Accreditation: Why Does It Matter? Find an Accredited School

General Education

Why You Want an Accredited School

Perhaps you've heard that before you commit to attend a school, you should be sure that the school is accredited. That's great counsel, but what does it really mean? Here's our guide to accreditation, including the different accrediting bodies and the differences between them.

Accreditation: What is it?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, "the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency's evaluation and that meet an agency's criteria are then 'accredited' by that agency." Accreditation is private (non-governmental) and nonprofit.

You can find reliable information on your institution's accreditation status by visiting the Department of Education's website. The Department of Education does not accredit institutions, but rather gathers information that is publicly available. It publishes a list of accrediting bodies that the government has determined to be credible and reliable. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation is the nonprofit association that serves as the national advocate for voluntary self-regulation through accreditation. According to the CHEA, accreditation of universities in the U.S. dates back more than 100 years and is just as complex and decentralized as the U.S. education system itself. To become accredited, a university or program must undergo an multi-step review process. Universities cannot self-accredit. Once accredited, the school has to maintain its standards--the accreditation process is traditionally ongoing.

In turn, accrediting bodies need to be recognized by either the CHEA or the Department of Education. Recognition is a process of review of the quality and effectiveness of accrediting organizations. As of May 2011, there are a total of 87 accrediting organizations in four categories that are recognized by either CHEA, the Department of Education or both. Between them, these bodies accredit roughly 7,000 institutions and more than 19,000 programs.

Why is accreditation important?

Essentially, accreditation in the U.S. is about quality assurance and quality improvement. It is a process that scrutinizes higher education institutions and programs and ensures quality. It also determines whether the degrees that are awarded are valuable in the marketplace. In a variety of fields, a degree from an accredited program is required to obtain a license to practice or to sit for a licensing exam. Accreditation also ensures that credits can be transferred between universities. In addition, a degree from an accredited university is required to continue studies at the graduate or doctoral level. In order to qualify for federal and state loans and grants, students must attend an accredited institution. Last but not least: a school's accreditation status is one of the factors that employers consider in their hiring decisions.

Types of accreditation

In general, there are two types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. The so-called institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, and there are three types of accreditors within this category. Programmatic or specialized accreditation typically applies to the evaluation of individual programs, departments or schools that are part of a postsecondary institution.

Regional accreditors
They accredit public and private, mainly nonprofit and degree-granting, two- and four-year institutions. There are currently eight regional accrediting organizations. They include the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commissions on Colleges.

National faith-related accreditors
These organizations primarily accredit religiously affiliated and doctrinally-based institutions, mainly nonprofit and degree-granting. With four accrediting institutions, this is the smallest group of accreditors in the nation. It includes the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accrediting Commission, the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission and the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation.

National career-related accreditors
These accredit mainly for-profit, career-based, single-purpose institutions, both degree- and non-degree-granting. The seven accrediting bodies that are recognized as of May 2011 include the Council on Occupational Education, the Distance Education and Training Council Accrediting Commission and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

Programmatic accreditors
These 68 bodies, the largest group, accredit specific programs, professions and freestanding schools rather than entire universities, including medical and law schools, engineering programs, etc. They include the Aviation Accreditation Board International, the American Council of Construction Education, the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council and the Society of American Foresters.

A degree that's worth something

Of course, in addition to getting a great education, graduates also want to have a job once they finish their college studies. That's part of the point of college: getting prepared to enter the professional workforce. A degree from an accredited institution is essential to getting that job. According to a 2009 CHEA report, "accreditation status of an institution or program is important to employers when evaluating credentials of job applicants and when deciding whether to provide tuition support for current employees seeking additional education."