School Accreditation – What Does It All Mean?

If you’ve ever looked into colleges, you may have run across something called an “accreditation”. Or you have heard different colleges, online or residential, bragging that they are in some way accredited. What does that all mean, and why is it important to you?

Defining the Term

The Department of Education is the governing body responsible for the governance and oversight of post-secondary institutions. According to their website, accreditation means “the status of public recognition that an accrediting agency grants to an educational institution or program that meets the agency’s standards and requirements.” Meaning, it is a mark of approval given to a school for meeting basic standards.

Believe it or not, the DOE does not have as much control over our institutions of higher learning as we believe. The Higher Education Act of 1965 gives the department the responsibility of ensuring students are prepared to attend their colleges of choice, but it is prohibited by Congress from exerting any further control. As stated in The Department of Education Organization Act,

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system.”

Okay. So the Department of Education does not get directly involved in oversight. Then who does?

Accreditors

Accreditors are independent, membership-based organizations that rely on peer review to ensure that member institutions meet certain standards for academic quality. The accreditors ensure that students have access to qualified instructors and an adequate curriculum.

However, accreditation is not required for a college to offer instruction or grant academic degrees. Most of the time, the power to grant an institution the privilege of granting degrees comes from the states themselves. So why would an institution feel compelled to obtain an accreditation? Money is often the answer.

How Does That Affect You?

In order for an institution to participate in the Title IV Federal Student Aid programs, they must be accredited. Without being able to accept student aid, most schools would have a hard time attracting and retaining students, which ultimately means that the school would not continue to operate. Not every school has a multi-billion dollar endowment like Harvard.

Even so, without accreditation, a college or university would not be able to offer the “accredited” degree that most employers require. Further, if the degree will not increase employment prospects, then why waste your time getting a degree since there are tons of IT jobs that don’t require them.

Because there is a regulatory body that grants approval through rigorous review and oversight, the institutions themselves are held to a higher standard. If they meet this standard, they obtain an accreditation. It is also possible for schools to have more than one accreditation.

Accrediting Agencies

While there is only one Department of Education, there are numerous accrediting agencies, some of which have geographic requirements. Remember, these are membership based, so colleges and universities have to apply for accreditation from each agency they wish to join. The body involved at all levels of educational accreditation is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA. In some cases, an accreditation will be recognized by the Department of Education, but not by CHEA.

National Level Accrediting Agencies

Sample of some national level accrediting agencies.

Regional Accrediting Agencies

Most colleges you attend will have a regional accreditation, which is simply an approval from an agency that oversees a particular region of the country. Some of these are:

Curriculum-Specific Accrediting Agencies

Other accrediting agencies are curriculum specific, so in order for an institution to offer accredited programs, they must also be members of that corresponding agency. For example:

These are just a few, and there are many. But this helps illustrate the depth and breadth to which your education is affected by agencies outside of your school. In fact, most programs in the US would not be offered were it not for the approval of accrediting agencies.

Why Accreditation is Important

In the long run, and especially with most institutions offering online courses these days, you may never run across an accrediting issue while you’re attending school.

Some institutions can lose their accreditation if they do not pass a periodic review, but thankfully that doesn’t happen too often.

The Takeaway…

If you are looking to use your GI Bill benefit at an institution, make sure it is accredited. According to the VA’s Principles of Excellence, a program must be accredited before they will send a dime to that institution.

If you are going into a specialty program like nursing, counseling, architecture, et cetera, then make sure that your intended program has an accreditation from that professional agency. Some programs may even require more than one.

You are allowed to ask for proof of an institution’s accreditation. Most will have it on their website, but if you can’t find it, ask. They are required to disclose their lack of accreditation, even if that means losing out on enrollment.

In the end, you, the student, are the beneficiary of the accreditation process. For while your program will last but a short time, the quality ensured by these accrediting agencies guarantees that your education is the best it could be while you are there.

(Image by Bill Davenport from freeimages.com)

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About the author

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Robert Haynes is a retired Army infantryman who has a squad of kids and is married to an active duty Soldier. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who spent his last few years in the Army as a Drill Sergeant. He is now a full-time dad, freelance writer, and out-of-work comedian.