Tips to Help You Understand and Evaluate School Accreditation.
School accreditation is a topic that confuses many students, especially when you consider the various types of accreditation possible and the long list of accrediting agencies. It’s important, however, to fully understand what accreditation is, why it matters and learn how to evaluate an institution’s accreditation status.
Today we’re going to explore this subject in detail so that you have the information you need to find the right school for you.
What Is College Accreditation?
Accreditation allows students to weigh the quality of education being offered. Without it, students couldn’t be sure that they are receiving an education that is reputable and recognized. For this reason, it’s crucial to know if a school is accredited and what type of accreditation it maintains before you enroll.
The U.S. Department of Education offers the following definition of accreditation:
“Accreditation is the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” (Source: U.S. Department of Education)
It’s important to know that the U.S. Department of Education does not directly accredit educational institutions. What it does, however, is recognize and approve accrediting organizations through the Secretary of Education. It also maintains a database of accredited universities and approved accrediting bodies, making it easier for students to investigate an institution’s credentials. You can put the name of a school you’re considering into this search and view its status.
Here are a few things to remember about accreditation:
- Accreditation is an ongoing process, so an institution must be periodically reviewed to keep its accredited status.
- Accreditation can affect an institution’s ability to accept Federal funds including student loans, financial aid and military tuition assistance.
- Accreditation can apply to an institution as a whole or to individual programs, departments or schools within the larger institution.
Different Types of Accreditation
There are three types of accreditation you should know about: Regional, national and programmatic. Regional and national accreditation both refer to a status given to an entire institution. Programmatic or specialized accreditation is a status given to a specific program, department or school within a larger educational body.
It is important that an accrediting body be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. This impacts the weight of the accreditation as well as the institution’s ability to accept Federal financial aid and the transferability of credits. You can view a complete list of all regional, national and specialized/programmatic accrediting agencies here.
It is possible for a university to have regional accreditation along with several different programmatic accreditations based on the type of programs it offers. Here are more details about each type of accreditation.
Regional accrediting organizations operate within certain pre-defined geographic areas. For instance, the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific, as well as a limited number of institutions outside the United States. (Source: WSCUC)
The term “accredited” typically refers to regional accreditation. This is largely because regional accreditation has been around the longest and is the most common type of accreditation. In fact, regional accreditation stretches back into the late 1800s and is often considered the gold standard for educational institutions. For instance, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is a regional accrediting body that was founded in 1895. It includes the Commissions on Colleges which was added in 1912. (SACS COCTM)
National accrediting agencies aren’t limited to any specific region, but operate across the United States. Most national accrediting organizations are also considered ‘”single focused” which means they have a specific area of concentration such as technology or business. For this reason, many nationally accredited institutions are vocational, technical, career or faith based.
Both the U.S. Department of Education and a private organization called the Council for Higher Education (CHEA) can officially recognize an organization’s ability to grant national accreditation. Currently there are ten agencies that are recognized as being able to grant national accreditation to an institution of higher learning. This includes organizations such as the Council on Occupational Education, Distance Education Accrediting Commission and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
Programmatic accreditation, sometimes referred to as specialized accreditation, is limited to a certain program, department or school within an institution. For this reason, many programmatic accrediting agencies are specific to a particular field such as nursing, education, dentistry or marriage and family therapy.
Keep in mind that it is possible for a university to have regional or national accreditation along with several different programmatic accreditations based on the type of programs they offer. What you won’t see, however, is an institution that holds both regional and national accreditation.
Comparing Regional, National and Programmatic Accreditation
Going to an accredited institution helps to ensure the quality of your education. It also impacts your access to Federal financial aid, including student loans, Pell grants and your ability to use military tuition assistance. In terms of validity, however, both regional and national accreditation are an acceptable method of ensuring that an institution meets recognized quality standards.
If you’re a degree seeker, however, you may benefit more from a regionally accredited institution. This is because, according to CHEA, 98% of all regionally accredited schools are degree granting. On the other hand, only 34.8% of nationally accredited schools grant degrees. (Source: CHEA) This is an important distinction if you’re hoping to earn a degree that’s recognized by other institutions and employers.
The type of accreditation an institution maintains has broader implications for students wishing to transfer their credits. While the acceptance of credits varies by institution, it’s not as common for regionally accredited schools to accept credits from nationally accredited institutions. When you consider the fact that more schools hold regional accreditation, and that most degrees come from regionally accredited institutions, this becomes an even more important consideration.
Programmatic accreditation can’t be directly compared to regional or national accreditation because it applies only to a program, department or a school within a larger postsecondary institution. You’ll most often see this type of accreditation attached to a specialized area of learning, such as business, law or healthcare. This is the type of accreditation you’ll want to look for should you be seeking vocational or faith-based education.
The U.S. Department of Education has a database of all accredited institutions and programs, making it easy for students to verify the status of any school. Simply put the name of the institution into this search engine to determine their status.
The Final Word
Accreditation is an important distinction to make before committing to any university, college or program. Not only does it impact the quality of your education, but your access to financial aid, your ability to transfer credits and earn a degree. Fortunately, it is very easy to determine the accreditation status of any institution or program, along with the accrediting body’s own status, through the U.S. Department of Education. Taking this extra step before you enroll can help ensure that you end up with a high quality education and a degree you can be proud of!
ResourcesCheck the accreditation status of a university, college or program.
Check the status of an accrediting agency.
View the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation FAQs.
Visit the U.S. Department of Education’s homepage.