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Accreditation and Higher Education: What do you need to know?

According to the U. S. Department of Education (USDOE), “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” This is the case for traditional colleges and universities and online institutions, which are currently evaluated for accreditation in the same way.

Since the government itself does not oversee all post secondary education, the accreditation system evolved to ensure that higher education institutions are providing a "basic level of quality". Higher education institutions and programs can elect to go though a peer review process that is coordinated by private and state accrediting organizations. These organizations are made up of higher education professionals who evaluate quality based on the organization's established standards.

Accreditation is important to you for several reasons:

  • Academic quality – The primary purpose of accreditation is to ensure that your program fulfills the basic role of providing you with an education. Methods for measuring the quality of the education you are receiving are not widely agreed upon and the definition of "quality education" varies. However, accrediting agencies do review schools and programs with an agreed upon list of standards. These standards vary across accrediting agencies and may be very specific to academic fields.
  • Transfer credits – If you are planning to transfer credits into an online program, or from an online program to another school, accreditation may help. Since accrediting agencies review courses and programs against common standards, this process can make the similarities of courses easier to identify. Transferring courses is never a sure thing and requests are usually evaluated individually. Transfer of course credit from a non-accredited school or program can be very difficult so if you are considering transfer credit as an option, you should consult with all of the institutions involved.
  • Financial aid – The U. S. Government makes a significant amount of financial aid available to students every year. This includes aid to online students. To be eligible for this funding, students usually need to be enrolled in an accredited program that is recognized by the USDOE. Linking Federal financial aid to accreditation is controversial and has gained recent attention on Capitol Hill. The Federal Student Aid website is a good resource for you as you research funding options and requirements.  
  • Employer expectations – Depending on your field of study and career goals, employers may be looking for graduates from programs with accreditation. This may be a general preference or specific requirement for accreditation by a particular agency.
  • State licensure – There are occupations in which a State license is required in order for you to work in the field. Examples include teaching, nursing, and law, but there are many others. If you need a license to work, a test is often part of the process. Graduating from an accredited program is usually a requirement to sit for the test and to be issued a license. Agencies in each State monitor these areas of work closely and also provide a form of accreditation to schools and programs operating within the state.

Types and Levels of Accreditation

It is possible that some program areas or schools may have more than one kind of accreditation. There are accrediting organizations at the national and regional level and others that focus on specific academic programs.

Institutional – Institutional accreditation organizations review an institution as a whole. These organizations exist on either the national level or at a regional level.

  • National accrediting agencies look at institutions across the country. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), most of the nationally accredited institutions are for-profit institutions. Many faith-based and career institution accreditors are also national accreditors.
  • Regional accrediting agencies review only schools in a specific geographic area. There are six recognized regional accreditors in the United States.The CHEA also states that the majority of regionally accredited institutions are nonprofit.

The regional accrediting system is somewhat older than the national system and the one used by most traditional colleges and universities. Courses and programs from regionally accredited institutions are often considered to be more widely accepted by other schools and employers. This is not always the case, but may be important to consider if your goals include transferring to a traditional school or program at some point or continuing your education with advanced degrees in the future.

Take a look at the USDOE website for a list of recognized national and regional accrediting organizations. It is possible for an institution to acquire both national and regional accreditation. The goals of national and regional accreditation are the same – to provide assurance of a basic level of quality.

Specialized – Specialized accrediting organizations focus on measuring program-level quality regardless of the geographic location or nonprofit/for-profit status. Each of these accreditors is focused on a particular field of study, major or concentration. Two examples of specialized accreditation organizations are the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). NCATE provides standards and review for education programs and CCNE provides standards and review for nursing programs. A list of recognized specialized accrediting agencies can also be found on the USDOE website. 

Note that there are many accrediting organizations and often multiple accreditation options for any one school or any specific field of study. An institution may have national and/or regional accreditation as well as various programs with related specialized accreditation. It is up to the school and its programs to decide which accreditation types and levels to pursue.

What does the accreditation process look like?

There are multiple steps in the accreditation process that take place over time. The schools provide detailed reports and data about their students, faculty, and curriculum. Site visits are also conducted, even for online universities, where meetings are often held at the institution's headquarters with faculty and other representatives in attendance. Accreditation is also monitored over time and programs are re-evaluated to ensure that the established standards are maintained. Accreditation is not just a one-time review. The USDOE accreditation website provides more detailed information on the steps of the accrediting process.

Conduct Your Own Research

You should approach accreditation from several different angles. It's a complex topic that has gained a lot of media attention recently particularly for for-profit online programs. Thoroughly understanding your educational and career needs, and what a program can do to help you meet those needs, will help you to make the best decision possible about your online education options.

Ask questions:

  • Is the school and/or program accredited? If it is, ask if you can see the most recent review.
  • What are the quality standards upon which the school or program is evaluated?  If the school and program are not accredited, ask if any other review of the curriculum is taking place. How are they measuring quality?
  • Does the school or program's accreditation make it eligible for Federal financial aid resources? If you are planning to apply for financial aid, you should understand all of your options before enrolling.
  • Do employers in your field expect graduates from accredited programs?  Check with the professional organizations in your field. You may find information on their websites, but you can also call and ask for information directly. You may even want to approach a local employer and ask about policies when hiring new graduates.
  • Will you need to apply for State licensure to work after graduation?  If you will have to seek approval through the State and take an exam, will the program meet the requirements to prepare you to do this?

Verify information:

  • Check the USDOE's lists of recognized accrediting agencies and their Database of Accredited Postsecondary Schools and Programs. Just as there are unreliable institutions, there are also unreliable accrediting agencies. Review the USDOE lists as part of your research.
  • Check the CHEA website for more information about accreditation and accrediting organizations. This organization also has searchable databases of accrediting agencies and accredited schools.
  • Go to the accrediting agency's website and find out more about the program you are considering. The Higher Learning Commission's (HLC) public information page is an example. Here the HLC provides a directory of schools the organization has accredited and additional details about the process and how they handle complaints.
  • If you are considering Federal financial aid programs, refer to the list of USDOE approved accrediting agencies related to financial aid eligibility.
  • If applicable, talk with the State agency that monitors licensure in your field. You may find answers on their websites, but you can also contact someone directly to help with your questions.

Accreditation is evolving. There is a call from many in government and higher education to revisit the current process of accreditation and develop new ways to evaluate quality, especially for online programs. These issues lead to questions and debates ranging from financial aid eligibility to measuring credit hours. As you move forward with your education, be aware of the ongoing discussions and how they may impact your decisions.

Is a program or school required to be accredited?

Each institution decides whether or not to pursue accreditation. It is not required. After conducting your research you will need to decide whether or not accreditation is important to you and your goals.

Be Proactive

Accreditation can play a major role in helping you reach your educational and career goals. You should feel comfortable asking questions of the institution, the accrediting agencies, and potential employers, to make sure you have all of the information you need to make informed choices. To do this, you need to proactively ask questions, before you enroll.

May 3rd, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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