How Accreditation Works and Why It Matters

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When an online college looks like a great fit and you're ready to apply, stop to check that the school is accredited. The U.S. government doesn't accredit colleges, but it does provide a list of recognized and reliable accrediting associations. The government provides this information to protect you. Accreditation maintains quality in higher education, ensuring that you learn the skills you need to land a good job.

Accreditation agencies develop standards for institutions and then ensure that institutions meet those standards. Accreditation can be difficult for schools to maintain, and dozens of phony accreditation agencies have sprung up to meet the needs of low-quality schools.

Checking for accreditation at online colleges can be challenging. You can usually assume that the big state school funded by taxpayer dollars is accredited. But what about that small start-up school? Take a little time to learn about accreditation now, and you could save yourself from huge expenses in the future.

You can use the U.S. Department of Education website to check that a school is accredited. The government also keeps a list of accredited programs, institutions, and residencies. Gather accreditation information from government resources rather than the school itself. Schools do occasionally mislead students, as shown in this Cleveland Plain Dealer article about nursing students whose school took years to reveal its accreditation problems.

Do not be fooled by accreditation agencies with similar-sounding names. Your school should be accredited by a group whose name exactly matches what is on the list. There are some warning signs that a school is merely a diploma mill that wants your money in exchange for a worthless degree. If a school promises that it has no tests, or that you can get a degree in a few weeks or months, be suspicious. Likewise, beware of schools that charge a flat fee for your degree. Reputable schools usually charge by credit hour or semester.

If you are still uncertain, you can contact the attorney general in the state where the school is located to make sure that it is legitimate and accredited.

The government uses accreditation to determine whether a school is worth the tuition price. Federal financial aid, including aid for members of the military, is available only for students at schools that have been accredited by a recognized agency. The same goes for most state financial aid.

If you need to transfer schools, credits from an unaccredited school may not be accepted. Accreditation does not guarantee that transfer credits will be accepted at another school but does make it more likely.

The inability to transfer credits is a problem that both states and the national government have been trying to fix, according to an NBC News story. It now takes an average of 3.8 years for full-time students to earn an associate's degree and 4.7 years for students to earn a bachelor's degree, in large part because of credits that don't transfer. But change is coming. The state of Florida now guarantees that credits earned at Florida community colleges will transfer to four-year state universities, and other states are considering similar policies.

If you plan to transfer schools, consider which schools you might transfer to, and check with them about credits.

Employers usually prefer that students have a degree from an accredited institution, especially when they are earning an online degree, which some employers view with skepticism. The difficulty in finding a job with a questionable degree is shown by the high loan-default rate of students at for-profit schools. For-profit schools enroll 11 percent of students but make up 44 percent of student-loan defaults, according to an L.A. Times article. Some students at these schools say that they cannot find a job with their degree or that they can only find a low-paying job. Some of these schools are accredited, so graduation and job-placement rates are valuable to know as well.

Is all accreditation the same?

There are two types of accreditation. Institutional accreditation recognizes that all parts of an institution are accredited. Specialized, or programmatic, accreditation is an evaluation of certain programs, schools, or departments at an institution.

Institutional accreditation agencies fall into two categories: regional and national. Regional associations accredit degree-granting colleges and universities. National associations usually accredit schools that provide trade and technical training. Colleges and employers often consider regional accreditation more rigorous. Thus, colleges are more likely to accept transfer credits from regionally accredited schools. Also, employers might prefer a degree from a regionally accredited school, particularly when a degree has been earned online.

The U.S. Secretary of Education does recognize some state agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational education and nursing education.

The U.S. Department of Education provides a list of associations that offer specialized accrediting for the following types of programs:

  • arts and humanities
  • community and social services
  • education
  • health care
  • legal
  • personal care and services

This specialized accreditation may be in addition to the school's institutional accreditation. It helps ensure that educational programs will prepare students for licensure or certification in fields where it is required. For example, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing uses accreditation to create common standards for nurses, promote peer review, and promote educational access and equity. Similarly, the American Bar Association has a special council to accredit freestanding law schools, including those online. Check your field of interest to see whether your school should have extra accreditation.

Check accreditation, and then dig deeper

Checking a school's accreditation should be a first step in your research. You can also learn about a school's quality from students who are currently enrolled and employers you might want to work for. Check graduation and job-placement rates, too. Then you can begin your education knowing that you are getting what you are paying for.