College Accreditation: The Basics

College Accreditation: The Basics
portrait of Jonathan Wlodarski
By Jonathan Wlodarski

Published on August 13, 2021

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It's no secret the cost of college tuition continues to rise, and given the expense, it's important to ensure that the education you receive is worth the money you pay. One basic way to investigate the quality of a school's course offerings is to research the institution's accreditation status.

What Is Accreditation?

College accreditation is imparted by a group of evaluative bodies called accrediting agencies. They periodically examine each school's curricular offerings to confirm that each institution provides 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 (ED), which certify that schools meet certain standards of academic excellence. A full list of accrediting bodies can be found on the ED Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs or the CHEA website.

Why Does Accreditation Exist?

In the United States, there is no federal regulation of higher education as it concerns academic quality and standards; instead, each state maintains their own policies. Since state governments provide loose oversight, some institutions engage in dishonest practices and deliver low-quality education. Thus, independent accreditation bodies are the only way for prospective students to verify an institution's educational merits.

Regional vs. National Accreditation

There are three types of accrediting bodies: regional, national, and programmatic. Public and private four-year institutions are accredited by seven regional bodies, each of which maintains standards for a specific geographical area. Note that two college accrediting agencies are affiliated with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Below is a list of regional accrediting bodies along with the states and territories in their purview.

Source: CHEA

National organizations accredit trade schools and vocational colleges, including Bible schools. Many for-profit institutions are accredited nationally, while nonprofit schools are accredited regionally. The majority of schools in the United States have regional accreditation.

Programmatic Accreditation

Programmatic accrediting bodies -- like the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or Council on Chiropractic Education -- audit specific departments to determine whether their programs adequately prepare graduates for careers in the field. CHEA maintains a directory of these groups, some of which are certified by CHEA, some by the ED, while others are certified by both. Programmatic accreditation doesn't exist in every field and is supplementary to regional or national accreditation.

Why Should I Check for Accreditation?

Transferring Credits and Graduate School

For students entering careers that require graduate study, for example, many of these programs are regionally accredited and only accept students with degrees from other programs with regional accreditation. This holds true for transfer students as well: Regionally accredited institutions typically only accept credits from other accredited schools. Because both institutions have been audited by a regulatory body, the rigor of their coursework can be verified, allowing easy transfer of course credit.

Accreditation and Employment

Many employers, such as the federal government, may require applicants to have degrees from regionally or nationally accredited schools. In fields like education and nursing, students must pursue certification or licensure to find employment; in these cases, students may be required to hold a programmatically accredited degree to be eligible for these qualifications.

Accreditation and Financial Aid

Students interested in receiving federal financial aid -- including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study awards -- must attend regionally or nationally accredited schools. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will determine your eligibility for receiving federal financial aid. Even many state-level and private forms of financial aid require filling out the FAFSA, and thus require regional or national accreditation.

Accreditation Resources

Council for Higher Education Accreditation

CHEA provides a full list of national, regional, and programmatic accrediting bodies approved by CHEA and the ED.

Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

This database, maintained by the ED, contains information reported by recognized accrediting agencies and state approval agencies.

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