Types of Accreditation
It is important to note that not all accreditation is equal. There are accrediting agencies on the institutional and national levels, as well as other agencies that focus on specific academic disciplines or institutions. Some schools and programs are even accredited by more than one type of agency.
Institutional accreditation is the most prestigious form of recognition. In the U.S., there are six recognized accrediting agencies. Prior to 2019, each agency was limited to reviewing institutions within its assigned region. Today, these agencies primarily review schools in their original regions but are allowed to work with schools in any location.
There are several accrediting agencies that recognize schools across the country. These national agencies typically work with trade or vocational schools, faith-based institutions, and some online-only schools. While the U.S. Department of Education does not review online schools, it does maintain a list of accrediting bodies that it recognizes. Some of the most well-known national accreditors include:
Hybrid accrediting agencies set standards for specialized programs at both freestanding institutions and large institutions. The following hybrid accrediting agencies review programs and units within vocational or specialized schools and postsecondary institutions:
Also known as professional or specialized accreditation, programmatic accreditation is designed for specialized colleges, schools, programs, or departments within an institution or university that has already received accreditation. These agencies look for specific aspects of a program or department that set it apart from others. They also confirm that programs are educating students to meet relevant industry standards. Examples include:
There are more than 40 specialized accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in the following categories: healthcare, personal care and services, community and social services, legal studies, education training, and arts and humanities. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), programmatic accreditation extends to approximately 19,000 programs across the U.S.
How Schools and Programs Become Accredited
According to the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation is not only a status but a process as well. Obtaining institutional accreditation is neither easy nor quick, particularly for educational institutions seeking approval for the very first time.
However, while the main purpose of accreditation is to demonstrate proof of a legitimate school, some universities gain important benefits themselves through accreditations. For example, accreditation can help online colleges demonstrate the quality of their programs and services, which may help them attract the best students.
The following describes the basic steps in the accreditation process for schools, whether on-campus or online. Individual programs within a college undergo the same process but on a smaller scale focused mainly on curriculum, learning objectives, and faculty.
The first step is a written self-assessment from the school. The purpose of the self-study is to evaluate the institution's operations as they measure against the accrediting body's education standards. The self-study may also include a detailed review of the school's objectives and goals, as well as any challenges that the institution has faced.
A committee formed from other schools is guided by the accrediting agency and evaluates the resources, course materials, and curriculum of the school seeking accreditation. The committee then compares the institution's operations against the education standards of the accrediting organization for learning resources, support services, faculty, educational programs, effectiveness, administration, and institutional mission.
This step usually takes the form of a series of meetings in which representatives of the accrediting agency sit down with students, administrators, and faculty to gain a more in-depth view of the institution and how people feel about the school.
Following the initial evaluation, the accrediting agency decides whether the school has successfully met its standards. In addition, the agency may recommend that the school undergoes constant monitoring to ensure that the standards continue to be met.
Once a school is granted accreditation, the agency conducts reviews on a regular basis to ensure that the school is continuing to perform as expected. These reviews can also allow the agency to identify any areas in which the institution may need to improve. How often a college is reviewed varies according to the level of the degree program and the type of institution itself. Time frames range from every two years to every 10 years.
The Importance of Accreditation for Students
If you're a prospective college student, you have likely spent some time comparing various programs and schools in your college search. Knowing the accreditation status of each institution you're interested in can help you select the best accredited online colleges for your chosen field of study. There are also several other reasons why accreditation matters:
No institution is required to accept transfer credits from any other school, but accreditation can help. Most colleges will not consider accepting transfer credits if they were earned at a nonaccredited school. Students enrolling in courses and expecting to be able to transfer those credits farther down the road are advised to examine the accreditation of their current college as well as the guidelines of the schools to which they may wish to transfer.
Students interested in applying for and receiving federal financial aid such as Perkins Loans and Pell Grants should note that the U.S. Department of Education requires institutions to hold accreditation if they will be offering financial aid to students. This is also true for several state aid programs.
In some cases, employers view graduates of accredited colleges as more prepared than those who earned their degrees from unaccredited institutions. Accreditation offers employers some assurance that the school has maintained high academic standards and prepares its students with the appropriate level of skills and knowledge. Accreditation may also be required as part of certification or licensure procedures in some fields.
Similar to how employers might view a graduate of an accredited school, graduate school admissions offices may also look more favorably on students who completed accredited undergraduate degree programs. In many cases, graduation from an accredited institution is considered a prerequisite for application and enrollment in graduate-level programs.
Fraudulent Accreditation Agencies
Verifying that an institution is accredited is an excellent way to ensure that a student is not enrolling in a "diploma mill" that offers subpar education. However, it is also just as important to confirm that the agency that is accrediting a particular institution is legitimate.
CHEA and other organizations monitor accrediting agencies to ensure that they are providing adequate reviews of schools and degree programs. According to CHEA, some schools falsify their accreditation status by seeking accreditation from a fraudulent agency. Unauthorized agencies appear to provide accreditation but do not have the authority or means to do so, and they do not demand the high standards required by approved agencies. It's also possible for a school to claim accreditation from an agency that doesn't actually exist.
Here are several questions that CHEA has created to help identify potential diploma mill schools:
- Are there few requirements for graduation?
- Does the school allow degrees to be purchased?
- Does the school make claims for which it has no evidence?
- Are there any, or few, standards for quality that are published by the accrediting agency or organization?
If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions, the school's accreditation status may be fraudulent. Be sure to check both a school's website and the CHEA or U.S. Department of Education websites to confirm that the school is accredited by an authorized agency. A degree from a diploma mill may not be recognized by employers, state licensing agencies, or master's or doctorate programs.