Your Guide to College Accreditation

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Your Guide to College Accreditation

Accreditation. You’ve seen the term before when searching for colleges in the United States. What does it mean? How might it affect your education? Why should you care?

The definition:  The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality[i].

Who ensures that colleges and universities “meet acceptable levels of quality?”:  Accrediting agencies.

What are accrediting agencies?

An accrediting agency is a state-controlled or privately supported agency authorized to grant accreditation to educational institutions[ii]. There are two types:

  • National:  Nationally accredited colleges typically refer to schools that are career focused. While the U.S Department of Education (USDE) itself does not accredit institutions or programs, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally acknowledged agencies who are deemed to be “reliable authorities”[iii] regarding quality of education in the United Sates. This list is actually a searchable database called the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. There is no guarantee the database is 100% accurate as it is updated regularly and compiled from public information reported to the USDE.
  • Regional:  This type of accreditation is the most common form, and it generally refers to accreditation of academically oriented schools. There are 6 regional accreditation agencies[iv]. Academic credits are usually more easily transferred between regionally accredited colleges. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a group of 3,000 degree-granting schools[v] and acknowledges 20,700 accredited programs[vi] that have been recognized by either CHEA, the USDE or both. It also has a searchable, online database.

*Just because you have academic credits from an accredited college does not mean your academic credits will transfer to another accredited school. You must check with each college to determine which credits they accept from nationally or regionally accredited institutions.

What are the two types of accreditation?

  • Institutional: This type of accreditation typically “applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution's parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution's objectives”[vii]. Basically, it has to do with the entire college or university.
  • Specialized:  This form of accreditation “normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline”[vii]. For example, a law college within a larger university may be accredited or a women’s studies program at a particular school.

Why bother with accreditation?

Accreditation means that you should receive a quality education, that you should be able to transfer credits between colleges, and that you may apply for federal or state financial aid. Some future employers will only accept degrees listed on your resume from accredited schools.

Okay, so my school says it’s accredited—I’m good. Actually, some scams called accreditation mills[ix] sell accreditations instead of reviewing the quality of that institution. If you attend a fake “accredited” school, you may spend a lot of money for a degree that isn’t worth much.

Non-accredited colleges are cheaper. Hmm—have you inquired about financial aid? You cannot receive federal or state aid if you attend a non-accredited school[x]. What if you need to transfer academic credits? You may find yourself retaking a similar course from an accredited school—and paying twice for it. How about asking what most employers think? Most employers aren’t too keen on non-accredited degrees. When in doubt, read our article Liar, Liar, Fake Degrees on Fire.

[i] | [ii] | [iii] | [iv] | [v]  | [vi] | [vii]  | [ix]  | [x]