When you decide to pursue higher education, you want to select a school that will advance your professional goals. The quality of the school you choose is perhaps the most critical factor of all, and accreditation helps to identify those schools. A degree from a well-regarded college or university indicates you completed a carefully planned and demanding curriculum — setting you up for success if you decide to pursue additional education or enter the working world.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a clear sign that a university or program has met established standards in providing a beneficial and useful learning experience to its students. It also indicates that these universities and programs have a vested interest in ongoing educational improvement.
Why does accreditation matter?
University accreditation benefits prospective students, graduates, and institutions of higher learning:
Prospective students gain an understanding of the quality of education and learning environment before committing to a specific school.
Graduates benefit from a degree that prospective employers can quickly recognize as legitimate and valuable.
Schools enjoy a carefully considered and conducted evaluation of their structure and performance as it relates to student development and academic rigor. Their quality is easily recognized by prospective students, other academic institutions, and businesses.
Accreditation also matters to many students because the federal government will only provide grants and loans to learners at accredited institutions. Similar restrictions are in place for state-level assistance offered to students, although the specifics of those rules can differ.
Accreditation is also frequently needed when businesses offer tuition reimbursement and similar support to employees.
Choosing to only take classes from accredited universities and programs also makes it easier to alter your educational path as time goes on. If your circumstances mean you need to change programs, or you want to pursue an online degree in a different field, transferring credits will be that much easier. Students who start at unaccredited institutions often find it difficult or impossible to transfer their credits, increasing the time and expense associated with earning a degree.
How does an accredited degree benefit you?
A degree from an accredited institution is a clear signal of its legitimacy and, by extension, your mastery of the subject area after earning a degree. Employers can quickly verify that you have the education needed to succeed in a given role, providing you with an advantage as the screening process moves forward.
For online students, accreditation is especially valuable as it allows you to determine the institution’s quality in a situation where you may never visit the campus or see it function in person.
Are all higher education institutions and their programs accredited?
In short, no. While local and state laws can vary, there is not a nationwide requirement that institutions need to maintain to operate. You shouldn’t assume that all schools are properly accredited simply because they accept students.
In some cases, an accrediting body may not exist for a specific degree program. This generally isn’t an issue as long as the school itself has the appropriate qualifications and institutional accreditation.
Types of accreditations
There is not a single process of school accreditation. Instead, there are three distinct types, with significant differences between them.
Regional accreditation: This is generally regarded as the most prestigious type of accreditation, due to its long history and especially high standards.
National accreditation: While still useful in terms of confirming basic educational standards, this type of accreditation is considered not as strict, valuable, or prestigious as regional accreditation. Institutions seeking national accreditation are often, but not always, focused on providing career or vocational training.
Programmatic accreditation: Program-specific accreditation is granted by organizations that focus on a specific field or type of education. This is more common for graduate programs but is also seen for some undergraduate degrees.
Regional accreditation is the gold standard when it comes to an entire institution. A university or college with regional accreditation meets the highest standards of educational quality.
Among all U.S. colleges and universities, 85% have regional accreditation, as Drexel University explained. The remaining 15% are accredited at the institutional level but receive that distinction from a national accrediting agency.
Regionally accredited institutions have a few defining factors that directly impact students:
A selective admissions criteria, which serves as further proof of their commitment to educating qualified students
A general restriction on allowing students to transfer credits from nationally accredited schools
While some employers can be extremely selective about credentials, a diploma from a regionally accredited institution is a clear and positive indication of your educational experience and qualifications. Grade point average and other elements come into play for admission, but you generally need a degree from a regionally accredited institution to be considered at all.
One recent development to keep in mind is the loosening of geographic restrictions for regionally accrediting organizations. While still in the early stages, this change could eventually shift perceptions of accreditation and lead to new terminology if regional agencies choose to operate outside of their previous boundaries.
National accreditation is a clear indication of a school or university’s ability to successfully educate students, but it doesn’t rise to the level of regional accreditation. Nationally accredited schools generally don’t have academic demands that are as strict and they tend to focus on technical, career, religious, or other distinct types of learning. This can be useful if you’re looking for a practical, career-focused program.
As previously mentioned, if you start an online degree at a nationally accredited school and then transfer to a college or university with regional accreditation, you may have to re-earn credits for basic educational requirements and your specific degree path.
Programmatic accreditors are organizations with a focus on a specific type of curriculum or educational outcome. They review individual degree programs. Because these accreditors aren’t bound by geographic boundaries, they may be seen as providing national accreditation, but they do not.
A diploma from an accredited program demonstrates your competency and ability to meet standards set by knowledgeable professionals in your chosen field.
This quick reference can help you identify some leaders in the world of programmatic accreditation. If specific accreditors for your area of academic interest aren’t listed, the U.S. DOE and CHEA offer comprehensive lists of programmatic accreditors for review.
Online MBA and business programmatic accreditation
There are three major accreditors for business schools:
The AACSB is the oldest business school and MBA accreditor, with more than 100 years of experience. Because of its age and strong reputation, it is often associated with business and MBA programs at established and well-regarded schools.
The ACBSP is the second oldest. Its accreditation process emphasizes teaching and outcomes for students. This is a contrast with the AACSB, which has traditionally focused on research as a major part of its accreditation process.
The IACBE is the newest of the three well-recognized MBA program accreditors. Its major differentiator is a focus on accreditation through a defined mission and clear outcomes. The IACBE recently added accounting programs to its approved range of accreditation.
Health care programmatic accreditation
If you plan to build a career in this field, a high-quality education is crucial for employment and the care of the people you’ll interact with every day.
Recognized accreditors exist for health-related fields ranging from audiology and allied health to radiology and respiratory care. Related occupations that have accrediting bodies include clinical laboratory sciences, health care management, and health informatics.
Nursing programmatic accreditation
Nurses are similar to many other health care professionals in the sense that they are held to especially high standards and their work has a direct impact on the quality of life of their patients. There are a wide range of programmatic accreditors in the world of nursing education.
Specific accreditors include:
The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, a general accrediting body
The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, another general accrediting body
The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, focused specifically on nurse anesthetists
The American College of Nurse Midwives, focused on midwives
IT programmatic accreditation
Information technology is a complex field. If you select this path, you may be responsible for protecting highly sensitive and valuable data. Accreditation can help you select the best possible program and appear more qualified to potential employers.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is a leading IT accreditor. ABET isn’t certified by CHEA, but has instead sought and received certification from the International Organization for Standardization. This indicates a high level of compliance in the area of quality management on an international level.
Find the right accredited school and program for your goals
Every student has different goals and expected outcomes in the world of higher education. Accreditation helps to keep you on the path. By narrowing your list of potential programs early on, you can put more time and effort into selecting the one that’s right for you. Start your search today.