Understanding College Accreditation
In general, there are two types of accreditation – Institutional and Programmatic.
Institutional accreditation means a school is an approved member of an organization that certifies whether the institution meets various academic and institutional standards. That’s really two important components – the organization that does the accrediting, and the school that is accredited. The accrediting body itself must be approved by the US Department of Education, which then means the schools that it accredits can access federal financial aid and obtain various state approvals.
Not every accrediting body is approved by the US DOE! You can get a list of recognized accreditors at https://www.ed.gov/accreditation.
Institutional accreditors are typically either Regional or National. Regionally accredited schools are the traditional public and private institutions you’re most familiar with – UNC, Ohio State, Arizona State, etc. along with a few large for-profit institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix). The Regionally accrediting bodies are typically geographically focused, with names such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
National accreditors are focused on career, trade and vocational colleges. They are nationwide in scope and have names often reflecting their specific subject areas, delivery format or other specific characteristic such as Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), Distance Education Training Council (DETC) and the Council on Occupational Education (COE).
The bottom line is that you should ONLY ever attend a school accredited by a recognized Department of Education accreditor.
The other type of college accreditation is Programmatic Accreditation. As the name suggests, Programmatic Accreditors focus on specific areas of study to ensure the programs are meeting specific standards for professionals in the field.
There are many programmatic accreditors, some of which cover the same subject areas. For example, programmatically accredited business programs can choose the Association of Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), or the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE). There are programmatic accreditors for health care programs, teacher education, therapy and social work, architecture, engineering and dozens more, including the Bar Association for law schools.
Programmatic Accreditation is distinct from institutional accreditation in that while a school should always have institutional accreditation, it doesn’t necessarily have programmatic accreditation for all of its degrees or programs.
So What Do College Accreditors Actually Do?
From a public perspective, institutional accreditors are gatekeepers allowing for access to Title IV Federal financial aid. This is what gives you the ability to use federal grants and loans to attend an institution. To achieve and keep this status, the accreditor must be recognized as “reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit.”
Programmatic accreditors are different in as much as they focus on giving schools a formal stamp of approval of their education and training in a specific discipline. In some cases, the approval is the only way to offer a degree program meeting many state or federal requirements (e.g. the ABA with law schools) or various employer standards. In other cases, it simply indicates a specific set of standards tied to what the programmatic accreditor feels best represents their industry.
In both cases the accreditors have three main roles:
- Set standards – Create criteria covering from academics, financials, governing structure, planning and strategy. National accreditors also have specific standards for graduation and placement rates for each program that a school offers. Programmatic accreditors focus on ensuring the instruction, faculty and delivery can produce outcomes of knowledge and skills aligned with professional standards for the industry.
- Maintaining and Policing Standards – Institutions must be reaccredited every few years on a cycle ranging from a year to a decade depending on the situation. In addition, the accreditors are tasked with maintaining regular oversight of institutions to ensure they are in compliance, and they do this in partnership with state and federal agencies. Accreditors a PEER review group, and as such the accreditation visits and reviews are done primarily by other members in combination with staff. Lose college accreditation and you lose access to federal funding which is essentially a death sentence.
- Best Practices – As mentioned, accreditors are peer review agencies made up of member institutions. An aspect of their mission is to help in the success of all members. While members schools do compete for students, the improvement of institutions environments and outcomes is important across the board. Standards don’t exist simply to exist, they should ultimately lead to a better outcome for staff, faculty and most importantly the community, students and employers.
Now you know more than you probably ever wanted to know about accreditation. How do you know if a school is accredited? It will be listed on their website (typically at the bottom), or you can visit the website of an accreditor where they will list their members.