What is an accredited college or university? A closer look at these standards
Thanks to the growth in online programs, today’s students have more options for higher education than ever. You’re free to choose a school that truly meets your needs rather than feeling limited by your location or schedule. While it’s great to have options, it can also be overwhelming when you’re trying to choose a college.
You’ll eventually want to weigh numerous factors related to your personal preferences — things like available student support services and average class size — but there are some baseline criteria you should consider first. Accreditation is probably the most important benchmark. But while you’ve heard about this before, you may not be quite sure of what it signifies.
What is an accredited college or university? Does it matter if a school is regionally accredited versus nationally accredited? And are there other types of accreditation to look for?
You’re smart to be asking these sorts of questions, because an institution’s status can dramatically impact the quality of your education experience. Start gathering the information you need to make sure you select a high-caliber school.
What is an accredited college and how does a school earn this designation?
You can think about accreditation as a type of quality assurance. To achieve this status, a college or university must undergo a rigorous review process to demonstrate they meet several standards. An unbiased third-party conducts the review to keep the process fair and consistent across institutions.
The exact standards schools must meet depends on the accrediting body. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), which accredits University of Massachusetts Global, evaluates 39 criteria across four broad standards that together ensure an excellent education. Accreditation is only granted after the WSCUC finds that a school demonstrates substantial compliance with all standards.
While there are different accrediting agencies across the country, they all require schools to follow the same general process. As a report from the Congressional Research Service explains, these are some of the important steps:
- The institution conducts a self-study to determine eligibility for accreditation.
- An external team completes a peer review and site visit.
- The visiting team prepares an evaluation report and submits it to the accrediting agency.
- The agency’s commission reviews all documents and awards accreditation.
It’s important to note that accreditation is not a one-time process. Institutions must continue to adhere to standards, which may evolve over time. At the end of an accreditation period, schools also need to seek re-evaluation to maintain their status.
Clearly, it’s important to look for an accredited program. But you should also be aware that there are two primary types, and they are far from equivalent.
Regional vs. national accreditation: Which is better?
Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for whether a school has regional accreditation or national accreditation, because the former is usually preferable. One reason why is regional accreditation extends across all programs at an institution. This means that you can be sure you’ll receive a quality education regardless of which specific degree you’re pursuing.
It’s also far easier to carry over credits from one regionally accredited institution to another. This becomes important should you ever need to switch schools as a transfer student. Lastly, regional accreditation is more widely recognized and generally seen as the more prestigious of these two types of accreditation.
Understandably, the specific regional accreditation a school maintains depends on the location. But don’t feel as though you need to remember which agency you should look for in a given area. You can always verify that a college or university is regionally accredited by simply searching the name of the school using the directory from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the one from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE).
Schools that maintain national accreditation still undergo a review process, but the standards aren’t typically as stringent. This type of credential is most often granted to for-profit institutions that offer vocational and trade programs. Note that if you ever have questions regarding the scope of any type of accreditation, you can review the full list from the Department of Education.
Are there other important types of college accreditation?
Aside from regional and national accreditation, institutions can pursue additional credentials that convey a commitment to quality education at the program level. These are called professional accreditations and they’re most common among programs aligned with disciplines that require licensure, such as teaching and social work. In fact, most licensing boards require that candidates attend a program that has professional accreditation to legally practice in their area of expertise.
If you’re interested in pursuing a discipline that requires certification or licensure, make sure to research the accreditation requirements. Some professional accrediting agencies you may want to be aware of include the following:
- The Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, American Bar Association (ABA)
- American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation/National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (CAEP/NCATE)
- Council on Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation (CSWE-COA)
Why is accreditation important?
Attending an accredited program is important for numerous reasons, some of which are likely clear by now. We’ve already discussed that pursuing your studies at a regionally accredited institution makes it easier to transfer credits. The previous section also mentions that professions involving licensure typically require you to complete your education at a school with the appropriate professional accreditation. But your school’s status can make a difference in your professional life even if your chosen field doesn’t require licensure or certification.
Consider a career in marketing, for instance. While you can earn any number of certificates to help improve your job prospects, you’re able to pursue any role so long as you have the requisite education and experience. But many employers would be less likely to consider you as a candidate if you didn’t graduate from a regionally accredited school, because they can’t be sure your educational background is up to their standards. This is why recruiters often conduct a formal education verification process, which uncovers whether you’ve obtained a degree from an appropriately accredited school.
Finally, an institution’s accreditation status affects your ability to take out student loans. Only a college or university accredited by one of the agencies recognized by the Department of Education for Title IV purposes is eligible to participate in the federal student financial aid programs. Since most students can’t afford to pay for their education out of pocket, this is critically important.
Find a school that fits your needs
You’ve probably gone from wondering, “What is an accredited college or university?” to, “Is every school I’m considering appropriately accredited?” No matter what type of program you’re interested in, it’s always important to verify that it’s achieved the requisite quality assurance.But accreditation is just one important aspect you should consider when comparing programs. You’ll also want to look into graduate success, available learning formats and tuition. For more information on how to select a school, take a look at “The adult learner’s guide to choosing a college.”
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