All You Need to Know About Accreditation
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Accreditation indicates that a school meets high standards with respect to factors like faculty qualifications, academic rigor, and student learning outcomes.
It is important to attend an accredited college or university. Accredited institutions can help expand your employment prospects, financial aid options, and continuing education opportunities. Unaccredited schools, by contrast, are often considered disreputable by employers and other institutions of higher learning.
There are several types of accreditation, each with distinct purposes, processes, and outcomes. This guide covers important information about accreditation, including types of accreditation, the accreditation process, and answers to frequently asked questions.
What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation indicates that a school voluntarily underwent a review process by a third-party accrediting agency to ensure educational standards. During the review, the accrediting agency evaluates things like faculty quality, student learning and professional outcomes, and whether the school is using data-based research to improve its curricula and student services. Schools can hold regional or national accreditation. For liberal arts degrees, regional accreditation is considered the gold standard, while national accreditation is typically used for vocational or trade schools or religious institutions.
Attending an accredited institution benefits students in several ways. Only students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid, and many schools only accept qualifying degrees and transfer credits earned at accredited institutions. Additionally, many professional licenses and certifications require an accredited degree.
Regional accreditation typically applies to nonprofit, degree-granting institutions. Schools receive regional accreditation from one of seven regional accrediting bodies, determined by where the school is located. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee regional accrediting agencies.
Recognized by the ED and CHEA, HLC accredits schools in the central United States, including roughly 1,000 degree-granting institutions. HLC assesses schools based on factors like academic mission, ethics, teaching and learning, and resources. Once accredited, institutions must participate in a review every 10 years to maintain their status.
MSCHE accredits public and private institutions in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Additional areas that fall under MSCHE's purview include the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. MSCHE oversees nearly 600 degree-granting colleges and universities. The agency evaluates institutions based on eight standards, including design and delivery of the student learning experience; planning, resources, and institutional improvement; and educational effectiveness.
Originally a subsidiary of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), NECHE restructured in 2018 to become a separate entity. It oversees 1,500 public, independent, and career/technical institutions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. NECHE evaluates schools based on nine standards, including teaching, learning, and scholarship; integrity, transparency, and public disclosure; and organization and governance.
SACS accredits more than 13,000 public and private institutions in the southern United States, as well as schools in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. One of the entities within SACS, SACSCOC accredits schools that grant associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.
SACSCOC evaluates schools based on integrity, student learning, accountability, and continuous quality improvement through peer review and self-regulation processes. To achieve accreditation, institutions must participate in a pre-accreditation workshop, submit documents for candidacy, and receive an accreditation committee visit.
One of the organizations within the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), ACCJC is recognized by both the ED and CHEA. ACCJC accredits 150 community, junior, and career and technical colleges in California, Hawai'i, and all American territories and protectorates in the Pacific Ocean. ACCJC accredits schools through an extensive peer-review process, evaluating institutions based on academic quality, instructional integrity, and excellence.
WSCUC is also a subsidiary of WASC, accrediting more than 200 private and public colleges and universities in California, Hawai'i, and American territories in the Pacific. WSCUC accredits schools based on four standards, with 39 individual criteria for review distributed across those standards. Once accredited, schools must be re-assessed every 10 years to maintain their status.
NWCCU is the accrediting body for over 160 colleges and universities in western states, including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, plus one school in British Columbia, Canada. NWCCU evaluates schools based on performance, integrity, and quality of academic programs and institutional resources. Schools must complete internal assessments for accreditation renewal every seven years.
Comparable in many ways to regional accreditation, national accreditation also indicates that a school underwent a voluntary review by a third-party accrediting agency, which evaluated the school's academic programs, student resources, and institutional processes. National accreditation typically applies to for-profit, faith-based, and vocational institutions. It is not as rigorous as regional accreditation, so it does not hold as much prestige. However, it is the accreditation standard for vocational, trade, and faith-based schools.
The ED oversees all national accrediting bodies, and nationally accredited institutions do qualify for most federal financial aid programs. However, many regionally accredited schools do not accept transfer credits from institutions with national accreditation, so it's best to consider your education goals before enrolling in a nationally accredited school.
Programmatic accreditation applies to specific programs, departments, or schools that function as part of larger institutions. Often granted by professional associations, industry organizations, and groups of experts with expertise in a specific discipline, programmatic accreditation attests to academic excellence in areas such business, engineering, and nursing. Drawn from the list of accreditors recognized by CHEA and/or the ED, the following section outlines prominent programmatic accrediting organizations.
Recognized by the ED and CHEA, ACEN accredits undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. ACEN evaluates programs based on factors like faculty quality, student resources, curricula, and student learning outcomes. Accreditation by ACEN facilitates student recruitment, transfer, and funding opportunities. It also meets many state licensure requirements and helps employers identify competent practitioners.
ABET accredits over 4,000 postsecondary programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology, including distance learning and alternative offerings. ABET's rigorous, 18-month accreditation process evaluates programs based on factors like academic rigor and faculty qualifications. ABET accreditation serves as the international standard for engineering and technology programs. ABET is recognized by the ED and CHEA.
Recognized by CHEA, ACBSP accredits more than 1,000 business, accounting, and business-related undergraduate and graduate programs worldwide. ACBSP awards accreditation based on seven standards, including leadership, strategic planning, and faculty focus. Accredited programs hold membership to ACBSP, offering students access to networking opportunities, industry publications, and career resources.
The Council of Selection of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, a group within the ABA, accredits more than 200 legal schools and programs in the country. Accreditation standards take into account general purposes and practices, organization and administration, faculty, and library and information resources. Legal schools and programs receive provisional approval upon initial accreditation. After three years of monitoring, schools and programs may receive full accreditation. Fully accredited schools and programs undergo a site evaluation every third year, with a complete evaluation every seven years.
How Are Online Schools Accredited?
National and regional accreditation carry over to online programs offered by accredited colleges and universities. Schools that only offer online programs may hold national accreditation, especially if they operate using a for-profit model. Online programs can also obtain programmatic or specialized accreditation.
How to Tell If a College Is Accredited
Colleges and universities often list their accreditors on their website. If learners are unable to locate accreditation information on an institution's website, they can contact the school directly to learn more about their accreditation credentials. Students can also verify a school or program's accreditation status through the CHEA website or the ED's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
With only a few exceptions, international institutions are not accredited by bodies recognized by CHEA or the ED. However, CHEA has established international quality principles to serve as guidelines for establishing a universal understanding of educational quality.
How to Spot Fake Accreditation
Several fake accrediting bodies exist, which are entities that lack recognition by the ED or CHEA. Many online colleges that fall under the description of "degree mills" or "diploma mills" claim to hold accreditation through fake agencies to try to boost their credibility. Enrolling in one of these schools presents problems with respect to financial aid opportunities, transfer options, and employment. Plus, if an unaccredited institution closes or simply fails to deliver what they promise, students are left without the education for which they paid. Students can verify the legitimacy of an accrediting agency through the ED or CHEA directly.
What Should I Do If I Want to Transfer to a Regionally Accredited School?
Regionally accredited institutions often only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions. Therefore, when assessing transfer options, students from nationally accredited institutions should search for schools that accept transfer credits from nationally accredited schools. Students can also reach out to institutions about their transfer guidelines. Regionally accredited colleges and universities might make exceptions for some students transferring from nationally accredited institutions.
What Happens If My College Loses Accreditation?
The loss of accreditation indicates that a school no longer meets accrediting standards for one reason or another. It impacts the credibility of an institution, often causing enrollment to decline and leading to a school's closure.
Students attending a college or university that loses accreditation can potentially transfer to a different institution, but the loss of accreditation does not provide any recourse for a tuition refund or loan forgiveness. For alumni of a school that loses accreditation, there are no direct consequences. Loss of accreditation does not negate a graduate's existing degrees or certificates.
Frequently Asked Questions
By remaining outside the scope of accreditation, a school avoids regulations and requirements put upon accredited institutions. Unaccredited institutions may prefer to abide by their own standards, remain autonomous, or provide niche programs outside the scope of what they deem is actionable through accreditation. An unaccredited college may also not be a legitimate institution of higher learning.
Schools may receive national or regional accreditation. Regional accreditation typically applies to nonprofit, degree-granting institutions, while national accreditation applies to vocational, technical, faith-based, and for-profit institutions. Specialized or programmatic accreditation applies to individual departments or programs within a school.
Many employers prefer to hire candidates with an accredited degree, so attending an unaccredited college or university can limit employment opportunities. Employers may interpret a lack of accreditation as an indication that the job candidate may not be as well-prepared for the job as other potential hires.
National accreditation often applies to career and technical degrees, vocational programs, and religious institutions. Employers in specific fields accept nationally accredited degrees when they correspond to their needs and requirements. Nationally accredited degrees also often fulfill requirements for professional education and career development, allowing for career advancement within some fields.
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