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What is Accreditation, and Why Does It Matter?

a document and a typewriter with text that says accredited

If you are going to invest in a college education, you want to be sure you are attending an accredited college. Accreditation assures you will receive a quality education and gives employers the confidence that the courses and credits you received were sufficient to prepare you for a career.

Accreditation also assures the public that institutions of higher learning provide a quality education and prepare students academically for the career they are pursuing. Both my children attended accredited colleges, and I stress the importance of this criteria to every student and family I counsel.

What is an accredited college?

 A college requests an accreditation review to evaluate the quality of the higher education institution and its programs. In the United States, accreditation is how students and their families know that an institution or program provides a quality education by passing accreditation and becoming an accredited college.

 Accreditation is important because it provides students with these assurances:

  • Students who need federal and state financial aid can receive funds if the college is accredited.
  • Accredited colleges are eligible for federal grants and loans or other federal funds.
  • State governments make state funds available to accredited colleges and allow students to sit for state licensure examinations from accredited colleges.
  • Employers will only provide tuition assistance to current employees for an accredited college or program.

In the United States, colleges and universities are accredited by one of 19 recognized institutional accrediting organizations. Programs are accredited by one of approximately 60 recognized programmatic accrediting organizations. 

Accrediting organizations that are “recognized” have been reviewed for quality by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE).

Why does accreditation matter?

Accreditation sets and maintains quality standards for the higher education sector. This seal of approval assures the public that an institution or program provides strong educational value.

During an accreditation review, an independent nongovernmental agency conducts a detailed assessment of a school, department, or program. Accrediting bodies consider questions like these:

  • Do the institution’s programs adequately prepare graduates to work in their fields?
  • Do faculty members hold appropriate credentials?
  • Do students have access to robust support resources?
  • Does the school follow transparent and fair recruitment and admission practices?
  • Is the organization fiscally stable? Does it have the financial means and administrative capacity to fulfill its commitments to students?

What are the different types of accreditations?

 Accreditation exists at two levels: institutional and programmatic.

Institutional accreditation applies to an entire college or university, including all its departments and both on-campus and online offerings. Institutional accreditation requires examination of an institution’s programs, faculty credentials, and student outcomes, as well as its administrative infrastructure and financial profile.

Programmatic accreditation applies to a specific department or degree program. Separately from institutional accreditation, individual departments and programs can earn specialized programmatic accreditation. This level of accreditation usually applies to specific parts of an institutionally accredited school. In some fields—such as nursing, counseling, and law—completing an accredited program is necessary or preferred for graduate school acceptance or professional licensure or certification.

What is the difference between regional and national accreditation?

 Accreditation comes in two main forms: regional and national level.

Regional accreditation is split into six geographic regions across the United States. Those include:

  • MSA (Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools)
  • NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges)
  • NCA (North Central Association of Colleges and Schools)
  • NAC (Northwest Accreditation Commission)
  • SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools)
  • WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges)

Each of these regional accreditation organizations is recognized by the USDE and CHEA. Regional accreditation is a highly regarded and recognized type of accreditation. Credits from a regionally accredited school typically transfer to nationally accredited schools, but not vice versa.

National accreditation is most often associated with trade, vocational, and career schools. National accreditation agencies recognized by the USDE and CHEA include:

  • Distance Education & Training Council (DETC)
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS)
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Credits from nationally accredited schools are generally not accepted by regionally accredited ones. 

Also, while credits earned at regionally accredited schools will transfer within their region, they don’t always transfer between different regions. Knowing if you intend to transfer credits between schools is very important.

What are the benefits of having an accredited degree in the job market?

Obtaining an accredited degree is essential if you want to compete in the job market with other graduates from accredited institutions. 

Without accreditation, employers can't know whether your diploma is from a legitimate institution or whether it is from a diploma mill—a company that offers degrees in exchange for money and little academic work. 

A bogus degree from a diploma mill is not likely to impress prospective employers and could be a complete waste of money. Today, many employers are requiring degrees from legitimately accredited institutions. 

How do you know if you are attending an unaccredited institution?

 Many unaccredited institutions are the equivalent of diploma mills, providing nothing of actual value to their students. Similarly, some "accrediting agencies" are also mills, set up simply to give an aura of legitimacy to the institutions that they falsely accredit. 

Students should always check the U.S. Department of Education database of recognized accrediting bodies and institutions.

 Some red flags that an institution might be unaccredited are:

  • Students are not eligible for federal financial aid.
  • There is evidence of numerous student complaints about educational quality.
  • Credits are awarded for very little work.
  • The "accrediting agency" for the institution is not listed as a recognized agency by the Department of Education
  • The institution has a name that is very similar to a well-known college or university.

Checking a college’s accreditation is a critical part of your college decision.

Who decides which colleges receive accreditation?

Accreditation is a voluntary evaluation process that institutions of higher education undergo to maintain standards of educational quality agreed upon by members of an accrediting body. 

Accreditation assessments may include self-study on the part of the institution as well as evaluations by representatives of peer institutions who belong to the same accrediting agency.

There are numerous accrediting agencies in the United States. The most widely recognized accrediting agencies for colleges and universities are:

  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
  • North Central Association (NCA)

These accreditation associations go out and assess colleges for quality and legitimacy. Each college or university must do this at least once every five years.

Questions about accreditation?

If you are uncertain about the accreditation status of a college or university, you should ask the institution for its accrediting body's address and phone number.

Or, for more information on accreditation, visit the website of the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Finding an accredited college

As we've explored in this article, the significance of college accreditation cannot be overstated. It's a hallmark of educational quality and a critical factor in ensuring that your degree holds value in the real world. However, understanding accreditation is just one piece of the puzzle in your college selection journey.

Now that you're equipped with the knowledge of what to look for in an accredited institution, the next step is finding a college that not only meets these standards but also aligns perfectly with your personal and academic aspirations.

This is where our free college match quiz comes into play. It's quick and easy to use and takes the guesswork out of the college search process. Simply click the button below to get started. 

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