Are you ready to discover your college program?
Written by: Staff Writer
What is Accreditation?
What is accreditation? Many students wonder why accreditation is important. In the higher education arena, accreditation refers to the process of evaluation that determines the quality of an institution's academic offerings and operational standards. Accreditation remains a voluntary process in the U.S. There are three main types of accreditation: regional, national, and programmatic. Nonprofit degree-oriented schools tend to seek regional accreditation, whereas sectarian and career-focused schools typically seek national accreditation.
Programmatic accreditation refers to the type of accreditation given to specific academic programs in fields including social work, engineering, and business. This guide explains why accreditation matters and explores the accreditation process itself in greater detail.
Who Gives Accreditation to Universities?
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) oversee the accreditation process in the U.S. The task of directly accrediting institutions and specific programs falls on various nongovernmental organizations and private agencies throughout the country. These accrediting bodies maintain a rigorous process of evaluation and adhere to strict accreditation standards that are regularly reviewed by CHEA and ED.
Regional and national accrediting bodies adhere to standards that have usually been determined and set by a group of experts in the field of education. In the case of programmatic accreditation, the standards are established by recognized leaders in the specific academic arena. New accrediting organizations must meet the qualifications set by the Accrediting Agency Evaluation Unit before they can be recognized by the ED or CHEA.
Why Accreditation Matters
Accreditation indicates top-quality educational offerings, so employers often prefer to hire graduates of accredited institutions because they know these budding professionals received an excellent education. However, accreditation impacts more than the quality of education.
How Does Accreditation Affect Financial Aid?
Every year, the Federal Student Aid department provides more than $120 billion in financial aid to help students pay for their college education or complete a trade program. To ensure the quality of education or training students receive, the department channels financial aid solely through accredited institutions. Additionally, certain types of federal loans or scholarship programs require students to be enrolled in an accredited college or university.
How Does Accreditation Affect Transfer Credits?
Colleges and universities that hold regional accreditation usually accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions. Students transferring credits from a school with national accreditation may find it difficult to do so if they are transferring to a regionally accredited college or university. However, schools that hold national accreditation often accept transfer credits from institutions that hold regional accreditation.
Since accreditation is widely understood as a mark of quality education, most schools make this information easy to find on their websites. Some schools designate a tab just for accreditation. Be wary of schools that do not share this information readily. Additionally, make sure the accrediting body is recognized by the ED or CHEA by checking the list of registered agencies.
You should also watch out for schools offering academic programs that sound too good to be true, such as those offering the chance to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in one year without an associate degree or transferrable credits. Accredited schools take pride in the services and academic programs they offer students. Avoid schools that are unresponsive to requests for information or assistance since a school's availability to students is often one of the criteria for accreditation.
Types Of Accreditation
The ED and CHEA recognize three types of accreditation: regional, national, and programmatic. Agencies that confer regional or national accreditation evaluate entire institutions based on a variety of factors including the range and depth of their academic offerings, faculty make-up, admissions procedures, and infrastructures and facilities. Programmatic or specialized agencies do not always accredit entire areas of study (such as engineering), but could focus on just a particular type of degree (such as master's level only).
Institutional – National
To date, CHEA and ED recognize 12 organizations that confer national accreditations. Five of these organizations focus on faith-related institutions such as the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accrediting Commission and the Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies. The remaining seven organizations focus on career-related schools such as the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).
The two overseeing bodies periodically update the list to include a newly accredited organization or reflect a loss of accrediting credentials. It is important to note that not all institutions are recognized by both CHEA and ED.
Institutional – Regional
Regional accrediting agencies focus on nonprofit, postsecondary, and degree-granting institutions. More than 15.2 million undergraduates attend these accredited colleges and universities each year and roughly $117 billion of Title IV student aid funds are processed through these institutions. These agencies form the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, which collectively accredit approximately 3,000 colleges and universities throughout the country.
ED and CHEA recognize six regional accrediting bodies in the United States. Each one is responsible for accrediting schools within its regional boundaries. The table below shows the six regional accrediting bodies plus the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
|ACCREDITING COMMISSIONS FOR COMMUNITY AND JUNIOR COLLEGES||California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (and some schools in Asia)|
|HIGHER LEARNING COMMISSION||Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming|
|MIDDLE STATES COMMISSION ON HIGHER EDUCATION||New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands|
|NEW ENGLAND COMMISSION OF HIGHER EDUCATION||Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some international institutions|
|NORTHWEST COMMISSION ON COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES||Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state|
|SOUTHERN ASSOCIATION OF COLLEGES AND SCHOOLS COMMISSION ON COLLEGES||Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia|
|WASC SENIOR COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY||California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (in addition to certain schools in Asia)|
Regional vs. National Accreditation
Regional and national accreditors focus on two distinct groups of institutions. Nationally accredited schools tend to be more affordable than regionally accredited institutions since many of them do not maintain extensive academic libraries or large campuses. Students often find it easier to gain admission to a nationally accredited school than to an institution with regional accreditation because the latter often maintains stricter admissions policies. Because of these two factors, some students opt to enroll in a nationally accredited school than in a regionally accredited college or university.
However, keep in mind that if your plans include earning a bachelor's or even a master's degree down the line, it may be better to enroll in a regionally accredited two-year college than a trade school with national accreditation. Most regionally accredited institutions hesitate to accept credits earned at schools that do not have the same type of accreditation.
Specialized or Programmatic
ED and CHEA currently recognize approximately 80 programmatic or specialized accrediting bodies, although few of these accreditors are actually recognized by both overseeing organizations. ED groups the accrediting organizations it acknowledges into six broad categories: arts and humanities, education training, legal, community and social services, personal care and services, and healthcare. CHEA recognizes program-level accreditors in more than 30 fields including business, forensic science, health informatics, and interior design.
Programmatic accreditors evaluate specific programs offered by accredited colleges and universities as well as programs offered by single-purpose schools. Some, like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, accredit business at all degree levels, while others, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, focus on undergraduate programs.
Founded in 1926, the DEAC serves as the main accreditor of schools that offer primarily distance education programs, including online degrees. ED and CHEA both recognize DEAC, which accredits education programs offered from the primary level all the way to doctoral studies. DEAC maintains a searchable database of accredited online schools.
To be eligible for DEAC accreditation, a school must offer all its programs predominantly in a distance or online format (51% or more). The school must also hold a valid license to operate from the state or a recognized regional body responsible for such authorization. Students can perform a quick search on their website to find out whether a school holds DEAC accreditation or not.
Which Accreditation is Best?
The decision to enroll in a nationally accredited school or a regionally accredited institution often depends on your specific circumstances, as well as your career and educational objectives. Attending a regionally accredited school makes transferring credits between institutions easier. However, trade schools and sectarian institutions (which often hold national accreditation) can sometimes serve some areas of study more proficiently than large universities and regional colleges. Additionally, nationally accredited schools usually offer shorter programs, which means you get to join the workforce, and start earning, sooner.
How Does Accreditation Work?
The accreditation process takes several years. Exact time frames vary between accrediting bodies. For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) reports that the process usually takes at least five years, often longer, to complete.
A school seeking accreditation typically begins the process by submitting a letter of inquiry to the regional or national accreditor holding jurisdiction over it. The school submits preliminary evidence demonstrating that it likely meets the accreditor's criteria for accreditation. The accreditation process formally begins when the accreditor, after an initial review of the preliminary evidence, invites the applicant to submit a letter of intent to pursue candidacy along with additional requirements.
The accreditation held by a brick-and-mortar school typically extends to its online and on-campus programs. Schools that are predominantly online undergo a slightly different accreditation process, as you will see below. However, CHEA and ED make sure accreditors apply the same rigorous standards to online schools and programs so off-campus students receive the same quality education as onsite learners.
Each accrediting body maintains its own set of accreditation criteria, which may understandably show significant variations. However, most accreditors require applicants to show a history of consistent operation for at least two years. Schools must also hold legal status in the state or region where it operates and maintain a list of educational programs that fall under the accreditor's purview.
HLC investigates several other factors for accreditation. Schools must demonstrate sufficient financial capacity to support its current and anticipated operational expenses, sound fiscal management, and manageable debt levels (if any). HLC also requires schools to maintain learning resources (libraries, labs, research centers) and support services that contribute to student success. HLC evaluates other factors such as the qualifications of a school's faculty and other academic personnel; the policies and procedures that govern students, faculty, and staff; and the consistency and accuracy of the manner by which the school presents relevant information to its stakeholders.
Schools seeking DEAC accreditation for its online degrees must offer at least 51% of its academic programs off campus. As a rule, DEAC requires schools to complete a similar rigorous process of evaluation as accreditors of onsite programs. Doing so ensures online students that they receive the same quality education as their on-campus counterparts with the only difference being the delivery method.
Schools usually give accreditors complete access to their online programs. This often takes the place of an onsite visit. Accrediting bodies look at how a school's student support services meet the unique needs of online enrollees. They may also request access to online students to assess the quality of their overall learning experience in terms of course content, ease of delivery, and program schedules.
Some accrediting bodies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), require applicants to complete an accreditation workshop prior to submitting their initial application. The workshop typically goes over application procedures, required documents, and the evaluation standards of the accrediting agencies. These workshops usually last for 1-2 days and are often held twice a year. SACSCOC requires a representative from each branch of a college or university to attend these workshops.
Accreditation involves an ongoing process of self-evaluation that schools voluntarily go through at certain periods to earn and maintain their status. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities requires schools to submit self-evaluation reports during its initial and interim candidacy periods, its initial accreditation stage, and again after three and seven years as an accredited member.
Schools evaluate their overall performance in terms of how well they measure up to the standards established by the accrediting body. Points of evaluation may include a school's institutional effectiveness, the sustainability of its fiscal policies, and continued relevance of its academic offerings. Online programs may look at additional metrics such as the strength and security of its technology platform, delivery formats, and the timeliness of its online programs.
Application and Readiness Assessment
Accrediting agencies require applicants to submit a comprehensive list of documents and evaluation materials prior to being granted candidacy status or initial accreditation. These often include incorporation papers with operating agreements, charter, and bylaws; proof of state and/or regional authorization to operate; a detailed description of the school's general education programs; and a roster of faculty and administrative personnel.
Accreditors of online schools usually require similar types of evaluation materials from schools applying for accreditation. DEAC requires schools to have been in operation for at least one year, versus two years for most accreditors of brick-and-mortar institutions. Additionally, online schools must show proof of a permanent physical facility that houses its business operations in a professional setting. DEAC does not accept P.O. boxes as a physical facility address.
Accrediting organizations closely examine a school self-evaluation report to find out more about an applicant's institutional effectiveness and strategic planning, impact statements, and expected program outcomes. Additionally, DEAC pays close attention to the quality and appropriateness of an online school's course delivery platform.
DEAC and other accreditors assess varying fees at different stages of the accreditation process. Most accrediting bodies advice schools that do not meet accreditation criteria to wait at least one year before reapplying. When a school is deemed not ready for accreditation, the process begins anew from the first step if they decide to reapply.
Curriculum Review and Third-Party Assessment
In reviewing an online school's application for accreditation, DEAC may consult with a subject matter expert to review a school's list of submitted programs. This is a step that is unique to the accreditation of online schools. DEAC also examines various course and graduation requirements (such as capstone projects or comprehensive exams) to make sure students graduate from the program with the same skill set and knowledge base as their on-campus counterparts working toward the same degree. DEAC may also contact students to obtain an assessment of their online learning experience.
When an accreditor determines that a school's application for accreditation may proceed, it usually assigns a liaison officer to coordinate the next steps of the candidacy process. For site-based institutions, this includes a campus visit. For online schools, this generally means an inspection of its administrative physical facility as well as access to a broad sample of its educational offerings. Accreditors schedule site visits ahead of time and the visiting team often consists of peer evaluators.
The visiting team engages in different types of activities during a campus visit. They may sit in and observe regular classes; interview students, faculty members, administrators, and other school personnel; inspect the school's physical resources such as libraries and laboratories; and perform a more thorough review of various materials including financial documents and institutional strategic plans.
If a school fails to meet the criteria for candidacy at this point, accreditors usually allot a prescribed amount of time for a school to demonstrate its ability to make the necessary changes within the candidacy period, which is typically two years. If a school fails to make a convincing case, accreditors terminate the process. A school can reapply for accreditation usually after one year, but the institution must start from the first step and not from the point where the process was terminated.
Publication and Maintaining Accreditation
Up until the time that a school is formally acknowledged as a candidate for accreditation, accreditors typically prohibit them from referring to any level of association with the accrediting body. Accreditors include this strict condition to prevent students and other educational stakeholders from being misled in any way.
Once a school achieves candidacy status, accreditors permit them to mention this on their website and in other school materials that are made available to the general public. Schools can also refer to their candidacy status in their fundraising efforts and in other official documents such as reports to the school board. However, accreditors usually require schools to use specific language in sharing their candidacy status in both public-facing and private communications.
Because accreditation remains a hallmark of high educational standards, most schools make this information readily available to students. Schools typically include their accreditation status in their websites, promotional materials, and official documents where this information is relevant. To quickly find out the accreditation status of a school or program, check the CHEA or ED websites.
It is important to note that accreditation is an ongoing process. An institution can lose its accreditation, either temporarily or permanently, when it fails to meet the standards set by the accrediting body that has proper jurisdiction over it. Accreditors set different schedules and criteria for maintaining accreditation. No accrediting body gives a permanent accreditation status to an institution. Always begin your search for the school that best meets your academic objectives by checking a prospective school's current accreditation status.
Get prepared for your next steps
Use articles and resources to uncover answers to common questions, get guidance on your goals, and learn about applying to schools.
Discover a program that is right for you.
Explore different options for you based on your degree interests.