All About Accreditation: How It Works, Who to Trust, and More

 It doesn’t matter whether you are researching for your first-ever college program or hunting for a practical advanced degree; there is one piece of advice that always rings true: Look for accreditation.

Because higher education in America is such a profitable enterprise, there are thousands of schools trying to convince you to enroll, and accreditation helps you sort the institutions providing high-quality educations from those just after your money. Yet, even as most prospective students recognize the need for accreditation, many don’t understand how the process works. Thus, plenty of students accept any and all accreditations without a second thought.

The accreditation process is a rigorous test for universities looking to be branded as legitimate institutions of higher learning. To help you find the best possible school where you can gain the best possible degree, this guide should tell you all you need to know about accreditation.

What Is Accreditation?

At its simplest, accreditation is recognition that a school’s programs contain valid education fit for preparing students for professional practice or else admission into other reputable institutions of learning. Organizations that evaluating universities and colleges are working on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, endorsing credentials based on national standards.

As there are different types of education, there are different types of accreditation. Institutional accreditation recognizes an entire university or educational organization, asserting that each of the institution’s parts contributes effectively to the qualitative achievement of that institution’s goals. For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) — one of the more common U.S. accrediting agencies — provides institutional accreditation.

Additionally, organizations can award specialized accreditation, which recognizes individual programs, departments, or schools within a broader institution of learning. For example, you might find an AACSB-accredited online MBA program, which is at a business school that has received international recognition for specialized quality. This often applies to programs that require licensing or certification on a state or national basis, but some programs receive specialized accreditation to make distinct their high quality within their field.

Who Does the Accrediting?

Accrediting agencies are private associations dedicated to the enhancement of education. While the standards they set and the types of institutions they accredit are their decision, they ultimately report to the Department of Education (DOE), which can choose to accept or reject their reviews. There is also a private, non-governmental organization, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), that distinguishes legitimate accreditation agencies. The difference between the DOE and CHEA is that the DOE limits official recognition to agencies reviewing schools that participate in federal programs, like the Federal Student Financial Aid Program.

Few accrediting agencies are familiar enough with all industries to provide reliable ratings for all programs. Therefore, individual agencies tend to be expert in precise areas of learning. For example, there are national agencies specializing in trade and technical colleges and religious colleges and there are regional agencies that review all colleges within a certain boundary. As a result, there are dozens of accrediting agencies active in the United States, and you might find it difficult to keep legitimate organizations straight.

Fortunately, both the DOE and CHEA offer online lists of accreditation agencies to help you parse the respectable from the disreputable. Because their recognition can change from year to year, it is wise to check this list every time you apply to a new school or enroll in a new program.

How Do Schools Become Accredited?

The path to accreditation isn’t easy, but it is relatively straightforward. Before an institution is considered for evaluation, it must submit to a candidacy period, during which time, the agency will observe the instruction and determine whether it is eligible for accreditation. The candidacy period typically lasts four years, and it must prove itself eager to comply with the agency’s standards before the true evaluation may begin.

Though the precise accreditation process will vary from agency to agency, there are a few steps that are similar throughout the industry. For example, schools typically must prove that they are financially sound and that they plan to continue operating continuously into the future. Additionally, schools must submit to on-site assessments of courses and curricula, which will primarily influence most agencies’ criteria for accreditation. Often, the results of an accreditation evaluation will be made public, so you can learn whether a potential program has failed accreditation efforts in the past.

Accreditation matters, but who provides what accreditation matters more. Before you start paying tuition to any institution, you must research that school’s accreditations thoroughly to ensure you are getting the education you deserve.

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