Overview of Accreditation
The word accreditation refers to two things:
The process of participating in a quality review by a recognized, independent accrediting agency of academic experts.
The stamp of approval that these agencies confer on a school or academic program.
Higher education institutions and departments volunteer for the accreditation process for several reasons, all of which help colleges market themselves to students.
- Earning accreditation allows schools to participate in federal financial aid programs, which lets many students attend college at a lower or deferred cost.
- Individual departments seek programmatic accreditation because employers in their specialty may prefer to hire graduates of such programs.
- Accreditation provides a testament to academic quality.
How Does Institutional Accreditation Work?
Each accrediting agency has different processes, but most of them take the same initial steps. An accreditation review begins with a self-study. College officials assess how well their institution meets the accreditor's standards for faculty qualifications, curricula, student outcomes, resources and services, and financial health.
After the self-study, a team from the accrediting body visits the college to see the school's processes for themselves and conduct a peer review. This group consists of professors and administrators with no connections to the institution under review, which reduces the likelihood of conflicts of interest. After the site visit, the team decides whether to grant accreditation and issues a public report stating its decision.
A team from the accrediting body visits the college to see the school's processes for themselves and conduct a peer review.
Each college that earns accreditation must undergo periodic review to maintain its credentials, at intervals specified by the accreditor. A review's outcome is never guaranteed — accreditors have been known to reverse both positive and negative decisions on subsequent reviews.
Regional Vs. National Accreditation Agencies, Then
Before the summer of 2020, institutional accrediting agencies were divided into two camps: regional and national. The nonprofit group Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognized seven regional accrediting bodies in the U.S. and its territories. Each regional accreditor was responsible for accrediting schools that confer associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees in six geographic areas.
On the other hand, national accreditation agencies reviewed schools anywhere in the country. They focused on a particular subject domain or course delivery method, such as biblical education, vocational schools, or distance learning.
Most experts believed regional accreditors' standards to be higher than those of national accreditors, though it's difficult to find specific data on the standards. Some of the common traits among nationally accredited schools were higher acceptance rates, lower average tuition fees, and more flexible payment plans.
Regional Vs. National Accreditation, Now
Technically, there's no longer any difference. The USDE's 2019 rule change, which went into effect in 2020, removed the geographic distinction between regional and national accreditors. Now, any institution can approach any formerly regional or national accrediting agency for a review.
In practice, most accrediting agencies will likely continue to do exactly what they did before. For example, national accreditors focusing on religious institutions are unlikely to expand their reach to secular institutions. However, it's possible that some agencies could change their quality standards.
The Debate Over Accreditation Standards
In making its case for the new regime, the USDE argued that there were no actual differences in academic standards between the two types of accreditors. Some experts agree, and they further contend that the new arrangement is a better reflection of reality: After all, formerly regional bodies accredit traditional schools that offer online degree programs, so a student in Florida could theoretically attend a school accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education without leaving the state.
Why Is It Important to Attend an Accredited Institution?
By selecting an accredited college, you can be sure that an independent organization has held your school to account within the last few years. It doesn't guarantee that you'll have a great experience, but it does mean that experts in curriculum, instruction, and administration have approved the institution.
You must attend an accredited school to qualify for federal financial aid. This is one aspect that national and regional accreditation always had in common.
Previously, credit transfer was one area of divergence between regional and national accreditors. Regional standards for curricula and faculty quality tended to be more stringent than national standards, so regionally accredited colleges usually didn't accept credits from nationally accredited schools.
Currently, any school can choose to accept or reject academic credits that you earned at another institution. It's almost certainly true that no accredited institution will allow your credits to transfer if you earned them at an unaccredited school. And given the opposition of once-regional accreditors to the new USDE rules, there's a chance that a formerly regionally accredited college won't accept credits from a formerly nationally accredited school.
Employers have wide discretion to accept whatever academic qualifications they want, but most are more interested in the fact of accreditation than whether it's from a formerly regional or national organization. That is, employers might require candidates with degrees from accredited schools, but they typically don't ask for a degree approved by a particular accreditor.
Employers have wide discretion to accept whatever academic qualifications they want, but most are more interested in the fact of accreditation than whether it's from a formerly regional or national organization.
But institutional accreditation can affect employment in that it's not always divorced from programmatic accreditation. In the past, some programmatic accreditors would only certify programs within regionally accredited schools. They might still choose to accredit only programs at schools that have a stamp from one of the seven historically regional agencies. But the USDE's rules are too new to know for sure. You can check the program accreditor for your field of study to be safe; each agency has a section on its site that describes programs' eligibility requirements.
In addition, you can spend time reviewing the accreditation requirements for your intended career if you've already decided on one. You might email professionals in the field, examine reports by programmatic accrediting agencies, and read job postings on sites such as Indeed or LinkedIn.