Accreditation. Many college students have heard of it, but not all of them understand it. Consider this: The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) reported that 7,818 institutions and 22,650 specialized programs were accredited in 2011. Overall, about 25 million students attended accredited schools that year. In other words, accreditation is big business. You can easily find campus-based and online accredited colleges using our Top Online Colleges tool, but it helps to also understand how the accreditation process works and, perhaps most importantly, why it matters.
Why Accreditation Matters
Generally speaking, accreditation is the process by which an independent organization reviews schools or programs to ensure they comply with certain quality standards. According to CHEA, attending a school that is not accredited can impact affordability. That's because the government requires students to attend accredited institutions and programs in order to receive federal funds. This includes student aid, like grants and federal student loans, but also other federal funding, like scientific research grants. In 2011, the federal government distributed an estimated $169 billion to students attending accredited institutions nationwide. Often, state funds are also contingent on accreditation status, so it can literally pay to do your research.
Financial aid eligibility is not the only way accreditation impacts students. Both CHEA and the Department of Education warn that accreditation is important for students transferring from one organization to the next. Receiving schools often consider accreditation when deciding whether to accept certain college credits. Keep in mind that this applies to graduate schools, too, since many institutions require applicants to hold degrees from accredited institutions. Even some employers consider accreditation when weighing potential candidates. Not all institutions are accredited by the same types of organizations, so it is important for students to understand the many different types of accrediting agencies when evaluating certain programs.
Types of Accreditation
Understanding the different types of accrediting agencies is the first step in researching a program's quality; being able to recognize whether an accrediting agency is actually reliable is the second. Here is a quick review of the many different types of accreditation and what they mean.
Institutional accreditation is perhaps the most recognizable form of accreditation for which schools are evaluated. As the name suggests, institutional accreditation applies to the whole institution. CHEA reported that in 2011, it recognized 56 institutionally accrediting organizations while the Department of Education recognized 54. Here are the various forms of institutional accreditation.
- National accreditation: Some organizations specialize in reviewing and accrediting institutions on a national level, including public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit schools. This includes 2-year, 4-year and even graduate and doctoral-level institutions. Both campus-based and online schools can be accredited. Each agency establishes its own accreditation criteria, which is often freely available on its website. Consider cross-checking national accreditation organizations against CHEA or the Department of Education to ensure they are recognized. Here are examples of some that are: The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, and the Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission.
- National, faith-based accreditation: CHEA reports that many religiously-affiliated colleges and universities seek accreditation through a faith-based organization. As with the previous class of national accreditation organizations, these agencies each set their own criteria for accreditation.
- Regional accreditation: The vast bulk of accredited colleges are accredited on the regional level. There are a handful of regional accreditors nationwide. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, for instance, accredits institutions operating in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges evaluates schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. You can find out what organization accredits schools and colleges in your state by visiting CHEA or the Department of Education online. As with national and faith-based agencies, they set their own standards for accreditation, but these tend to be freely available on its website.
Programmatic, or Specialized, Accreditation
Some accreditation agencies evaluate and accredit programs rather than institutions. That means that a student applying to business or law school should consider not only whether the institution has been accredited, but whether their particular program-of-choice is accredited, too. Examples of specialized accreditation agencies include the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
Though this type of accreditation is important, it is not necessarily as common as institutional accreditation. CHEA reports that in 2011, there were 62 recognized programmatic accrediting agencies that accredited more than 22,650 programs nationwide, impacting more than 3.4 million enrollees. This may seem a sizeable share, but it is slim compared to the nearly 25 million students attending programs accredited on the institutional level that same year.
How to Find an Accredited School or Program
Most schools and programs, recognizing the importance of accreditation, freely advertise their accreditation status along with applicable accrediting agencies on their websites. This is true both of campus-based and online accredited colleges. You can quickly search for accredited schools using our Top Colleges tool. Once you have nailed down a program that appeals to you, CHEA recommends cross-checking any accrediting agencies against its database of recognized organizations, or those recognized by the Department of Education.
1. "Accreditation in the United States," U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg2.html#U.S.
2. "An Overview of U.S. Accreditation," Council for Higher Education Accreditation, August, 2012, Judith S. Eaton, http://www.chea.org/pdf/Overview%20of%20US%20Accreditation%202012.pdf
3. "Important Questions About Accreditation, Degree Mills and Accreditation Mills," Council for Higher Education Accreditation, http://www.chea.org/degreemills/default.htm
4. "Update: Accreditation Actions, CHEA Almanac Online," Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 2012, http://www.chea.org/Almanac%20Online/index.asp#