"Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning." — Winston Churchill
As you explore opportunities for online education, you have probably heard the advice to make sure the university and the program of interest are accredited. What does this mean?
If you were seeking medical treatment or legal help, you would certainly seek out a licensed doctor or lawyer who has academic credentials as well as experience that match the expected standards for such positions. The same holds true for education. As the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) explained, "’Accreditation’ is [a] review of the quality of higher education institutions and programs. In the United States, accreditation is a major way that students, families, government officials, and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education."
In the U.S., colleges and universities are accredited by one of 19 recognized institutional accrediting organizations. Programs are accredited by one of approximately 60 recognized programmatic accrediting organizations. Recognized accrediting organizations have been reviewed for quality by the CHEA or the United States Department of Education (USDE)]." Therefore, students should make sure that both the institution and the accrediting organization have been recognized. For a full list of these accrediting organizations and their acceptance by the CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education, visit their website.
This makes the United States different than other countries that have a governmental unit that accredits schools. In the U.S., the accrediting organizations are all independent, private organizations. You can search the CHEA Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organizations to see if your school has been accredited. If you’re interested in pursuing overseas study, you should carefully consult the CHEA’s International Directory.
Types of Accreditation
Keep in mind that seeking accreditation is voluntary: No college or university is required to pursue accreditation. For schools that do decide on accreditation, they have the option of seeking regional or national recognition.
Regional organizations developed historically along geographical lines when groups of post-secondary institutions in an area came together to set agreed upon standards. These independent agencies are organized by location, so you should look for accreditation by the location of the university and its respective accrediting agency:
- Middle States
- New England
- North Central
- Western Association
Keep in mind that each regional association recognizes the accreditation status of the others; in other words, if the North Central Association accredits your school, the other five associations will recognize it, too. In a sense, regional accreditation is a sort of "default" national accreditation.
National organizations developed historically when institutions across the United States with a similar focus or outlook came together to set agreed upon standards. For example, as an online student, you should check for national accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council which focuses on accrediting distance education programs.
Furthermore, as you look into accreditation, you should be aware that as the Higher Learning Commission explains in its Overview Booklet, there are two main types of accreditation: institutional and specialized, or program accreditation.
What Accreditation Means
Institutional accreditation means "an institutional accrediting agency evaluates an entire educational institution in terms of its mission and the agency’s standards or criteria. It accredits the institution as a whole." In their evaluation, the accrediting associations consider the following:
- Governance and administration. How well managed is the institution?
- Financial stability. How well does the institution handle its money?
- Admissions. Does the institution maintain ethical and appropriate admission standards while providing readily available information to potential students?
- Student services. Are solid academic, financial aid, and other advisors available and qualified to assist students?
- Institutional resources. Is the institution in compliance with ADA and other health regulations in regard to its campus and buildings?
- Student learning. Are clear statements of what students should learn in each course/program available and regularly assessed?
- Institutional effectiveness. Can the university document a history of success?
- Relationships with internal and external constituencies. Does the university maintain healthy and open relationships with outside organizations?
Specialized or program accreditation "evaluates particular units, schools, or programs within an institution." This is often done by a variety of professional organizations rather than the HLC regional groups. A field of study or program may seek accreditation from more than one of these professional organizations, or it may choose to pursue none at all. For example:
- The National League for Nursing Accrediting Association (NLNAC) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) both accredit Nursing degree programs. Therefore, you may find a program that is accredited by none, one, or both of these organizations.
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and The Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) accredit business degree programs. Therefore, you may find a program that is accredited by none, one, or both of these organizations.
Each accrediting organization has continual requirements of institutions and programs for them to keep their accredited status. For example, they must demonstrate that they are maintaining standards and submit to regular reviews by the accrediting organization. You can also contact schools and programs directly to ask for information on their accreditation status. Employers in your planned field of study may also be able to provide information on what accreditation you should look for in a program/school. You may also want to search the websites or contact professional organizations in your desired field to see if they list any recommended accreditation, programs, and/or schools.
Online students should, therefore, check for both institutional and specialized/program accreditation before considering a school or program. You can check for specialized accrediting at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s website. In addition, the CHEA’s short handout, "Twelve Important Questions about External Quality Review," provides a useful guide for you to investigate a potential institution and/or program’s accreditation.
You should also ask around. Find out which schools and programs your friends, family members, coworkers, etc. have attended and what their experiences were like. Chances are good that if they had a positive experience with a school/program and if they were able to find gainful employment after completing their degrees, you could succeed in that same institution and program, too.
The intent of accreditation is to help ensure a quality educational program and experience for students, and often this is true. There may be some negative effects if you pursue or obtain a degree from a school or program that lacks proper accreditation:
- You may not be able to transfer coursework to another institution if you decide to change; the course credits, in other words, may be worthless.
- You may find out that other universities may not accept a degree earned at a non-accredited institution or program if you decide to continue your education or obtained an advanced degree
- You may find out that employers do not recognize the degree or institution as credible if it is not accredited.
- You may not qualify for various types of financial aid.
- You may find that student services, resources, facilities, etc. are lacking.
- You may find that your education is of lesser quality.
- You may find that the online courses are not ADA compliant if you have documented accommodations, leaving you unable to successfully complete your course(s).
- You may find that the institution suddenly closes, leaving you stranded without any recourse to obtaining a refund or your credits.
In short, you could waste your time, energy, and money. You should keep in mind, however, that accreditation does not guarantee quality. For example, although distance education has been around for a little over three decades, it has also been an area whose growth has outpaced accreditation and regulation. There have been instances where institutions have misrepresented their accreditation and/or the organization that accredits it, charging students high fees for diplomas that are in reality worthless. The CHEA provides a useful handout titled "Important Questions about ‘Diploma Mills’ and ‘Accreditation Mills’" to assist students with identifying such misrepresentations. Also be aware that some institutions do not seek accreditation by any of the organizations recognized by the CHEA and/or USDE. If you are truly interested in an institution and/or a program and you discover it is not accredited, you it may be helpful to ask why as there may be a reasonable explanation.
Accreditation should be one of your first considerations as a prospective university student. Don’t hesitate to research programs and institutions; don’t be afraid to ask questions. Legitimate, accredited institutions will quickly and happily respond to your concerns. This careful planning is one way to help ensure a positive, beneficial educational experience.