While a degree or certificate from a properly accredited school can provide an exceptional return-on-investment, credentials from an unaccredited school can be a huge waste of both money and time. That's part of the reason understanding -- and verifying -- accreditation of your chosen school and degree program has become more important than ever.
But, how does accreditation work? And, what steps do institutions go through to secure proper accreditation for their programs? This article aims to explain the important process of accreditation, including the individual steps schools must take to gain proper accreditation for their undergraduate, graduate, certificate and career training programs.
In the United States, accreditation is a voluntary, non-governmental process of review. In other words, schools do not have to become accredited in order to open their doors or offer educational programming. This is an important distinction for students who may assume their school is accredited. The fact that some schools don't have proper accreditation means the burden of verifying accreditation falls squarely on the student's shoulders; if they want to avoid degree programs that have been denied accreditation, it's up to them to discover this crucial detail about the schools they are considering.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the goal of accreditation is "to ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality." This goal is accomplished by accrediting agencies who individually examine schools and programs to ensure a minimum educational standard is being met. Although accrediting agencies vary in size and scope, they share the joint goal of holding all institutions of higher education to the same quality standards year after year.
Steps of the Accreditation Process
As the U.S. Department of Education notes, accreditation is sought out in different ways based on the specific school and program in question. While some schools and programs are accredited regionally, others are offered accreditation by a national accrediting agency. Still, others are accredited by specialized accrediting agencies that focus on specific disciplines or types of educational programs.
The following list discusses each step of the accreditation process:
- Preparation and Self-Examination
The college, university or other institution seeking accreditation status prepares materials that effectively display the institution's accomplishments. The institution often creates a written report of its accomplishments, making sure to highlight specific achievements that help it meet the standards of the accrediting agency.
- Peer Review
Once formal paperwork has been submitted, administrative and faculty peers conduct an intensive review of the prepared materials, the written report and the general workings of the college, university or institution seeking accreditation status.
- Visit and Examination
Once the peer review has been completed, most accreditation organizations also send a team of professionals to visit the college, university or institution seeking accreditation status. This team is often made up of peers and members of the public who volunteer their time to ensure high quality education standards are being met.
- A Decision is Reached
After the previous steps are completed, the accreditation organization calls upon their commission to review the collected information and affirm or deny accreditation status for the college, university or institution under scrutiny.
- Continuous Review
By accepting accreditation status from a recognized accreditation organization, a college, university or other institution agrees to uphold the quality standards set by the accreditation organization. The accredited college, university or institution also agrees to periodically submit to an accreditation renewal review. Because of this set-up, accreditation is often an ongoing process, and schools must continually prove that they are meeting high quality educational standards year after year.
Accreditation in the United States, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg5.html#NationallyRecognized