Every year, thousands of students research colleges and universities to find academic programs and determine the overall quality of the institution. In some cases, this is fairly easy. Many traditional brick-and-mortar schools have years to build up a reputation of academic excellence, but newer schools, including online colleges, don’t have that luxury. Instead, students have to find other ways to verify the school’s academic programs. One way to tell if a school’s academic programs meet an acceptable standard is through evaluating accreditation – the affirmation that a school’s programs meet set criteria and benchmarks.
Benefits of Accreditation
- Shows the public the school is a trustworthy educational institution.
- Helps to validate the integrity of student transcripts.
- Allows students to transfer between accredited institutions.
- Shows employers that a job applicant has received an appropriate level of education.
- Encourages the improvement of academic programs.
Schools are accredited in two main ways: institutional accreditation, which looks at the entire college or university, and programmatic accreditation, which focuses on a particular program in a subject such as chemical engineering or business.
Institutional accreditation involves confirming that a school has sufficient information resources (such as libraries and journal subscriptions) and student services, as well as a qualified faculty of sufficient size and policies to protect your interests in case of dispute or problems. Typically, it also requires a record of successful and graduated students.
Programmatic accreditation varies widely. Online colleges have different needs for the programs they provide and the students they serve, and the standards for chemical engineering will be much different from early childhood education. It is possible for a school to be accredited as an institution, and not have specific accreditation for individual departments. For example, accredited online colleges specializing in business education may offer math courses without accreditation in mathematics. This will not reflect poorly on you if you pursue a business degree at that college, although you may wish to seek a degree in mathematics elsewhere for this reason.
An institution seeking either type of accreditation submits an application describing their program and explaining how it meets the accrediting body’s standards, along with a substantial fee to cover the expenses of the application process. If everything is in order, assessors or a survey team arrive to verify the application’s claims, observe classes and speak with faculty and students. Assuming no problems are discovered, the school is entered into the rolls of accredited institutions and periodically examined to make sure standards are kept up.
National vs. Regional Accreditation
CHEA has historically focused on traditional brick-and-mortar educational institutions, and its efforts are divided through six regional accrediting bodies, each of which covers schools in certain parts of the United States as well as nearby nations and territories, such as Puerto Rico.
Regionally accredited online colleges are not common, although more traditional institutions are also offering primarily or entirely online degree programs. Regional online college accreditation is valid, especially if you are taking courses from a college in your area. You may have the option to take some courses on-campus, and you will typically also have access to their libraries and other brick-and-mortar facilities. Nationally accredited schools are usually specialized, either by focusing on a particular trade or vocation or on theological study.
Programmatic accreditation is usually conducted on a national level as well, with different professional groups providing online colleges accreditation in subjects from audiology to veterinary medicine. Often, these professional groups are also open for membership, which can provide you with valuable professional contacts and additional material for study. This type of institution is ideal if you want to pursue your degree at a college that is nationally or regionally accredited and also accredited in your chosen program of study. However, this isn’t always possible, so at the very least, you should attend an institution with national or regional accreditation.
Determining if an Institution is Accredited
Some schools are not accredited because they are too new or do not want to be accredited. However, it is in your best interest to either choose an accredited school that will be recognized or closely investigate schools that are not accredited. Find out why they haven’t reached accreditation, if they are pursuing it and if credits will transfer.
It is important to remember that the Department of Education will not recognize any accrediting agency that does not comply with its criteria of academic excellence. Once an institution is accredited, the Department of Education will add it to its database of recognized accreditation agencies. If your school is not eligible for federal financial aid, chances are it is not recognized by the Department of Education.
There are currently over eighty accreditation agencies that accredit on the national and regional level, and for specialized academic programs such as arts, social services, healthcare, education, law, and personal care and services. Currently, there are 25 accrediting agencies that are pending recognition from the Department of Education, either for initial recognition or to expand the scope of its accreditation. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes many of the same institutions, in addition to institutions outside of the United States. There are currently a total of 68 national, regional, faith-based and programmatic accreditation agencies recognized by CHEA.
There are six regional accrediting agencies in the United States and many others that provide specialized accreditation. These organizations have directories of accredited schools on their websites, which is another tool you can use to verify the accreditation status of an online college. The six regional agencies are:
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Check and Cross-Check Accreditation Resources
Most schools include accreditation information on their website, but the Better Business Bureau reports that some of these accrediting organizations may be bogus. If you come across an accrediting organization you’re not sure about, you can search the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) website to see if it is a nationally-recognized institution. You can also search by school, and similar to the NCES database the page will include the name of the accrediting agency and the date of accreditation. However, the DOE states the information within the database may not accurate, current or complete. Therefore, you may want to check both sources to get the most up-to-date information.