You might be wondering, is accreditation really all that important? In short, yes. Here’s why.
When a college or university is accredited, it means that an accrediting body designated by the U.S. Department of Education has put its stamp of approval on the school. The accreditation system is a peer-reviewed, rigorous process that ensures consistency and quality among schools. Attending an accredited college or program signals to licensing and certification organizations, other schools, and future employers that you’ve received a quality education that has prepared you for a career in your chosen field.
Accreditation is also crucial if you are planning on seeking federal financial aid, scholarships, or grants to finance your education. Federal financial aid is only available to students who attend properly accredited schools, with most scholarship-granting bodies following suit.
How can you find out if your chosen school is accredited? And, how do you know if it holds the right accreditation? Keep reading to learn more about what’s included in the accreditation process and how to tell if a school has the proper accreditations.
Who Determines College Accreditation?
A reputable school will be either regionally or nationally accredited. An accreditation agency conducts the accreditation process that the U.S. Department of Education oversees.
The list of accrediting bodies below can help you understand which accreditations you should look for as you choose the right school for you. If you’re still unsure, you can also visit the U.S. Department of Education website and use their accreditation verification tool to confirm if and how a school is accredited.
If you’re considering a degree in a specific career path, some nationally accredited options may be a good fit. Generally, national accreditation agencies review programs of a particular type, such as teaching or nursing. Schools accredited by these groups will be consistent in quality across their specific field. Nationally accredited schools tend to be highly focused on a single subject area, but you may experience roadblocks if you are hoping to transfer to a regionally accredited school in the future. Additionally, while some employers will not offer tuition reimbursement for these schools, students are eligible for federal financial aid. These are some of the national accrediting bodies to look for.
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
Council on Occupational Education (COE)
Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission (TRACS)
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCS)
Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
For regional accreditation, the U.S. and some U.S. territories and adjacent countries are organized into six regions, each with its own accrediting body. Regional accreditation is widely considered to be the most credible designation. Because of this, credits earned at one regionally accredited institution should transfer easily to others, and your tuition should also be eligible for all employer tuition reimbursement programs. The below list are the regional accrediting bodies to look for.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
NY, NJ, PA, DE, MD, Washington D.C.
New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
AK, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, WA
Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
AR, AZ, CO, IO, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, OK, NM, SD, WI, WV, WY
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, AL, TN, TX, VA
U.S. students in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
The Hawaiian territories of Guam, American Samoa, Northern Marianas Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, the Pacific Rim, East Asia, and parts of the Pacific and East Asia
There are also organizations that offer accreditation for specific programs within a school. These programmatic accreditations are given in addition to regional and national accreditation. For example, if you’re pursuing a degree in computer science, you may want to seek out schools offering programs accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission. Program-level accreditation focuses on the precise skills you need and want to develop to pursue a program-specific career.
By attending an accredited program, if one is offered for your field, you’re helping ensure that the curriculum you’re working with is comprehensive and up to date. This second level of accreditation offers an additional assurance of quality within your degree program.
As you evaluate programs, take a minute to look up the accrediting body for your specific major or career track, but note that not all programs have or need accreditation. You can use this additional information and the databases on the accrediting sites to seek out qualified programs and compare your options.
How College Accreditation Impacts College Students
Selecting an accredited college is crucial to your success. If you pick a nonaccredited program, you may find yourself with a degree no employer will accept along with a huge tuition bill. On the other hand, taking care to enroll in a properly accredited institution will put you on the path to success by ensuring you’re attending a school that has agreed to adhere to rigorous academic standards. You’ll graduate with a legitimate degree, and you can feel confident that you possess the skills and knowledge you’ll need to advance your career. Here are some of the ways that college accreditation can impact your education:
Financial Aid Qualifications
Access to financial aid and scholarships can go a long way toward lowering the cost of your education. In most cases, federal financial aid, scholarship programs, and employer reimbursement for education are only available to students who attend accredited schools. This rule was created to combat unqualified schools, sometimes called diploma mills, from receiving federal student aid funds and then closing their doors. It also weeds out schools that offer a subpar education that doesn’t prepare students for the workforce.
Future Job Prospects
You’re probably looking to get your degree to improve your career options. It’s vital that prospective employers recognize the value of your degree. Employers will check out applicants’ schools when evaluating job candidates, and many are not interested in hiring applicants who have attended non accredited programs. Employers want to hire people with a solid background in the field and the skills required to excel in the position. This becomes even more crucial if you’re seeking a degree and employment in a specialized field, such as nursing. If you don’t attend an accredited program, you won’t be eligible to sit for your professional exams. If you can’t sit for a professional exam, such as the NCLEX for nursing, you can’t become licensed in your field, and therefore you won’t be hired.
Eligibility for Employer Tuition Reimbursement
Almost 50% of employers offer tuition reimbursement to their employees, including big corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. These programs provide opportunities for employees to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to earn promotions or further their careers at new jobs. Generally, tuition reimbursement programs only apply to accredited schools, much for the same reasons why federal financial aid is only available to student in these same programs. In the case of employer tuition reimbursement, attending a regionally accredited school may be your best bet. Depending on your employer, some nationally accredited programs might also be supported, especially if the program is specific to your field. Before enrolling, check with your company to ensure your chosen school is eligible.
Graduate School Admissions
Are you planning on seeking an advanced degree? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the accreditation of your undergraduate program can have a huge impact on your options. Since you’ll want to attend an accredited graduate program, you’ll need an accredited undergraduate degree to be accepted into your master’s or doctoral program. Most, if not all, graduate programs will not accept students with an unaccredited degree. For example, if you want to attend an RN to BSN program at an accredited school, you must have earned your associate nursing degree from an accredited program.
You might not imagine yourself transferring schools, but you might be surprised to read that 2.1 million students transferred schools in the 2020-2021 school year. There are several reasons why you could end up wanting to transfer schools. Maybe you’ll want to transfer to a more prestigious program before graduation, or you could be trying to build off of your associate degree to earn a BS or BA. Even if you are totally committed to completing your program at a single institution, life happens. If you do need to transfer credits between schools, it is vital that your new school will accept your previous work.
It should be relatively easy to transfer credits between regionally accredited schools. Similarly, most nationally accredited programs will accept courses from regionally accredited programs. However, keep in mind that not all regionally accredited schools will take nationally accredited coursework. In addition, accredited schools of any kind will not accept credits from a nonaccredited program.
In many fields, like teaching and nursing, continuing education classes are required to maintain your professional license. Even if continuing education isn’t necessary for your field, pursuing additional certifications may benefit your career. If you’re going to spend the time and effort to continue your education, make those hours count. Certifications and degrees from non accredited schools won’t count for much when it comes to looking for a job. And, if you do need to maintain a professional license, courses from non accredited programs won’t be approved by your licensing board.
Is Accreditation Important for Online Colleges?
Online programs have come a long way and are widely accepted and respected. These days, an online program can offer you more specialization options and flexibility while pursuing your degree. The same accreditation system that applies to on-campus schools and programs also ensures that your online program offers the same quality of education as an in-person degree.
So yes, accreditation is just as important for online schools as it is traditional universities. Just because a school is online doesn’t mean that its standards should be any different from an in-classroom experience, which is why the same bodies that accredit brick-and-mortar schools also review online schools. In fact, many physical universities offer online versions of their programs, and their accreditation applies across the board.
Unfortunately, not all online schools are reputable. While most diploma mills have gone by the wayside, a few still exist. These scam programs are happy to take your money in exchange for a basically worthless diploma.
There are many great resources out there, such as a helpful guide from the Department of Education, but simply checking a school’s website for its accreditation status can save you a lot of legwork. Ensure that a school is accredited by one of the organizations listed above or by searching the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
The challenge with selecting an online degree program is that there are so many options available. Regardless of your location, you’ll likely be evaluating programs from across the country. The number of choices can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to vet programs effectively with all the details to keep track of. Taking an extra minute to confirm a school’s accreditation status is the easiest way to verify that a school is legitimate and can provide you with the education you need to achieve your goals.
What Does the Accreditation Process Look like?
Once a school has received accreditation, that doesn’t mean they can rest on their laurels. Maintaining accreditation is an ongoing process for schools. They work year-round every year to maintain the documentation required to keep their status. All this work culminates in a formal review process by their accrediting body every five to ten years. This review process isn’t just a formality. Accreditation organizations dig deep into every aspect of a school’s curriculum and operations to ensure the school is doing everything possible to provide you with an excellent education. No matter which agency is issuing accreditation, the process consists of six elements:
Before any school can begin the accreditation process, it must demonstrate that it meets a set of requirements put forth by the accrediting organization. These standards will vary slightly depending on the regional or national agency in charge of certification, but generally, a school must submit documentation on a few key points.
- The school must demonstrate that education and issuing degrees or certificates is their primary purpose.
- The school and its staff must be properly licensed according to state and federal regulations.
- There must be evidence that the school is operational and financially stable.
- Ethical standards for grading, record confidentiality, and classroom expectations must be in place.
Once a school is deemed eligible for accreditation, it must engage in an extensive self-review process. Administration and faculty work together to prepare a report on the college that outlines the school’s general operations, admissions policy, curriculum development, instructor evaluation process, and the mechanisms in place to ensure fair and ethical conduct. This self-evaluation process is typically ongoing so that the school is well-prepared by the time they apply for accreditation. Because the self-evaluation process really never stops, the goal of maintaining accreditation means that a school is constantly reviewing its standards and policies and making corrections if anything in its system isn’t working as intended.
Application & Readiness Assessment
Based on the self-evaluation results, a school will prepare its application for certification and a readiness assessment demonstrating how they meet the standards for accreditation. Typically, the application will highlight an institution’s particular strengths and achievements. You can think of this step as submitting a resume and cover letter for a job application.
Curriculum Review & 3rd Party Assessment
Once the application materials are submitted, outside evaluators get involved. Administrators and faculty from other accredited institutions review the school’s eligibility, self-evaluation, and application. These reviewers are responsible for ensuring that the college’s standards and operations are consistent with other accredited institutions. They will look at degree requirements, learning objectives, ethics codes, and many other factors to make their determination. This part of the process is essential for ensuring consistency among the schools accredited by an agency.
Up to this point, the accreditation process has been entirely based on documentation provided by the school itself. Once the accreditation board has determined that everything looks good on paper, it is time to make sure that the school’s documentation is consistent with how it operates in practice. The accreditation agency will compile a group of experts consisting of professors, college administrators, and sometimes public volunteers to visit the school. This visit will include meetings with faculty, students, and administrators, classroom visits, and verifying the information presented in the self-evaluation. Evaluators will provide feedback to the school on its strengths and opportunities for improvement. Finally, the evaluation team will present its findings to the accreditation board and recommend whether or not accreditation should be received. After this meeting, the school has seven days to submit corrections or additional materials to support its case.
Publication & Maintenance
Assuming everything goes well, the accreditation agency will issue or renew the school’s accreditation. But the process doesn’t end there. After the process is complete, a school must continuously maintain standards for accreditation through ongoing self-review. In some cases, a school must submit interim materials or undergo periodic onsite evaluations to demonstrate that they are addressing areas that the evaluation committee identified as needing improvement. Depending on the accreditation body, schools may have to submit annual reports to prove that they are maintaining the standards for accreditation.
Interview with a College Accreditation Expert
For a little more insight on the accreditation process and why it’s important we sat down with Dr. Patricia Donat, the Senior Vice President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, one of the main regional accrediting bodies in the US. Here is what Dr.Donat had to say about accreditation.
1. Tell us a little bit about your experience working with college accreditation and how it’s shaped the way you look at higher education.
I started out as a faculty member and served as a peer evaluator for SACSCOC. Later I moved into administration as the Provost of the University of North Georgia. During this time, I continued my work as a peer evaluator and served on the board of SACSCOC. I eventually joined SACSCOC and am currently the senior VP.
2. Can you give us an insider look at the accreditation process from someone on the accreditation side of things?
Our most substantial review process is the reaffirmation review process which occurs every 10 years. There is a lot of communication that happens between the institution and the institution’s peers during the process of providing documentation. It’s a pretty extensive and collaborative process of review that occurs over about a year and a half before anything comes before the SACSCOC board.
3. What ongoing work do schools have to do to be ready for their reaffirmation review?
Most institutions do engage in a constant preparation process. If they don’t, some institutions will have challenges. If you’re not doing your homework all along, you’ll have trouble when you need to produce the documentation later. Most institutions have policies and procedures to document what they are doing. We also review a subset of our institutions in a fifth-year review process for certain standards.
It’s really important for quality assurance for institutions to regularly be documenting how they are improving their programs, services, and operations. And so that is part of our expectations and our standards.
4. Can you tell me more about the peer evaluation side of accreditation?
Peer evaluators are selected to be from institutions that are similar to the one under review. That means they have similar control: public vs private vs for profit for example. They are similar in the levels of education that they offer. They are similar in size with similar missions. However, they can’t have a conflict of interest with the institution under review. They can’t be from the same state as the institution. They can’t have been employed by the school.
But we try to get true peers to the school in every respect. We have 780 accredited institutions that are members of SACSCOC so we have plenty of institutions to choose from to find a good fit.
5. What value does accreditation add to a student’s education?
There are a few reasons why it is important to know that a school has institutional-level accreditation. One, it is just an overall measure of assuring some foundational quality. The accrediting bodies are recognized by the US department of education, so we’ve all had to meet the same standards in order to accredit institutions. So, there’s that general accountability. Also, we have mechanisms to promote and assure continuous improvement. Our standards require they engage in improvement. As far as the student is concerned, it assures that you’ll have access to federal financial aid. Also, accreditation is often required for transferring credits between institutions.
6. Is there ever an instance in which accreditation isn’t as important?
Sometimes there are new institutions that are just opening. For example, the University System of Georgia opened a new institution in Gwinett County to serve students in the area. But in order for that new institution to be accredited, they had to apply and go through the whole accreditation process and that takes a little bit of time to do. And you have to have students to start that process. But that school is part of a system of institutions that is well established and run by the state. That is a very different kind of situation than a school that doesn’t have that type of background.
7. Does a school need to have multiple accreditations? If so, what kinds of accreditations should a student look for?
Students in professional programs should be interested in program-level accreditations. There’s a wide variety of programs that have their own accreditation bodies. Those related to specific, detailed criteria for that field. For professions like nursing or education, you may need to attend a programmatically accredited school for licensure.
8. What additional tips do you have for students to help them better understand accreditation and vet schools accordingly?
If I were interested in attending an institution, I would want to first know that it is accredited by an association that is recognized by the US Department of Education. There are some accreditations associations who have members, but they are not recognized by the Department of Education. I’d want to ensure that my school was accredited by a recognized accreditor. I’d do the same for a programmatic accreditation. Then, I’d want to check the accreditor website to ensure that the institution is in good standing.
9. How often do you have new schools seeking accreditation in your region?
Every year. We always have applications that are in process and some institutions who have moved forward through the candidacy process and are seeking initial accreditation. Right now, we have three schools that are candidate institutions.