Accreditation is one of the most important quality controls for colleges and universities. If you’re looking into higher education, you should pay attention to whether or not a school is accredited, and—more importantly—who it’s accredited by.
Unfortunately, accreditation is pretty messy. Every school wants to look legitimate, and every organization that accredits schools will tell you they have the highest standards. But this is where you have to pay attention, because unfortunately, your school’s accreditation has some pretty serious implications for your academic—and possibly professional—career.
You don’t have to know everything about accreditation though. You just need to know enough to make wise choices. That’s what I’ll help you do in this article.
What is an accrediting body?
When you look into accreditation, you’ll see lots of academic sites casually say “accreditation bodies,” as though it’s a term people use all the time. I’ll say it: it’s weird. They should just say “organization” or “agency,” because that’s what accreditation bodies are.
Accrediting organizations are held accountable by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. secretary of education. So federally recognized accrediting bodies can’t pop up overnight, and schools have to be more than “mother-approved” to say they’re accredited. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also oversees accreditation organizations.
The U.S. Department of Education says, “Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then ‘accredited’ by that agency.”
We’ll go over the different kinds of accrediting agencies later on, and we’ll list the ones you should know as you hunt for the right school.
What does accreditation actually do?
In order for a school or program to say it has the stamp of approval from a particular accrediting body, it has to meet that accrediting body’s academic standards—every year. So when a school tells you it’s been accredited by the same organization for over 40 years, that’s a big deal. It means that program or institution has evolved with the changes in academic standards, and has maintained a quality reputation for that entire time.
As you’re sorting through schools, being familiar with some of the major accrediting bodies (namely, the regional accrediting bodies) can help you quickly decide which schools are going to provide you with the best opportunities in the future.
To be fair, what’s best for you is highly subjective, and ultimately up to you. Accreditation can be helpful, but it doesn’t have the final word on your education. Other factors may matter more to you, depending on your situation.
Especially when comparing similar programs from different schools, some of these things might be more important to you than accreditation:
- The school’s reputation
- The reputation of the program within the school
- How far you’d have to move
- Other opportunities within the program (like internships, practicums, and fieldwork)
- Student to faculty ratio
- Whether or not you even like the school
- Job placement rate
Specialized accrediting bodies will also tell you if a particular program is keeping up with industry standards, and some fields (like social services and nursing) depend on these accreditors to identify the programs that actually prepare people for the field. Employers may use these accreditations to filter potential employees.
Accrediting agencies provide either institutional accreditation or specialized accreditation. Institutional accreditation typically applies to the entire university, while specialized accreditation is isolated to a specific program, department, or school within a university.
We’ll talk more about these accrediting bodies in a minute.
Why your school’s accreditation matters
There are four big reasons you want to pay attention to accreditation. As we mentioned earlier, it plays an important role in quality control, and it can affect whether employers will consider your education legitimate.
You also need to attend a school with some form of legitimate accreditation in order to be eligible for federal financial aid.
But probably the biggest reason why you should care about accreditation is that it can affect whether or not your credits—or your entire undergraduate degree—will transfer to another school. This is really important, so we’re going to look at it in detail.
How accreditation affects graduate studies and transferring
According to the National Clearinghouse Research Center, more than one-third of all college students transfer schools before graduating. Transfer rates vary dramatically from school to school (I’ve even seen a school with a 1% transfer rate), but you should always be prepared for the possibility that you might want to transfer.
You might want to transfer if you change majors
It’s pretty common for people to change majors in the middle of their academic career, and this could be a good reason to transfer schools, since not all degree programs are created equal. You may choose a school because it has a great business program, but what do you do when you realize you really want to major in computer science?
One of my college roommates changed majors and wound up dropping out of Western Washington University to pursue an online degree with Liberty University.
Even the best students change majors—sometimes multiple times. My brother was a high school valedictorian and National Merit Scholar who started college with a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do afterward, and he changed majors three times before completing his undergraduate studies.
You might need to transfer if you can’t afford the school anymore
Life circumstances may also force you to transfer schools. A lot can happen in the few years it takes to get your degree, and depending on your student loan and scholarship situation, you may suddenly find yourself needing to choose a more affordable school.
What if one of your parents loses their job? Or you lose your job? Or you suddenly have an unexpected financial burden, like a car accident or health problem? While these might seem unlikely, there are lots of reasons you might suddenly find yourself having to choose another school.
Accreditation affects which schools your credits will transfer to, and immediately limits your possibilities for transferring or pursuing graduate studies.
Schools usually have to be accredited by the same organizations
Suppose your best friend says the latest superhero movie is amazing, and it’s totally worth watching. But your friend loves every superhero movie ever made, and you’re more selective, or you have a pretty specific taste in movies, so you don’t really feel like you can take their word for it.
That’s kind of how the different accrediting bodies see each other. They all have a very specific set of criteria, and different evaluation methods to certify that a school meets them. To be fair, different states may value different academic and industry standards as well, so while there might be a lot of overlap between the curriculum of two programs from different schools, the accrediting bodies aren’t always in alignment.
Sometimes your credits won’t transfer at all between two accrediting bodies. Other times, only some of your credits will transfer. You may have to verify that the courses you took at one school still meet the same criteria as the equivalent courses at the school you want to attend. And ultimately, it’s not up to you to decide if your education measures up. If two schools have completely different graduation requirements, you may be out of luck.
When you want to pursue graduate studies, accreditation is a big deal. If the school you want to get your graduate degree from is accredited by a different organization than the school you got your undergraduate degree at, the entire application process is messy, and at the end of the day, you’ll probably have to either take additional courses, or get a whole new undergraduate degree accredited by the “right” accrediting body. Which would obviously be a pretty terrible thing to learn after spending years earning a degree.
Basically, if you think you might want to get a master’s degree or higher someday, check out graduate programs that are accredited by the same agency—before you start your undergrad.
Accreditation helps you avoid schools with a poor reputation
Hopefully you know by now that not all colleges are the same. Most people know that Ivy League schools have a reputation for excellence in . . . just about everything. And a lot of schools have a great reputation in particular fields or programs.
Once you’re familiar with the key accrediting agencies, accreditation gives you a high-level quality filter. Some schools certainly go above and beyond the criteria for excellence set by accrediting bodies, but with accreditation, you at least know where the bar is.
We’ll get into it more later, but for the most part, you’ll probably want to use regional accreditation to filter schools. Meaning, if the school is regionally accredited, it’s legit. If the school is nationally accredited, you’ll need to take a closer look.
Accreditation makes sure your degree is seen as valid
Most employers probably aren’t going to have the slightest idea which national or regional accrediting agency has accredited your school. And when they look at your resume, they probably aren’t going to look that up.
In industries that have special accreditations, your employer may want to confirm that your degree checks out. Only 16 online bachelor in social work degree programs in the country are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, which ensures students are qualified to enter the field. If your social work degree isn’t CSWE approved, it means an employer has to do more work to confirm you’re qualified, which they may or may not be willing to do. (And if other job candidates are CSWE approved, they probably won’t keep looking into you, unless you’re amazing.)
We’ll go over some of the other specialized accrediting bodies later.
How do I know if a school has the right accreditation?
The U.S. Department of education recognizes about 60 active accrediting bodies. You don’t need to be familiar with them all, and really, you should only care about the ones that accredit the schools you’re interested in.
In the list I linked to above, the U.S. Department of Education describes all 60 accrediting agencies, so when you find a school you want to study at, you can use a site like the National Center for Education Statistics or the school’s website to identify who they’re accredited by, and then check here to see what the government says about that accreditation organization.
Unless your industry requires accreditation from a specific accrediting body, any of these accrediting agencies could be “the right accreditation.” Again, you’ll just want to keep in mind what your future options are as far as transferring or pursuing graduate school.
In most cases, your employers probably won’t require you to have a degree that’s accredited by anyone in particular. They just want to know that you have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to help their organization reach its goals. While industry-specific accreditation can provide an extra stamp of approval that could give you an edge—it’s probably not going to be a deal breaker.
What is regional accreditation?
Regional accreditation is the most important accreditation to consider. It’s the highest standard, and if your school is regionally accredited, you have a much wider range of options to transfer or pursue graduate studies. Most state universities and private nonprofit universities are regionally accredited.
Here are the seven higher education accrediting bodies currently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education:
- Higher Learning Commission
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutes of Higher Education
- New York State Board of Regents, State Education Department, Office of Professions
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Senior College and University Commission
More than 3,000 colleges have been accredited by one of these agencies. If the schools you’re interested in are accredited by any of them, you’re doing great.
But what if your school isn’t regionally accredited? That’s where you’ll need to look at national accreditations.
What is national accreditation?
National accreditation is still reputable, but a nationally accredited school may limit your options for transferring colleges or starting a graduate degree. Regionally accredited schools may only give you partial credit for courses taken at a nationally accredited school—or they may not give you any credit at all.
Private for-profit institutions tend to be nationally accredited. Some national accreditation agencies are specifically for religious schools.
Future employers probably won’t make a distinction between national or regional accreditation. Unless the school has a noteworthy reputation (good or bad), or your industry requires a certain stamp of approval, a degree is a degree to an employer. So as long as you’re comfortable with potential issues when transferring or pursuing graduate studies, and the school has everything else you’re looking for, nationally accredited schools are perfectly reasonable options.
Here are the national accrediting bodies for universities recognized by the USDE:
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
- Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation
- Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, Accreditation Commission
- Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies
- Council on Occupational Education
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission
What about other types of accreditation?
Additional types of accreditation usually won’t have much impact on a potential employer’s perception of your degree, but in some industries, specialized accreditations may actually matter more than even a regional accreditation.
There are many specialized accrediting agencies, but here are a few you may want to be aware of:
- Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc.
- Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation
- Council on Social Work Education
This is by no means a comprehensive list. For a more complete list of specialized accrediting agencies, check out the USDE’s list.
How to choose a program or school with the right accreditation
When it comes down to it, as long as either the Council for Higher Education Association or the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the organization that’s accredited your school, it’ll probably be just fine.
But what accreditation do I actually need?
If you know what industry you want to get into, it’s worth doing your homework on this. Talk to organizations you’d like to work for. You may find that they don’t care at all where you get your degree from—or even if you have one! Or, they may tell you not to even bother applying if your degree isn’t certified by a particular agency.
Talk to the schools themselves, too. While they definitely want you to enroll in their programs, in my experience, quality schools are usually pretty open about whether or not their programs have the exact credentials you need. And if the language on their website is confusing, call and ask about it. You don’t want to make assumptions here.
Some schools may tell you their program “prepares you for” certain credentials, which is a roundabout way of saying you won’t get those credentials in this program, but those credentials are important in this field.
How do I know if an accrediting agency is legitimate?
There are a lot of “accrediting agencies” out there that take advantage of the U.S.’s notoriously complicated accreditation system. They know most students don’t know why accreditation matters or how to tell if it’s valid, so they create misleading names that sound academic or professional, and put their stamp all over schools that most employers and universities won’t recognize as legitimate.
Online and international students are especially vulnerable to misleading accrediting agencies.
As soon as you see the name of an accrediting body on a school you want to attend, confirm that they’re accredited by either CHEA or the USDE. If they’re not, I’d say don’t bother.
Can online colleges be accredited?
Yes. Online colleges can provide you with the same credentials and education as on-campus schools.
They can also give you worthless credentials and an education you could’ve got on Google.
Online students are the ideal prey for phony colleges, and even phonier accrediting agencies. Even reputable colleges sometimes have separate online institutions that may not have the same credentials. When dealing with online colleges, accreditation is one of the first things you should verify.
The Distance Education Accrediting Commission is a national accreditation committee recognized by both CHEA and the USDE. If an online program has the thumbs-up from DEAC, it’s legit. You’ll also find that many schools with an established campus have a fully accredited online program. This is more likely to be the case for state universities and private nonprofit schools.
Are community colleges accredited?
Usually, yes, community colleges are accredited. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges—one of the seven regional accreditation bodies—even has a separate accrediting commission for community and junior colleges.
Like I’ve said before, do your due diligence and make sure the school is accredited by the same agency as the school you’d like to transfer to or earn a higher degree at.
Choose the school that’s right for you
As long as you can follow the trail of accreditation, and you’re comfortable with where it leads, knowing about accreditation should be freeing, not frightening.