Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who's Accrediting the Accreditors?

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If you want a college or university degree, you need to understand school accreditation. Fly-by-night schools exist, dressed to impress, promising financial aid and printing fancy-sounding degrees, but in the end giving students neither the skills nor the credentials they need to advance their careers and lives.

So, when you start to seriously check out a school that you think you might want to attend, don’t just ask, “Is this school accredited?” You need more than just a simple yes or no answer to that question. You also need to ask, “Who accredited this school, and why should I trust their accreditation? Who are the legitimate accreditors?”

guarding_the_guardians

There’s an old expression that goes something like this: “Who’s guarding the guards?” “Who’s watching the watchers?” “Who’s minding the minders?” The point of this expression is that we need to be very careful about the people and institutions we rely on to protect us, making sure that they really are protecting us.

Many of us who saw our home values drop between 2008 and 2010 appreciate this point. The housing crisis that peaked during that time arose because financial accrediting agencies, like Moody’s, put their stamp of approval on mortgage backed securities that ended up being worthless. So who was keeping Moody’s honest?

Schools need to be kept honest, in the same way that financial institutions need to be kept honest. Even so, just as sleazy schools exist ("degree mills"), so too do sleazy accreditation agencies exist ("accreditation mills"). Accreditation mills often have reputable sounding names, but a tell-tale sign that you’re dealing with an accreditation mill is that they are eager to put their stamp of approval on degree programs not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, often abbreviated USDE.

If you complete a degree and go on the job market, or decide to transfer to another school, or realize that you would like to take your education to the next level, but find out only then that you have a degree from a non-USDE-recognized school, it could be too late. Your time and money are nonrefundable. If a school or program lacks USDE-recognized accreditation, you need to find out why.

Academia’s quality assurance system

Accreditation is academia’s quality assurance system, and you need to know which accreditors are legitimate. In the U.S., private non-profit accrediting organizations take on the task of accrediting schools by evaluating faculty, resources, curriculum, competency, and credibility.

The USDE and CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation) are responsible for validating whether an accreditation agency itself is competent and credible. These are the institutions that, so to speak, “guard the guards.”

Ultimately, USDE recognition is the most important. Institutions without USDE recognition cannot offer federal aid to students, and credits from non-USDE-recognized schools may not transfer to other schools. Also, savvy employers may dismiss or devalue the credits and degrees from such schools. There are exceptions to this rule, notably specialty programs such as clinical hypnosis, for which no USDE-recognized programs exist. Specialized programs like this will be of interest to select groups of individuals despite their lack of USDE recognition.

Submission to CHEA evaluation is not required for USDE recognition, but because of its high profile in the world of college and university accreditation, many accreditation organizations desire, in addition to USDE recognition, also CHEA’s mark of approval.

Numerous USDE- and CHEA-recognized accrediting agencies exist to evaluate specific programs of study. The USDE and CHEA recognize accreditation agencies of three different sorts: Regional, National (National Faith-Related, and National Career-Related), and Programmatic. However, your first concern should be with accreditation of the institution as a whole.

Regional accreditation: the gold standard of accreditation

Regional accreditation is the highest available form of accreditation. There are only 7 USDE-recognized regional accreditation agencies, and only 6 that are both USDE- and CHEA-recognized regional accreditation agencies. As noted above, CHEA’s endorsement of an accreditation agency has no real bearing on the merit of the agency; it’s an optional extra stamp of approval. USDE-recognition is what really matters.

Schools with regional accreditation give you the best hopes for transferability of credits as well as for acceptance into graduate degree programs. Here are the 7 regional accreditation agencies:

Regional Accreditors USDE- recognized CHEA- recognized
Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE) Yes Yes
New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE) Yes Yes
The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Yes Yes
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) Yes Opted out.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) Yes Yes
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC) Yes Yes
WASC Senior College and University Commission Yes Yes

But what about schools lacking Regional Accreditation?

By now we hope you are convinced that you need to find out whether a school you are seriously considering attending has regional accreditation. If it does, you then want to make sure that the program of study you are considering at that school meets your needs and interests.

But what about a school that looks attractive to you but lacks regional accreditation? Should you simply dismiss such schools outright, looking elsewhere? Not so fast. The USDE also recognizes national accreditation agencies. Nationally accredited institutions may not be out of the question if you are looking for a specific kind of faith- or career-related school. For example, if you want to study for ministry, an institution that fits your desires and your beliefs may be nationally accredited. The same could be true if you wanted a school catering specifically to a particular career, such as criminal justice or healthcare.

Nonetheless, you need to ask why a school may lack regional accreditation. A school lacking such accreditation may have sound reasons for not seeking it. Some schools, by the specialized nature of the disciplines they teach, may simply not want or need such accreditation. A case in point considered above is programs in clinical hypnosis. As we note in our article on these programs, “there are no accredited schools offering standard college or university degrees in hypnosis.”

Schools lacking regional accreditation may have a good track record of landing graduates in well-paid, satisfying careers. They may provide a rigorous curriculum and solid education. And schools with regional accreditation may even accept some of their transfer credits. But with schools lacking USDE-recognized accreditation or regional accreditation, you need to do your due diligence. You don’t want any unpleasant surprises come graduation day.

When considering a nationally accredited school, the main questions to ask are: “What will employers think of the degree?” and “What are my options if I decide to go further, academically, or if I need to transfer?“ To answer the first question, call some potential employers. If you want a job in law enforcement, call law enforcement agencies and talk to someone in human resources. If you want a job in healthcare, call hospitals and ask their human resources personnel. You could very well discover that they do not differentiate between regionally accredited and nationally accredited schools. Or, you might find that they do, and your phone call could save you a lot of time and money.

The second question requires far-sightedness on your part. Regionally accredited schools, such as your big state universities, often reject or devalue the credits received from nationally accredited schools. So, if you decide to transfer before completing your degree at a nationally accredited school, or you graduate and decide to go further to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you could find that you will lose some credits, or be limited to nationally accredited graduate programs.

What follows are two lists of national accreditation agencies:

National Faith-Related Accreditors USDE-Recognized CHEA-Recognized
Assoc. of Advanced Rabbinic and Talmudic Schools (AARTS) Accreditation Comission Yes Yes
Assoc. of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Yes Yes
The Assoc. of Theological Schools (ATS) in the U.S. and Canada, The Commission on Accrediting Yes Yes
Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) Yes Yes
National Career-Related Accreditors USDE-Recognized CHEA-Recognized
Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) Yes No
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) Yes No
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) Yes No
Council on Occupational Education (COE) Yes No
Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) Yes Yes
National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS) Yes No

Lastly, there are programmatic accrediting agencies that accredit specific programs of study. In some cases, such programmatic accreditation coincides with regional or national institutional accreditation. For example, you can find MBA programs at regionally or nationally accredited schools that also boast AACSB (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) accreditation. In this instance, such programmatic accreditation is mostly for show — -it indicates some additional expert approval, but it’s not necessary.

Alternatively, you might also find some very important programmatic accreditations. Consider the discipline of acupuncture. The most important accreditation for schools offering this degree is from the ACAOM (The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). For a field like acupuncture, accreditation of this sort may be more meaningful to you and employers than regional or national accreditation. For a more mainstream field in which programmatic accreditation matters greatly, consider Social Work programs. Social Work degree programs without CSWE (The Council on Social Work Education) programmatic accreditation can severely hamper your transition to graduate school and undermine your employment opportunities.

To find out more about programmatic accreditation, check out CHEA’s “Recognized Accrediting Organizations” article (PDF).

How are online schools accredited?

Online programs must meet the same accreditation standards required of their on-campus counterparts. Accredited online colleges are assessed on the quality of education, faculty and staff reputation, admissions requirements, among other criteria.

Accreditation is especially important for online colleges, as students may not have the same access to campus visits and counseling services that on-campus students might. A student choosing an accredited online college can help them ensure they are not being fooled by a degree mill.

Conclusion

Here at TheBestSchools.org, we take a very broad view of education. We are interested in all types of schools and in identifying those schools that stand out because of their inherent merit. Thus we will not exclude schools simply because they lack the “right accreditation.”

We have seen USDE-recognized accreditation agencies, far from advancing and enhancing education, putting up so many hoops for schools to jump through that accreditation can actually hamper the educational process. USDE-recognized accreditation can function like a guild, deciding who’s in and who’s out on the basis of sometimes arbitrary criteria that have nothing to do with academic excellence.

At TheBestSchools.org we respect USDE-recognized accreditation agencies, especially regional accreditation, and think, other things being equal, that you are better off going to such an accredited school. Yet we also want you, our readers, to be aware of other high-quality educational options that may lack regional accreditation but have received accreditation through other USDE-recognized accreditation agencies (or that may lack such accreditation because the programs are so specialized). These schools may still get you where you need to go, and perhaps at a lower cost and in a shorter time.

Bottom line: To determine a school’s or degree program’s accreditation, use the following step-by-step procedure.

Accreditation Flow Chart

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