What Is Accreditation?

In short, accreditation ensures that an institution or degree program meets certain standards, and guarantees that students who attend an accredited school or complete an accredited program receive a high quality education. Despite popular belief, the accreditation process is not run by the U.S. Department of Education; instead, it is operated by several private accrediting agencies. These agencies establish a type of "grading rubric" that must be satisfied in order for a school or program to be accredited. Schools are not required to become accredited, but if an institution applies for accreditation, its school or programs are reviewed and evaluated by an accrediting agency based on several factors, including the state of the campus (if applicable), the training and knowledge of the faculty, and the methods by which education is delivered. Schools that meet the accrediting agency’s standards are given accreditation status. Due to the "stamp of approval" that all schools receive when they become accredited, we recommend that anyone looking to go to college make sure the institution and/or program they choose is accredited to ensure that they receive a higher quality education.

It is important to note that even campus-based colleges receive accreditation. In fact, the same accrediting agencies that accredit traditional schools like the University of Texas and Harvard University also accredit online institutions. But while every school or program that is accredited has been evaluated and approved, this does not mean that every one of these has the same kind of accreditation. There are two main types of accreditation: institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation applies to the entire school, whereas specialized accreditation only applies to specific programs that are offered by an institution.

Institutional accreditation is offered either as national or regional accreditation. National accreditation is reserved for specific types of schools, such as trade schools, religious schools, and online schools that share a common theme. Therefore, national accreditation allows nontraditional schools to be compared with other similar schools. The U.S. Department of Education provides information on all of the approved national accrediting agencies. Regional accreditation, on the other hand, is based on the geographical location of the school. When a college or university applies for regional accreditation, they are evaluated by the agency covering the region of the country the school is in. For example, schools in southern states like Texas and Florida are regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, whereas schools in northeastern states like Massachusetts and Connecticut are regionally accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides information on the six regional accrediting organizations in the U.S.

But accreditation is not limited to the United States. In fact, many accrediting agencies evaluate schools in other countries as well, including Puerto Rico and Canada. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, "Although many recognized agencies carry out accrediting activities outside the United States, these actions are not within the legal authority of the Department of Education to recognize, are not reviewed by the Department, and the Department does not exercise any oversight over them." This means that the process of accrediting schools in other countries is not necessarily held to the same level of regulation as it is in the U.S.

Institutional accreditation, in addition to ensuring high quality, enables the students of the accredited college to receive federal financial aid. Therefore, if a school is not accredited, the students who choose to enroll there cannot receive any federal financial aid. This is a major incentive for schools to gain accreditation because the lack of federal financial aid can be a deterrent for numerous potential students who need that form of tuition assistance.

But schools can also receive specialized accreditation as a replacement for institutional accreditation, or seek it as an addition to their school-wide accreditation. Specialized accreditation is based on specific fields of study or individual programs that are offered by an institution, such as nursing, accounting, and law. This accreditation evaluates a program and ensures that a student who completes the program will have received all the necessary information and training, and be prepared to work in the industry or field in which they were studying. The Department of Education also provides a list of the approved specialized accrediting agencies.

Accreditation also helps a college or university determine whether or not to accept the transfer of credits from another institution. If a student is attempting to transfer credits that were earned from an accredited institution, the school receiving the transferred credits knows that the institution and/or program from which the credits were earned have been evaluated and approved by a recognized accrediting agency. But if the credits are coming from an unaccredited institution, the school has no way of determining the quality of the school’s curriculum and therefore may not allow that credit to transfer over.

Determining a school’s accreditation status is best way to make sure that the education a student receives by attending an institution or completing a program is of high quality. Therefore, we recommend that all students research the school or program they are considering, and ensure that it is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.