If you feel a bit confused by accreditation, don’t feel too bad. The system for accrediting colleges and universities in the U.S. is an odd patchwork that’s evolved over a long time, and people in the academic community often debate whether or not the current system really makes sense.
It is, however, very important that you understand it on a basic level. It is possible to go to a school with weak or non-existent accreditation and not suffer any real consequences. But that would be the exception rather than the rule. Investing your time and money at a non-accredited school always has the potential to really hurt you if you apply for a job at a company that’s even moderately sophisticated about checking into applicant records or if you try to transfer credits to a new school. In either case, having credits or a degree from an unaccredited school can be a real disaster.
If, like most of us, you’re not attending a school that’s quite as famous as Harvard or Princeton, it’s a good idea to ask as many questions as possible about accreditation. That holds true whether you’re signing up for an online or campus-based program. Here are a few basic questions to make sure you get clear answers from your admissions counselor on:
1) What type of accreditation does the school have?
In broad terms there are two types of accreditation: national and regional. It’s a big source of confusion to students that national accreditation sounds like it’s probably better. But it’s not. The gold standard in higher education is regional accreditation, given by one of the six major accrediting agencies around the U.S.:
- The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Higher Education
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Learning
- The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities
If your school is regionally accredited, by one of these agencies, it probably has a solid reputation. As you’ll see below, however, there is one caveat, and there are certain cases where national accreditation is not at all a bad thing. Keep in mind also that if you want to transfer your credits to another college later on, you’ll be much better positioned to do so if you took your first courses at a regionally accredited institution.
2) Does the entire school have accreditation, or only certain programs?
This is a trick issue in a sense. Accrediting agencies sometimes give their blessings not to an entire school, but to only certain programs. If the liberal arts program at a college is accredited and you’re taking engineering, you may wind up with a degree from an unaccredited program. The problem can also crop up because the accreditation status of schools sometimes changes, because accreditation agencies review them regularly. Find out what the status of your school and your particular program I right now, if the school’s accreditation status has changed recently.
3) If the school has national or “professional” accreditation, what group is it from?
When it comes to professional degree programs, there are often good reasons for having national rather than regional accreditation. Degree programs in law, for example, may be accredited by the American Bar Association, while nursing programs are accredited by the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission. If you are about to take a degree in one of these very career-oriented specialties, you’ll need to study up on what the most important accrediting body in your area is. Many categories have several professional organizations that compete with each other. you need to know which one gives the accreditation that is most widely accepted by employers in your profession.
Online schools that have regional accreditation tend to be those that started out as campus-based institutions. If you’re looking at newer schools or those that have always been 100% online, your choices may have mainly national accreditation. Two of the key bodies that provide this are the The Distance Education & Training Council, which gives approval to online college degree programs, and The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools. Both of these can provide you with information on the accrediting status of schools. And while both are reputable, you may find that their accreditation is not always accepted, particularly when it comes to transferring credits to a regionally accredited school.
More on accreditation here.