Guide to Nationally Accredited Colleges: What You Need to Know
| David Tomar
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National Accreditation is a form of educational accreditation that is popular among online colleges and religious institutions as well as technical training, vocational, and professional certification programs. Unlike Regional Accreditation agencies, national accreditation agencies are not bound to specific geographic jurisdictions and can therefore offer accreditation to educational institutions anywhere in the U.S.
It is important to note that national accreditation is widely regarded as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation. As such, the vast majority of regionally accredited colleges or universities will not accept transfer credits or recognize degrees earned from nationally accredited schools. In fact, this is why we, at TheBestSchools.org, don’t include nationally accredited colleges in any of our ranking lists. If you are considering a school or program that is nationally accredited, but which is not regionally accredited, it is important that you are aware of these limitations. Chances are that you won’t be able to transfer your credits or degree to a regionally accredited school. Before proceeding, be sure that you fully understand this distinction between nationally and regionally accredited programs, degrees, and schools.
[To learn more about the challenging process of transferring credits, check out Will my college credits transfer? (From nationally accredited to regionally accredited)]
[Click here to learn more about the wider world of accreditation, including the reasons that regional accreditation is more highly regarded than national accreditation.]
While reputation and qualifications of national accrediting agencies may vary, this does not mean that nationally accreditated schools should be dismissed or overlooked, especially for those seeking an accessible pathway to an education, professional skills, or a degree.
If you are seeking an education with a focus on career skills, a school with lower admission hurdles, a less rigorous curriculum, or a degree program with heightened flexibility, a nationally accredited college could be right for you. But you do need to proceed with caution. As noted, the quality and value of national accreditations will vary. It is of the utmost importance that you do your research before selecting a college.
Accreditation is an important part of verifying the quality of your education, the value of your degree, and even your ability to get financial aid. Be sure that you know how to navigate the landscape of nationally accredited colleges. If you do it right, you should come out on the other end with an affordable education, a quality learning experience, and a meaningful degree.
To learn more about the general subject of accreditation, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who's Accrediting the Accreditors?
Read on to learn more about selecting the right nationally accredited college.
What Is National Accreditation?
National Accreditation agencies are educational accreditors that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria, which makes it a particularly well-suited model of accreditation for online colleges serving multiple regions or geographically widespread populations. As a result, the national accreditation landscape has grown considerably, and evolved in quality, with the proliferation of credible and respected online colleges and other distance education options which aren’t bound to specific geographical regions.
All nationally accredited colleges or universities — whether operating on for-profit or nonprofit models — are privately owned. In order to qualify as a true national accreditor, an agency must be recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
As with regional accreditation, colleges who have attained national accreditation have met certain criteria relating to quality, performance, and other key indicators. These indicators will differ for each national accreditor. Consult each individual accreditation agency to learn more about the metrics used to award national accreditation, as well as to identify those colleges, universities and institutions that have met these stipulations.
National accreditors recognized by both the Department of Education and the CHEA fall into three major categories: National Faith-Related Accrediting Organizations; National Career-Related Accreditation Organizations, and; Programmatic Accrediting Organizations.
National Faith-Related Accrediting Organizations
- Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation
- Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission
- Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies
- Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission
National Career-Related Accreditation Organizations
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
- Council on Occupational Education
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission
- National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences
Programmatic Accrediting Organizations
- Programmatic accreditation refers to accreditation for individual degree programs, departments or schools within a college or university. The Department of Ed and CHEA recognize dozens of programmatic accreditation organizations. Read the full list here.
- Programmatic accreditation is not an institutional form of accreditation, which means that it is not an accreditation that is used to recognize an entire college or university. Our discussion is focused on institutional forms of national accreditation. Therefore, references to national accreditation in this guide do not refer programmatic accreditation.
What is the difference between national and regional accreditation?
As noted above, national accreditation and regional accreditation do share certain characteristics, including recognition from the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). However, there are key distinctions, both in terms of quality and geographical reach.
With regard to quality, regional accreditation is considered the gold standard. National accreditation is generally seen as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation. Most reputable public and private universities are regionally accredited, including all of the educational institutions ranked by TheBestSchools.org. These colleges or universities are unlikely to accept transfer credits or recognize degrees earned from nationally accredited schools. If you are planning to earn credits or a degree from a school that has national accreditation in lieu of regional accreditation, it is unlikely that you will be able to transfer your credits or degree to a regionally accredited school.[Click here to learn more about the wider world of accreditation, including the reasons that regional accreditation is more highly regarded than national accreditation.]
Another key distinction between national and regional accreditation is the fact that regional accreditation agencies serve distinct geographic jurisdictions, whereas national accrediting agencies serve schools across the United States. The 12 national accreditors listed above provide recognition for private schools only — which may be academic in nature — but which are also commonly focused on religious education or professional training.
By contrast, regional accreditation is exclusively reserved for academic institutions, which can include 2- and 4- year public or private colleges and universities. In some instances, regional accreditors may also provide accreditation to K-12 institutions.
There are six regional accreditors recognized by the Department of Education and the CHEA, which collectively form the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC):
- The Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
These regional accreditors preside over distinct geographic jurisdictions. By contrast, national accreditors may provide accreditation to schools with locations across multiple states, as is often the case for online colleges.
Another key distinction is the fact that all nationally accredited colleges are privately owned. This is true of both for-profit colleges and nonprofit schools. Regionally accredited schools, on the other hand, may be public (such as state university systems and community colleges), or private.
Should I attend a nationally accredited college?
Accreditation is important. This stamp of approval denotes that a college is maintaining certain measurable standards of quality, currency, and legitimacy. Moreover, only accredited colleges or universities may receive federal financial aid in the form of student loans and grants. In other words, if you plan on applying for student loans or a need-based Pell Grant, you must also plan on attending an accredited college.
This applies to both national and regional accreditation. As long as the college you plan to attend is accredited by a national or regional accreditor which has been recognized by the Department of Ed and the CHEA, then you are eligible to fill out a FAFSA—which is something you most definitely should do!
Learn more about your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and get tips on navigating the student loan process.
However, because regional accreditation is focused on primarily academic institutions, the criteria for recognition are often more stringent. This means that regionally accredited colleges may present higher admissions hurdles, including minimum test scores, a competitive high school GPA, and a current academic record. This may make it difficult to gain admission to a regionally accredited program, if:
- You struggled with low grades or test scores in high school;
- You have limited regional access to quality community colleges,
- You are returning to school after a lengthy hiatus from formal education; or
- You lack the financial resources to attend a desirable regionally accredited college.
Nationally accredited colleges offer a more accessible alternative to regionally accredited schools. Provided that this national accreditor is recognized by the Department of Education and the CHEA, you can verify the criteria that your nationally accredited school has met. You would also be eligible for student loans. This can make nationally accredited schools a particularly attractive option for students in a variety of unique circumstances, including:
- Students with a greater interest in professional, vocational, or technical skills;
- Individuals seeking accessible entry-level career opportunities;
- Aspiring religious professionals including faith counselors, clergy, and educators;
- Returning students;
- military service-members; and
- small business owners seeking new career skills.
National accreditation provides a level of assurance for individuals pursuing a post-secondary education for practical reasons, including the addition of new skills, the refinement of existing skills, and the growth of knowledge in a chosen field.
Is national accreditation good?
The answer to this question depends at least in part on your personal, educational and professional goals. There are some limitations on what you can do with a degree from a nationally accredited college or university, relative to a regionally accredited degree. These are limitations you must be aware of before you choose to attend a nationally accredited college. For instance:
- You would not be able to transfer credits from a nationally accredited college to a regionally accredited college.
- Your degree would not make you eligible for a regionally accredited graduate school.
- You might not be eligible to earn certain professional certifications, which may in turn prevent you from advancing within certain fields.
- Prospective employers might prioritize candidates with regionally accredited degrees.
If your educational goals include eventually transferring into a regionally accredited college or university, or continuing on to a regionally accredited graduate school, a nationally accredited associate or bachelor’s degree might not be well-suited to your aims. In that case, you might be a great candidate for a regionally-accredited online college program. The best online colleges will offer the flexibility and accessibility you’re seeking while still offering the reputation of a regionally accredited school.
Check out our list of The Best Online Colleges and find a regionally accredited school that makes sense for you.
If your educational goals don’t include transferring to a regionally accredited college or continuing on to a regionally accredited graduate degree program, a nationally accredited program might offer the focus, affordability, accelerated pace, or accessibility that you need to advance in your career.
Can I get a job with a degree from a nationally accredited school?
Because regional accreditation is reserved for academic degrees, it doesn’t always offer the widest range of opportunities for individuals in trades, crafts, and technical professions. A degree or certificate program with national recognition can provide you with focused or accelerated training in your career area without the time-consuming prerequisites and electives required for a traditional degree program. By adding new skills, sharpening existing skills, and earning credentials is specific areas of your trade, you can build on your value for prospective employers.
Nationally accredited academic degrees can also provide a pathway into entry level positions in a wide range of fields, from business and healthcare to counseling and cosmetology. From there, you may be able to advance within your organization, within your industry or even — with financial support from your employer — into continuing education opportunities. Take a look at a a few of the professions where a degree from a nationally accredited college or university might be a good starting point:
- What Can I Do With a Cosmetology Certificate or Degree?
- What Can I Do With a Nursing Degree?
- What Can I Do With a Degree in Video Game Design?
- What Can I Do With a Culinary Arts Degree?
- What Can I Do with a Business Degree?
- What Can I Do With an Automotive Technology Degree?
- What Can I Do With a Degree in Art & Design?
Beware of Fake Accreditors
Shop wisely. It's the best way to assure that your nationally accredited college is a reputable one. Only 6 regional accreditors and 12 national accreditors have been recognized by the Department of Education and the CHEA, and therefore only these agencies are qualified to accredit institutions of higher learning. Again, this means that only colleges or universities recognized by these agencies are qualified to accept student loans or financial aid.
However, the national accreditation landscape is lurking with unrecognized agencies, groups that have been formed to provide the facade of legitimacy to degree mills, diplomas mills, and other shady for-profit college schemes. Colleges or universities that have only received national accreditation from unrecognized agencies — those not included in the Department of Education’s list of national accreditors — should be approached with caution.
This indicates that the institution has likely not met the basic criteria used to measure currency, quality, and legitimacy in the eyes of the Department of Education or the CHEA. To reiterate once more, this is more than a symbolic distinction. Indeed, attending an institution with an unrecognized national accreditation would make you ineligible for financial aid.
It would also mean that your degree or certificate program is beholden to considerably less public oversight, which makes prospective students highly vulnerable to exploitation in the form of low education standards, meaningless degrees, and in some instances, even the collapse of the institution itself.
Learn how to tell the difference between a legitimate online college and a diploma mill.
This underscores just how important it is — if you plan to pursue a nationally accredited program — to ensure that this stamp of approval comes from one of the 12 department-recognized agencies listed above.
If you’re unsure of the credibility of a college or university on your list, you can consult the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
The Database offers three ways to navigate approved accrediting agencies:
- Get Data for one accredited institution/campus/site
- Get Data for accredited internships/residencies/programs
- Download data for all accredited locations and programs
To learn more about the general subject of accreditation, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who's Accrediting the Accreditors?
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