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If you are looking for a college or university, you are considering cost and programs offered, but are you checking out college accreditation? This is arguably one of the most important factors in whether a school meets your needs.

What is College Accreditation?

College accreditation is a process by which institutions of higher learning evaluate one another. According to the Higher Education Commission of Maryland, schools set common standards of excellence or goals to which they believe all schools should adhere. They form associations to administer accreditation programs, which schools enter into voluntarily. There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional and special, or program accreditation. Institutional accreditation is the most common. It means the college or university is accredited as a whole, and this lends credibility to the school. There is national and regional accreditation. The United States is divided into six regions:

• Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
• New England Association of Schools and Colleges
• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
• Northwest association of Schools and Colleges
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
• Western Association of Schools and Colleges

The other type of accreditation is special or program accreditation. Universities typically offer many courses of study. There are organizations which offer accreditation to these individual programs and not to the university as a whole. The Council on Social Work Education, for example, is an accrediting association for schools of social work. To be accepted as an approved accrediting organization in America the group must be endorsed by the United States Department of Education.

Why is Accreditation Important?

College accreditation is a sign that the school adheres to goals and standards recognized as important to the quality of education. A school's accreditation affects whether you can get Federal ( Title V) and state financial aid. It also ensures that your credits will be accepted by another college if you should transfer between schools. Many graduate programs will not admit students from unaccredited schools. That is because a certain level of understanding and proficiency is presumed when undertaking higher education. Master's level forensic programs, for example, require an extensive background in science and math. Employers often look not only at your degree but whether your college is accredited when deciding which job applicant to hire. Many professional certification boards will not allow students from unaccredited schools to sit for licensing exams.

Is Accreditation Important When Choosing an Online School?

Accreditation is probably the most important thing to look at when you choose an online school. In the 1990s, at the genesis of the online education boom, there was a glut of for-profit schools that offered degrees to anyone who could pay for them. The web-based schools earned a black eye in credibility that affected all online education. Since then, accrediting boards have extended their credentials to distance learning and online schools and the respectability of degrees earned from these accredited schools equals that from traditional colleges.

If you are uncertain whether a school is accredited, check your regional accreditation association for that school's name. Some colleges are simply too new to have accreditation, but the association will be able to tell you if they have a legitimate charter. The best assurance of quality education is college accreditation.

Related: Top 10 Colleges for Affordable Online Degrees

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