How Accreditation Works

“Make sure the school is accredited.” This is one of the first pieces of advice you usually get when you begin exploring options for college. But why is it so important and what does it really mean for you as a student?

Accreditation Defined

The U. S. Department of Education (USDOE) describes accreditation in the United States as “a voluntary, nongovernmental process, in which an institution and its programs are evaluated against standards for measuring quality.” In general, accredited schools have been evaluated and found to provide a valuable academic experience for students.

Multiple organizations engage in this kind of evaluation, and while it may seem like a basic issue — a school is accredited or it isn’t — not all accreditation is created equal. In addition to researching whether or not a school you are interested in attending is accredited, there are different types and levels of accreditation to consider:

  • Institutional and Programmatic: Some accrediting agencies review the resources and academic practices of schools as a whole, while others review only specific programs, focusing on a specific type of degree or area of study.
  • Regional and National: There are accrediting agencies that work only with colleges and universities within a limited geographic area, and others that work with schools all over the country.

Why is Accreditation Important?

At its most basic, knowing that a school or program is accredited provides some assurance that the educational experience will have value to you after you enroll, and after you graduate. Accreditation provides assurance to several other groups as well. Here are a few ways in which accreditation can have an impact on your ability to reach your education and career goals:

  • Transferring Academic Credit: If you have already completed college-level course work in the past, or want to transfer from your current school to another institution, the school you are transferring to may require that the previously completed credits be from an accredited college or university.
  • Advanced Degree Programs: If your career plan requires you to attend graduate school, many advanced programs require applicants to have graduated from accredited undergraduate programs.
  • Employment and Licensure: Some employers have a preference for applicants who have graduated from accredited schools. Fields that require you to pass a state or national exam (e.g., CPA exam for accountants, NCLEX exam for registered nurses) also require graduation from an accredited program.
  • Financial Aid: The USDOE requires that schools receiving Federal Student Aid be accredited. State-level grants, scholarships, and other types of financial assistance may also require you to attend accredited institutions.

How Schools are Accredited

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides a helpful overview of the accreditation process that includes the following general steps:

  • Self-Study: Institutions provide a written report of their internal review based on the standards established by the accrediting agency.
  • Peer Review: Faculty and administrators from outside the institution conduct a review based on the accrediting agency’s established standards.
  • Site Visit: A team of reviewers meets with institutional representatives in person. This can take place on campus or at the administrative offices of online schools.
  • Accreditation Decision: The accrediting agency makes a decision about whether or not to grant accreditation status, or renew or withdraw the status of an already accredited institution.
  • Periodic Review: Accreditation is not the result of a one-time evaluation. Schools and programs undergo additional reviews (i.e., every 5 to 10 years) depending on the agency’s guidelines.

Whether you’re interested in attending an online college, a blended program with online and face-to-face courses, or a traditional campus-based institution, accreditation plays an important role. There are accrediting agencies that focus specifically on online education – the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) is one example – but regional, institutional, and programmatic agencies use the same process for review, no matter the format of the school or programs.

Avoiding Accreditation Mills

You may have heard of “diploma mills,” which are organizations that grant degrees to students without requiring standard course work for earning them. Unfortunately, “accreditation mills” also exist, providing accreditation status to schools and programs without conducting an actual evaluation of academic quality. These accreditation mills can be difficult to identify, as their names often sound impressive and similar to those of authentic accrediting agencies.

Fortunately, both the USDOE and CHEA maintain lists of accrediting agencies that they have found to be reliable through their own evaluations. The USDOE and CHEA review accrediting organizations independently, but with similar standards, which address areas such as:

  • Academic quality
  • Public and financial accountability
  • Ongoing review and improvements
  • Sufficient resources and student support
  • Faculty qualifications
  • Student achievement

It’s important to remember that the USDOE and CHEA do not accredit schools and programs, but do provide a good place to start your own search for accredited options. Here are a few resources you can use to find out more about which accrediting agencies are recognized by the USDOE and/or the CHEA, and in turn, which schools are accredited by the recognized agencies:

An Accreditation Checklist for Students

So, how can a prospective student find out whether or not a school is accredited, and if the accrediting agency is a reliable one? Here is a checklist of questions to guide your research:

Does the school have institutional-level accreditation?

This level of review is conducted to ensure that the college or university is providing a valuable experience for learners, which includes access to academic curriculum, support resources, and qualified faculty.

Is the institutional accreditor recognized by the USDOE or CHEA?

Recognition by one or both of these organizations is evidence that the accrediting agency has been reviewed and found to meet basic standards in its review of individual schools. Remember that the USDOE focuses on accreditation as a requirement for distributing financial aid, while the CHEA focuses on accreditation as a way to measure academic quality. If the institution you are interested in advertises accreditation, cross-reference the accrediting agency on the USDOE and CHEA list of recognized accreditors.

Is programmatic-level accreditation important for your field of study?

Not all programs will have, or need, programmatic accreditation. If it is important in your field, you should ensure the program is accredited before enrolling. If you don’t know if program-level accreditation is required for your field, check with the professional associations affiliated with your career of interest, and with state licensing boards if applicable, to find out if there is a preferred type and source of accreditation.

Is the programmatic-level accreditation recognized by the USDOE or CHEA?

If a program you are interested in joining advertises program-level accreditation, cross-reference the accreditation agency on the USDOE and CHEA lists.

Why to Consider Accreditation

Accreditation is voluntary, meaning that a school or program must initiate the process with an accrediting agency. While it’s possible that a high-quality institution might not be accredited, it’s not very likely, especially if that program enrolls students who are interested in transferring academic credit, entering career fields that require state licensure or certification, planning to attend graduate school, or who may be eligible for financial aid.

Schools usually provide basic information about accreditation status on their websites. But if you have any questions at all, be sure to ask your admissions advisor to clarify. They can let you know more about the types of accreditation the school and the programs you are interested in may already have, or be in the process of receiving.