What Is College Accreditation and How Does It Work?

Accreditation is an important way to uphold quality education standards. This guide explains everything you need to know about accredited colleges.

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by Jonathan Wlodarski, Danika Miller

Published on February 8, 2022 · Updated on June 6, 2022

Reviewed by Lauren Albano, M.Ed.

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What Is College Accreditation and How Does It Work?
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A high-quality education provides immense value, giving students the knowledge and skills needed to succeed after graduation.

Other benefits of attending a reputable institution include a higher return on investment, a better reputation among potential employers, and the ability to form stronger professional connections and gain access to robust alumni networks.

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Ready to start your journey?

One way to judge the quality of an educational institution is through accreditation. We'll break down how accreditation of colleges works and why it's so important when choosing a school.

What Is Accreditation?

In the U.S., accreditation is awarded by independent accrediting agencies. These organizations periodically examine schools' curricular offerings to confirm that accredited colleges are providing students with a quality education.

Legitimate accrediting agencies are recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the U.S. Department of Education. These agencies certify that schools meet certain standards of academic excellence.

A full list of accrediting bodies can be found on the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and on CHEA's website.

What Types of Accreditation for Colleges Are There?

The U.S. maintains no federal regulation of higher education as it concerns academic quality and standards. Instead, each state maintains its own policies.

Since many state governments only provide loose oversight, some schools may engage in dishonest practices and deliver low-quality education. Independent accreditation bodies are a good way for prospective students to verify an institution's educational merits.

The two main types of accreditation for colleges are institutional accreditation (by a regional or national accrediting body) and programmatic accreditation.

Regional vs. National Accreditation

Colleges can earn institutional accreditation from regional and/or national accrediting agencies.

Generally, regional accreditors are known to have more rigorous quality standards. Credits earned from regionally accredited institutions tend to be more widely accepted and transferable than those earned from nationally accredited colleges and universities.

The Department of Education altered its accreditation rules in 2019. This change permitted institutions to receive accreditation from regional accreditors outside their geographic jurisdictions.

Critics claim this change blurs the distinction between national and regional accreditation. That said, regional accrediting bodies continue to operate predominantly within their historical regions.

National accreditation bodies typically award accreditation to trade schools, vocational colleges, and Bible schools. For-profit institutions may also hold national accreditation.

Regional accreditation bodies accredit many public and private nonprofit four-year institutions. Below is a list of these accreditors from CHEA, along with the states and territories that were historically under their purview:

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC): Schools in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and federally authorized sovereign nations are accredited by HLC.
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE): Schools in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and some geographical areas outside the U.S. are accredited by MSCHE.
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE): Schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, as well as some programs offered internationally, are accredited by NECHE.
  • Northwest Commission on College and Universities (NWCCU): Schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, as well as some programs offered internationally, are accredited by NWCCU. NWCCU also accredits programs offered via distance education at these institutions.
  • Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC): Schools in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Latin America, and other commission-approved international sites — including programs offered via distance and correspondence education at these institutions — are accredited by SACSCOC.
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC): Institutions offering bachelor's degrees or higher in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Basin (along with some institutions that offer programs outside the U.S.) are accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission. Institutions granting associate degrees in these same regions are accredited by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Programmatic Accreditation

In addition to institutional accreditation, students should be on the lookout for programmatic accreditation. Programmatic accrediting bodies, like the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, audit specific departments to determine whether programs adequately prepare graduates for careers in that field.

CHEA maintains a directory of programmatic accrediting agencies. Note that programmatic accreditation doesn't exist in every field and is supplementary to institutional accreditation.

4 Reasons to Apply to Accredited Colleges

Accredited colleges offer many benefits that unaccredited institutions don't. Here are four reasons to apply to accredited schools.

1. You Can More Easily Transfer Credits

Transfer students should check that the school they're transferring to will accept the academic credit they earned at their original institution. Learners who complete classes at an unaccredited institution may need to retake those courses if they decide to transfer to another institution.

While not all universities readily accept all credits earned from another accredited college, your chances of having them accepted are much higher than if you'd attended an unaccredited school.

2. Grad Schools Are More Likely to Recognize Your Degree

Students planning to enter careers that require a graduate degree should attend an accredited undergraduate institution. Otherwise, potential grad schools may not recognize their bachelor's degree.

3. You May Have a Better Shot at Landing a Job

Many employers, including the federal government, require applicants to hold a degree from an accredited school.

In fields like education and nursing, students must pursue certification or licensure to find a job. In these cases, students may be required to earn their degree from a program with programmatic accreditation to be eligible for employment.

4. You'll Get Access to More Financial Aid Opportunities

Students interested in receiving federal financial aid — including loans, grants, scholarships, and federal work-study — must attend a school that's accredited by a recognized accreditation agency. Students attending unaccredited colleges are ineligible to receive federal aid.

Submit the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid. Many state and private financial aid programs also require applicants to fill out the FAFSA.

What Happens if Your School Loses Accreditation?

If you've already graduated and earned a degree from a college, the legitimacy of that degree should hold, regardless of whether the school loses accreditation down the line.

If you're currently enrolled in a college that has recently lost accreditation, here's what could happen:

You're also unlikely to receive any kind of tuition reimbursement if your college suddenly loses accreditation. Typically, if your school or program has lost accreditation, the best course of action is to transfer to another (accredited) institution.

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