What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a quality assurance process that colleges, universities and education institutions or programs undergo to confirm that they meet a strict and recognized set of service and operational standards.
Accreditation is assessed by private, nongovernmental accrediting agencies that have been created specifically to review education institutions and programs. These external college accreditation agencies are reviewed and recognized by entities such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) along with the United States Department of Education (USDE), which hold quality standards of their own.
In the United States accreditation is voluntary. Colleges do not need accreditation in order to open their doors or offer educational programs. This is an important distinction you need to make if seeking a college. If you want to avoid degree programs that have been denied or have opted out of accreditation, it's up to you to research these facts.
What Is The Importance of Accreditation?
The importance of accreditation is that it creates a set of quality standards for all education institutions or programs, provides access to federal and state funding, maintains private sector confidence, and makes transferring credits easier. Furthermore, accreditation aims to ensure accountability of schools and degree programs which boosts public trust and confidence. When an institution or degree program is properly accredited, you are able to gauge its overall quality without having to conduct a detailed analysis on your own.
Types of Accreditation
For different educational institutions or programs there are specific types of accreditation. Some of the kinds of higher education institutions that can be accredited include:
- Public universities
- Private universities
- For-profit universities
- Nonprofit universities
- Single-purpose institutions
- Private career training institutions
- Faith-based universities
- Distance learning universities
- Law schools
- Medical schools
- Heath professions education programs
There are three general types of accreditation organizations or agencies that are used for quality review, assessment and assurance of education institutions. Detailed below are these types of accreditation organizations.
Regional Accreditation Organizations
As the title would suggest, these college accrediting organizations evaluate postsecondary institutions located in specific regions of the United States. When a regional accrediting agency grants accreditation to an educational institution, it applies to the institution as a whole; however, it does not guarantee the quality of individual programs a college, university, or educational institution might offer. If there is a particular program in a regionally accredited college that you are interested in, it's important to do a little more research to ensure that it'll benefit you.
These are the most common regional accreditors:
- Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA), Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Technical and Career Institutions (NEASC-CTCI)
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (WASC-ACCJC)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC-ACSCU)
Regional accrediting organizations were started by groups of traditional universities and colleges in particular regions of the United States; they now accredit a majority of public and nonprofit higher education institutions in the country.
National Accreditation Organizations
Operating on a nationwide scope, these organizations, like regional ones, accredit entire institutions as well. National accrediting organizations differ from regional in that they benefit institutions that were not originally founded as colleges or universities. Instead, the two types of national accrediting organizations are either faith-based or career-focused.
Faith-based or doctrinally based accreditors make up a small portion of national organizations. The majority are private career accreditors which benefit a larger percentage of institutions like single-purpose institutions.
Specialized/Professional Accrediting Organizations
Specialized, professional or programmatic accreditation focuses on particular aspects of a department, program, school or college's academic field of study such as engineering, nursing, law or education, among others. Specialized, professional or programmatic accreditation organizations operate across the United States, reviewing programs and single-purpose institutions.
Some professions that are regulated by and dependent upon a state or national licensing board may require you to have graduated from specific academic programs that have specialized, professional or programmatic accreditation status.
If you are considering enrollment in a college degree program, it is important to make sure you know the requirements of your target career field and what it takes to become a licensed practitioner in that field. You'd benefit from looking for programs that have achieved specialized, professional or programmatic accreditation status in order to confirm eligibility for professional licensure in states that require it.
How Do I Know If a College Has Accreditation?
If you are experiencing difficulty verifying the accreditation of a college, university, or educational institution, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education created a database which allows you to search for a specific college and/or program, or list of college accreditation statuses.
Established in 2017, this searchable database is designed to incentivize colleges, universities, and educational institutions or programs to comply with the quality standards set out by accreditation organizations. This benefits the quality of the educational system as a whole.
While the government doesn't accredit educational institutions or programs, it has been mandated to publish a list of accreditation statuses.
The Accreditation Process
A college, university, or education institution must take several steps to gain accreditation. Knowing how colleges earn their accreditation can help you understand why verifying accreditation can be an important factor in choosing a school.
Steps of the College Accreditation Process
- Peer Review
Once formal paperwork has been submitted to the accrediting agency, 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
After 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 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.
Commonly Asked Questions about College Accreditation
You may have questions related to college accreditation and how it can affect you as a student. Here are answers to some important questions.
What are the benefits of accreditation?
The benefits of accreditation are that accreditation agencies monitor, assess and evaluate the standards and quality of the education that you receive at a college, university or education institution or program. When a college, university and education institution or program receives accreditation, you can feel secure in knowing that you could attend a school that meets recognized standards, offers government and state financial aid, and enables transferrable credits.
How do types of accreditation affect the transfer of credits?
Accreditation makes it easier for you and prospective colleges to determine the value of credits if you plan to transfer schools. Some universities only accept academic credits and degrees from institutions that have certain types of accreditation.
Whether you plan to transfer schools or not, this is an detail to consider in evaluating the importance of accreditation. You should research the accreditation status of a college or program in preparation of applying or accepting admittance to a school, in case you might wish to pursue transferring down the line.
How does college accreditation impact financial aid opportunities?
The United States Department of Education (USDE) ensures that federal student financial aid funds are only awarded to students who attend universities, colleges, and education institutions that meet recognized standards. This is one of the main benefits of accreditation. If you want or need federal (and sometimes state) loans or grants, you should confirm that you're enrolled at a college or university that has accreditation.
What if I am interested in a university that does not have college accreditation? What is the importance of accreditation?
If a college, university or program you are interested in does not have recognized accreditation, you should do as much research as you can about the institution. A program or institution's lack of accreditation might mean that it is a new program or institution and has not yet met the minimum requirements to be considered for accreditation. You should make sure before enrolling in an unaccredited program or institution that the program or institution can be measured for effectiveness or quality in some way other than through the standard accreditation process.
Do I need a degree from an accredited college to sit for a certification examination or earn a license to practice my field of study?
While not all careers require workers to become certified, some do. Many careers, especially those in healthcare, cannot allow you to sit for your certification examination unless you have earned a degree from an accredited school. This depends a lot on the industry and the state you live in, but it's worth checking out before a degree program is chosen.
Beware of Fake College Accreditation: Diploma Mills and Accreditation Mills
You should also know how to recognize and avoid "Diploma Mills" and "Accreditation Mills," which can be harmful to your educational journey and make it difficult for you to reach your career goals. 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.
These organizations work hard to hide that they aren't affiliated with the verified accrediting agencies. Fortunately, spotting bad accrediting agencies and schools is easy if you know what to look for.
How do you know if a college is genuinely accredited?
First off, the U.S. Department of Education lists the accrediting agencies it certifies 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.
If you're seeking a degree program from an accredited institution you should only consider schools that are accredited by one of the agencies listed on the U.S. Department of Education website. If a school claims to have national accreditation or regional accreditation from somewhere else, the accreditation status might be unrecognized, and thus not worth considering.
What constitutes a diploma mill?
Like false accrediting agencies, there are also many diploma mills. These institutions may look and seem like any other college or university, but they conduct practices that deem them unworthy in the eye of verifiable accrediting agencies and the U.S. Department of Education.
Diploma mills frequently:
- Make degrees, diplomas and certificates available for purchase
- Claim accreditation but show no proof of having been accredited by a genuine accreditation organization
- Make degrees, diplomas and certificates available in an extremely short period of time
- Make degrees, diplomas and certificates available through resume review only
- Offer education, degrees, diploma and certificates at a suspiciously low cost
- Offer no information about location or faculty
- Make claims and assert facts and statistics for which there is no proof
International Accreditation and Related Education Links
Accreditation in countries other than the United States is normally handled by ministries of education or other government entities. CHEA maintains an international database with detailed information: CHEA International Database
- Accreditation in the United States, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 2019, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg5.html#NationallyRecognized
- Accreditation: Universities and Higher Education, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 2019, http://www.ed.gov/accreditation
- The Importance of Accreditation, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, accessed November 2019, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=4320
- Transfer of Credit, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, accessed November 2019, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=2084