Understanding Accreditation

These industry-specific articles will cover this topic in more depth for those interested in pursuing a career in healthcare:

Accreditation is an incredibly important facet of your education. However, many people do not understand even the basics of the accreditation process. Before choosing a school, it is important that you have a clear picture of exactly who accredits the school and what that accreditation means for your future. Without accreditation, you will find yourself with a degree employers do not respect.

The following set of articles cover the basics of accreditation. From how schools are accredited, to who does the actual accreditation, to what kinds of accreditation exist, these series of articles will help you make an informed decision when choosing a school.

What is Accreditation?

Most define accreditation as a status which shows the public that a school has met and is maintaining a high level of standards set by an accrediting agency. However, the accreditation process can be confusing to many. Who are the accreditation agencies? How were they selected? What do they look for in a school? What is the difference between accreditation agencies and types of accreditation? The following article is designed to help answer some of these basic questions.

How are Schools Accredited?

Accreditation agencies look for different attributes depending on the type of school and most specialize it certain kinds of learning institutions. A vocational culinary institute, for example, will face different accreditation standards than a medical school residency program because of the very different fields. However, all schools are subject to some overarching principles of accreditation that span fields and form the foundation for the process. For instance, all accrediting institutions hold that schools must have a clearly defined mission that aims to better educate and serve the students. Further, all schools must demonstrate that the school has the resources to achieve its mission while showing evidence of the mission being achieved.

Additionally, almost all institutions must commit to periodic and unannounced external reviews as well as a rigorous internal review programs to ensure that accreditation standards are continually being met.

Who Accredits Schools

The answer to this question is very important. You will need to make sure that your school is accredited by a reputable agency. The U.S. government does not regulate accreditation and instead, appoints other bodies to do the job. However, due to the large amount of fraudulent online schools, fake accrediting agencies have been popping up all over the Web. Do not fall into their trap. The U.S. Secretary of Education recognizes the agencies believed to be reliable authorities on accreditation and lists these agencies on the US Department of Education's website. Making sure the agency your school is accredited by is on this list is the easiest way to ensure the accreditation is legitimate.

If you live outside the U.S. or are enrolled in a distance education program that is based outside of the U.S., then you will want to make sure your school is accredited by an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA is the international authority on post-secondary accreditation and also maintains a list of agencies it deems reputable on its website.

What Does Accreditation Mean to You?

It may seem like accreditation has no importance to you as a student, but that could not be further from the truth. When you graduate and look for a job, employers take into consideration the school you attended and if it is accredited by a reliable agency. If your degree is from an institution that has questionable accreditation, employers will question the validity of your degree and your potential as a good job candidate. Also, if you plan on transferring to another institution at any time in your academic career, no school will take transfer credits from an unaccredited university.

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Why Accreditation Matters

Does "accreditation" just seem like a random piece of college jargon to you? If so, you are not alone. Many students are unsure about what accreditation means and why it is important. After all, as long as you learn the material, you should be able to walk away with a degree that means something, right?

Not necessarily. While some unaccredited programs might offer valuable learning experiences, not all educational offerings are created equal. Attending an unaccredited program can mean that you will not be eligible for federal financial aid, you will not be able to transfer credits to another school, and you will not be able to obtain appropriate professional licensure in your field. Accreditation can make the difference between embarking on an exciting career path, or being saddled with debt and worthless credits.

So what does accreditation mean, and how can you make sure that your school of choice is accredited?

Accreditation is a voluntary evaluation process that institutions of higher education undergo in order to maintain standards of educational quality agreed upon by members of an accrediting body. Accreditation assessments may include self-study on the part of the institution as well as evaluations by representatives of peer institutions who belong to the same accrediting agency. There are numerous accrediting agencies in the United States. The most widely recognized accrediting agencies for colleges and universities are:

  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
  • North Central Association (NCA)

Accreditation by these agencies (and some other similar agencies) is known as institutional accreditation. In addition, some careers may require that students attend programs with specialized accreditation. Specialized accreditation typically applies to certain vocations such as law or nursing. In this case, the accrediting agency is a professional organization that evaluates the effectiveness of a program in terms of how well it prepares students to meet certain professional standards. Students should determine if their career path requires that their program of choice be accredited by one of these specialized agencies before committing to a program.

The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit colleges and universities itself, but it does maintain a database of accredited schools and recognized accrediting agencies. This is an excellent place for students to start looking for information about school and program accreditation. The CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation) is another good source of information. The CHEA also does not accredit institutions itself, but it has information about accrediting agencies.

What are some red flags that an institution is unaccredited?

  • Students are not eligible for federal financial aid.
  • There is evidence of numerous student complaints about educational quality.
  • Credits are awarded for very little work.
  • The "accrediting agency" for the institution is not listed as a recognized agency by the Department of Education
  • The institution has a name that is very similar to a well-known college or university.

An accredited degree can make a huge difference in your future career; doing a little research now can save time and trouble in the future.

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Programmatic Accreditation vs. Institutional Accreditation

Imagine five students, with rosy future careers as a lawyer, librarian, dentist, nurse, and psychologist lying ahead of them. Although their interests and career paths are radically different, they all have one important question to answer before choosing their professional program.

Is their program of choice-not just their college or university-properly accredited? In order to answer this question, each student must first understand the difference between institutional accreditation and program accreditation.

Institutional Accreditation

For institutional accreditation, representatives from dedicated accrediting institutions evaluate colleges and universities. This is a means for colleges and universities to assess their own performance and compare themselves with other schools.

If a school is awarded accreditation means that the institution meets certain standards of educational quality. The most widely accepted institutional accrediting bodies in the United States are six regional agencies:

  1. New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  2. Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  3. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
  4. North Central Association (NCA)
  5. Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  6. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

Institutional accreditation is not necessarily a guarantee that credits will transfer between institutions, although it does make it far more likely. Students can check with the program to which they wish to transfer to see if credits will be accepted. Attending an accredited program also carries numerous other benefits. Students at institutionally accredited organizations are eligible for federal financial aid, and employers are much more likely to recognize accredited degree programs. Furthermore, having undergone an accreditation process means that the institution meets a high standard of educational quality.

Unaccredited Institutions

In contrast, many unaccredited institutions are the equivalent of diploma mills, providing nothing of actual value to their students. Similarly, some "accrediting agencies" are also mills, set up simply to give an aura of legitimacy to the institutions that they falsely accredit. Students should always check the U.S. Department of Education database of recognized accrediting bodies and institutions.

Programmatic Accreditation

The second type of accreditation, program accreditation, is generally administered by professionally oriented specialty accrediting bodies. The idea is that professionals in a given field are best able to judge a program's educational quality. For instance, law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association and library schools are accredited by the American Library Association. Individual professions-such as nursing, dentistry, and psychology-are covered by their own specialized agencies. In many cases, attending a program that is recognized by the right agency is a prerequisite for obtaining a job in fields such as psychology, law, and healthcare. Many programmatic accreditors (such as the APA) require that accredited programs be housed in an institutionally accredited school.

Programs may be offered that are judged by these specialty bodies, without necessarily possessing institutional accreditation. For instance, continuing education programs within non-educational settings (such as hospitals) may be accredited by a specialized accreditation agency. Such courses may count professionally (towards professional certifications or state licenses) but will not transfer for college transfer credit. Similarly, if a specialty body accredits a program at a school, but the school itself is not institutionally accredited, the program may have professional value, yet credits will not transfer and students may not be able to receive federal financial aid. Since professional requirements vary, it is crucial to find out what accreditation is necessary for a given career.

Accreditation Requirements

No matter what vocation a student chooses, it is wise for her to become familiar with the professional requirements in the field. Tools for investigating professional accreditation requirements include:

  1. Seeking out information from professional associations (such as the American Psychological Association or American Bar Association). These organizations are often either accrediting agencies themselves, or can provide students with the appropriate information.
  2. Crosschecking institutional accreditation claims with the U.S. Department of Education database for the most current information.
  3. Searching for student reviews of the educational quality at a given institution; these may be a tip-off that a program lacks accreditation or is on its way to losing accreditation.

With a little research into accreditation, students can be assured of taking the right steps towards a rewarding career.

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Regional Accreditation vs. National Accreditation

You have done your research. You know how important accreditation is to your educational experience, and you are determined to find out if your school of choice is accredited before you commit to a program. But there are dozens of different accrediting organizations. Does it matter what agency accredits your school? After all, accreditation is accreditation, right?

Unfortunately, that is not quite true. The organization that accredits a college, university, or vocational program is a major indicator of educational quality. Your school must be evaluated by a recognized accrediting agency in order for you to get your money's worth. But with so many accrediting agencies (including fraudulent "accrediting agencies" with official-looking websites) how can you tell what to look for when you decide what school to attend?

Regional Accreditation

First of all, you need to know whether to find a school that has regional accreditation or national accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit schools itself, but it does recognize certain accrediting agencies. You can check the DOE database for specific information on an accrediting body. You can also use the CHEA (Council on Higher Education Accreditation) as a source of information; however, if your school is not accredited by an organization recognized by the Department of Education, you will not be eligible for financial aid, and you may have other difficulties, such as transferring credits or obtaining professional licenses.

The information below applies to institutional rather than programmatic accreditation; even if your school as a whole is accredited by one of these agencies, you would still need to make sure that your professional program is recognized by the appropriate state licensing bodies and professional associations.

The six regional accrediting agencies are as follows:

  • North Central Association (NCA)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

Regional accrediting organizations assess public and private institutions of higher education, including distance education programs offered by these institutions. Although the accrediting agencies are regionally based, each one is widely recognized. There are also additional institutional accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, such as the New York State Board of Regents.

National Accreditation

Students should be aware that while most nationally accredited institutions will accept transfer credits from regionally accredited institutions, the opposite is not true. A student who earns an associate's degree from a nationally accredited school, for example, may not be able to transfer any credits to count towards a degree at a regionally accredited school. Always check individual school policies if you plan to transfer schools later in your educational journey.

Note that the information in this article may be subject to change - for instance, if an accreditor changes its name - so always check the U.S. Department of Education database to be sure that your school is properly accredited, and discuss your plans with an admissions officer at your school, or the school to which you plan to transfer.

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What is the Benefit of Having an Accredited Degree in the Job Market?

How will employers view an accredited degree versus a non-accredited degree?

The Benefits of Having a Degree

The benefits of having a degree in the job market are tremendous. Workers with an associate's degree earn an average of 25% more than workers with only a high school diploma, and workers with a bachelor's earn over 70% more. For many jobs, having a degree is necessary to be hired at all, or to be promoted beyond a certain level. The benefits of higher education are projected to increase in coming years.

The Importance of Being Accredited

However, it cannot be just any degree. Obtaining an accredited degree is absolutely essential if you hope to garner the career success you deserve. Accreditation is a process in which outside agencies evaluate a school's programs to ensure that they meet applicable academic standards. Without accreditation, it is impossible for employers to know whether your diploma is from a legitimate institution or whether it is from a diploma mill—a company that offers degrees in exchange for money and little academic work. Academic institutions are equally skeptical of degrees from non-accredited schools, so it can be extremely difficult to transfer credits from a non-accredited institution to an accredited one.

Knowing your Accreditation Agencies

When investigating your school's accreditation status, you should also be sure that the accreditation agency is itself accredited. Just like there are diploma mills, there are accreditation mills that provide meaningless certifications to schools. For a list of valid accreditation agencies, you can go to the websites for the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education.

There can be differences between legitimate accreditation agencies as well. For example, a certification from the Distance Education Training Council doesn't always mean that credits from that institution will be transferable to other academic institutions. If your school is certified by the DETC and you're planning on attending another institution in the future, you should check your prospective institution's policy on accepting transfer credits. The most widely accepted accreditation agencies are the regional agencies, such as the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. These are the same agencies that accredit non-digital schools and accreditation from them is as universally accepted as you can get.

A degree is a fantastic asset in today's job market. It will exponentially increase the number of jobs you can do and the promotions you will be eligible for. In order to reap the benefits of having a degree, make sure you get it from an accredited institution. The U.S. Department of Education has an easy-to-use search engine for exactly this purpose.

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What Happens When a College Loses Accreditation?

Most colleges, universities and even K-12 schools are accredited. Accreditation demonstrates to the public at large, other institutions and potential employers that students graduating from an accredited school are well prepared and educated. So when a school loses its accreditation status its students can often experience some negative repercussions.

When a College Fails

When a college, university or vocational program loses its accreditation status, there are many more looming implications for its students.

Students attending the school at the time of the accreditation loss face the school closing rather abruptly. This is due to the fact that the federal government does not usually provide financial aid to unaccredited post secondary institutions. The vast majority of these schools are heavily dependent on financial aid and the immediate withdrawal of all government funds guarantees that the school will quickly go bankrupt.

Furthermore, these students will have a difficult time finding admission to another school to complete their degree or program if their school closes from an accreditation loss. While most colleges and universities will accept high school students from unaccredited schools, they're not nearly as forgiving to those students who attended an unaccredited post secondary institution.

If an unaccredited school manages to stay in business then its graduates will undoubtedly face a tough time finding a job. Many employers simply do not hire graduates from unaccredited schools. Some employers in the medical field cannot hire graduates from unaccredited schools because they believe these graduates are not guaranteed to have adequate preparation, making them a liability to the company.

Keep in mind though, that if you graduated from a school when it was accredited, and the school lost the accreditation after you graduated, then you are still viewed as having graduated from an accredited institution.

Can I Get My Money Back?

Unfortunately, most students will not receive refunds if their school loses its accreditation status. This is because most colleges and universities operate like a business, and you invest into this business by paying for your education. If your school goes bankrupt they cannot afford to refund any money, and your investment is just considered a loss.

However, in rare cases some state post secondary institutions may refund monies depending on how and why accreditation was lost. These institutions would be refunding with money from the government.

Can I Sue?

Again by paying for an education you are willingly investing into your post-secondary institution. If your school loses its accreditation and goes bankrupt your investment is then considered bad - but this is not usually solid ground for a lawsuit.

There are some unusual cases of students suing their school over an accreditation loss, but these are typically class action suits and involve fraudulent behavior on part of the school. For instance, 58 former nursing students successfully sued Virginia Western Community College because the college lied about having lost its accreditation status.

In summary, when a post-secondary institution loses its accreditation, the school's current students face serious repercussions. The best course of action is to thoroughly research potential schools you're thinking of attending and choose one that is unlikely to ever lose its accreditation status.

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This indicates that a school has an annual tuition of $15,000 or less as reported to the National Center for Education Statistics or based on the school's website.