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Regional vs. National Accreditation: What Is the Difference?

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 10/6/2022

Accreditation is a complicated topic that confuses many prospective students, whether they're seeking their first postsecondary degree or their fourth. It's especially puzzling since the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) eliminated the main distinction between types of college accreditors in 2019: regional versus national.

What were these types of accreditation, and why have the rules changed? Read on to learn about institutional accreditation and how it can affect your educational and career goals.

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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.

On this page, we set aside programmatic accreditation in favor of discussing institutional accreditation, which agencies grant to a school as a whole.

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.

But the seven historically regional accreditation agencies disagree with the USDE's decision, arguing that their standards are in fact higher than those of many national accreditors. They claim that setting regional and national agencies on the same level may lead some accreditors to lower their standards — a possibility that the USDE admits. Other critics contend that colleges are now free to seek easier reviews than they've had in the past, which could lower their overall quality.

At the time of publication, only five schools nationwide have started the process of switching accreditors. They've done so because their current accreditor is going defunct. These five schools were formerly nationally accredited and are seeking reviews from a former regional accreditor.

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.

Beyond academic quality, there are a few more reasons that you should only consider accredited schools.

Financial Aid

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.

Even if you don't receive federal aid, state and private aid sources also typically require accreditation. It's a good idea to apply for all the scholarships, grants, and work-study funds you can, because it may help you save on student loan debt in the future.

Transferring Credits

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.

Credit transfer affects your ability to change schools in the middle of a degree — such as from one bachelor's program to another — as well as your ability to earn a higher degree later. It's a good practice to talk to an admissions officer at any school where you want to transfer or enroll in a program. This person should help confirm whether the school will accept your previous coursework. You can also read online college and university reviews to learn of any difficulties that students have faced when transferring.

Future Employment

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.

How To Check A School's Accreditation Status

Most schools list their accreditation status on their websites, but it's a good idea to confirm any claims they make. You can check that a school is accredited on the CHEA- and USDE-Recognized Accrediting Organizations page of CHEA's site. 

Note that CHEA still uses the former categories of regional, national faith-related, or national career-related accrediting organizations. It's unclear whether the association will update these in the future.

Bottom Line

Institutional accreditation is an important signifier of a college's quality. In 2020, the USDE removed the distinction between regional and national accrediting agencies, so now colleges can ask for an accreditation review from any accreditor regardless of geography. Schools and accreditors are both adapting to the new regime, so most are currently operating much as they did before.

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