally accredited institutions. Since these schools do not receive any federal funding, they make money through tuition costs and may also have corporate shareholders.

  • Red – Higher Learning Commission
  • Blue – Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Yellow – New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Orange – Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Green – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Light Blue – Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC, SCUC)

Types of Accreditation

Programmatic and institutional accreditation serve different purposes in quality assurance. Institutional accreditation, the kind provided by regional or national accreditation agencies, covers whole institutions, considering all the various available programs and majors as contributing to the school's overall quality. Schools can also have different forms of programmatic accreditation, which covers specific major fields and programs within the overall school.

Occasionally, programmatic accreditation may function in the capacity of institutional accreditation, particularly when it comes to professional or vocational schools. For example, a master's program in nursing offered by a teaching hospital may possess only programmatic accreditation as the program exists outside of a traditional higher learning institution.

Programmatic or specialized accreditation can apply to programs, departments, and individual schools or colleges within a university or institution. This form of accreditation provides further assurance that certain programs adequately prepare students for licensure or certification requirements. For example, in order to sit for social work licensure exams through the Association of Social Work Boards, students must complete a social work program with programmatic accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. For many fields that do not require licensure, a lack of programmatic accreditation is not uncommon.

Accredited online colleges gain accreditation through a process laid out by the particular agency. Schools voluntarily submit to this process through the accreditation agencies. Generally, an institution applies for accreditation after spending some time reviewing the agency's standards and preparing for an audit. The accrediting agency then formally reviews the school's curriculum, assesses whether it meets their set standards, and, if those standards are met, awards the institution accreditation. For example, as a regional accreditor the New England Commission of Higher Education considers a school's mission and purpose, academic programs, and institutional resources when performing an accreditation review.

Accrediting bodies generally provide the standards and allow the institution to perform self-evaluations of their performance. The accreditors then perform an on-site, formal evaluation of the school and make a decision regarding its accreditation status. Accreditors continue to monitor regionally accredited online universities and campus institutions during a set period of accreditation. When that period ends, schools get re-evaluated to renew their accreditation. This process ensures schools continue to adhere to high academic standards after initially earning accreditation.

Earning and maintaining processes for accreditation may vary slightly between agencies; however, accreditors themselves must go through similar processes in order to earn recognition from the U.S. Department of Education.

How Do I Find out Whether a School Is Accredited?

While looking for accredited online universities, students may wonder how to make sure the schools they find have accreditation. Fortunately, a variety of resources exist to find accredited online colleges and on-campus programs.

The quickest way to find a specific school's accreditation status is through the school's website. Students can always verify accreditation status through the U.S. Department of Education (ED) database. Although accrediting bodies function as private organizations, the ED approves and recognizes these agencies as accreditors in order to determine the eligibility of accredited schools to receive federal funds. The government also recognizes some state agencies for the approval of postsecondary vocational and nursing education. Students can access an up-to-date list of approved accrediting agencies through the Department of Education.

In addition to resources from the ED, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation also provides a list of recognized accrediting agencies. Students should use these tools to avoid enrolling in a degree mill or an unaccredited institution that misleads students about their accreditation status and awards degrees that other institutions and employers do not recognize as valid.

Online School Accreditation

Although online programs generally match their on-campus counterparts in academic rigor, not all online institutions hold accreditation. Just like brick-and-mortar colleges, online schools need accreditation to ensure distance learners receive the same quality education as they would in a traditional program. Students researching accredited online colleges should always ensure their specific school or program holds accreditation. Should students at an online college decide to transfer, accreditation assures their earned credits easily transfer to the new institution.

Accreditation ensures that schools or programs uphold certain standards, but it may not always ensure total quality. For that reason, students should always consider accreditation status a top priority when researching schools but also consider a variety of other factors in their search. Consider things like graduation and retention rates, job placement rates, and exam pass rates and speak to current students about their experience. These things can further indicate a school's overall quality and performance and help students make an informed decision about which accredited online college to attend.