Accreditation is a term used to describe the process that institutions of higher education undergo to confirm they meet the strictest educational standards. Accreditation is earned through accrediting bodies, which are private, nongovernmental organizations that have been created specifically to review higher education institutions and programs. These accreditors are reviewed for quality by entities such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE), and they are held to extremely high quality standards of their own.
Accrediting agencies use a multi-pronged approach when it comes to vetting schools and programs to ensure quality standards are being met. First, schools must apply for accreditation and submit a packet of material outlining their processes and achievements. After that, several panels of experts visit the school to see various school features, standards and processes for themselves.
The purpose of accreditation is to create a set of standards for all institutions of higher education to be held to, while also encouraging schools to be the best they can be. Further, accreditation aims to ensure accountability of schools and degree programs in order to boost public trust and confidence. When an institution or degree program is properly accredited, students are able to gauge its overall quality without conducting a detailed analysis on their own.
Benefits of Accreditation
Accreditation is a tool that society uses to monitor, assess and evaluate the standards and quality of the education a student receives at a college, university or other institution of higher learning. Here are some of the main benefits enrolled students receive by attending an accredited school.
Accredited schools offer some of the highest quality education available.
When a school is accredited, students and employers are able to trust the quality of the education received. That's why accreditation is one of the biggest factors any student should consider when choosing a school or degree program. When a school is properly accredited, students can rest assured that the proper vetting has already taken place.
Accreditation makes it easier for students to determine the value of any college credits they plan to transfer.
While it's easy to assume that all college credits from any school will transfer, that couldn't be further from the truth. Some universities will only accept academic credits and degrees from institutions that have regional or national accreditation. Whether a student plans to transfer schools or not, this is a crucial detail to consider. By choosing a school that is not accredited, a student could end up with college credits that are virtually useless.
Attending an accredited school is the only way students can qualify for federal grants or loans.
The federal government believes so much in the accreditation process that they don't extend federal loans or grants to students attending unaccredited schools. To qualify for as much student aid and government protection as possible, students should choose from schools that are accredited and apply for any federal and state aid that may be available.
Employers value degrees from accredited schools the most.
When an employer takes a hard look at a resume, they want to know any degree earned was held to the highest standards possible. While choosing an accredited school shows employers that a high quality education was received, earning a degree from an unaccredited school is one way to blow an interview before you even walk in the door.
A degree from an accredited school or program enables graduates to sit for certification examinations.
While not all careers require workers to become certified, some do. Many careers, especially those in health care, won't allow students to sit for their certification examination unless they earned a degree from an accredited school. This depends a lot on the industry and the state one lives in, but it's worth checking out before a degree program is chosen. By attending only accredited schools, students can avoid a tricky situation where certification for their desired position becomes impossible.
Accreditation pushes schools to continually improve.
Although accreditation is a comprehensive process, it is not a one-shot deal. Most accrediting agencies require schools to continually apply and improve their standards to keep their accredited status. While it can be a pain, the ongoing accreditation process ensures that schools don't become complacent and let their standards slip. To stay accredited, schools need to always be at their best and keep their standards high over time.
The Difference Between Good and Bad Accreditation
While choosing an accredited school is the best way for students to get the most out of their education, there is one more layer of quality to sort through. Sadly, dishonest institutions and fake accrediting agencies exist to defraud students of their money and lead them to believe they're getting something they're not.
Students should learn how to recognize and avoid these shady institutions, commonly called "diploma mills" and "accreditation mills." Not only can they be harmful to a student's educational journey, but they can make it difficult for a student to reach his or her career goals. These organizations work hard to hide that they aren't affiliated with the traditional accrediting policies we know and respect. Fortunately, spotting bad accrediting agencies and schools is easy if you know what to look for.
First off, the U.S. Department of Education lists the accrediting agencies it certifies right on its website. By visiting the site, you can browse regional and national institutional accrediting agencies, specialized accrediting agencies, and accrediting agencies recognized for Title IV purposes.
The U.S. Department of Education also shares that "the regional and national accrediting agencies linked to … are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit." Students seeking a degree from an accredited institution should only consider schools that are accredited by one of the agencies listed on the Department of Education website. If a school claims to have national accreditation or regional accreditation from somewhere else, one can safely assume that the accredited status is unrecognized, and thus not worth considering.
Like false accrediting agencies, diploma mills also abound. These institutions may look and seem like any other college or university, but they conduct shady practices that deem them unworthy in the eye of real accrediting agencies. For example, some diploma mills make degrees and diplomas available for purchase while others offer degrees that can be earned in an extremely short amount of time. Others claim they are accredited but are not accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Still, others offer degrees at a suspiciously low cost or make wild claims that aren't based in fact.
Fortunately, spotting a diploma mill is easy. If a school exhibits any of these qualities or isn't accredited by an accrediting agency listed on the U.S. Department of Education website, it is not genuine. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. To avoid getting scammed and stuck with a degree from an unaccredited school, all students need to research their chosen institution to ensure that their accreditation is real and backed by the U.S. government.
Accreditation: Universities and Higher Education, U.S. Department of Education, http://www.ed.gov/accreditation
The Importance of Accreditation, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=4320
Transfer of Credit, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=2084