What you must know about accreditation?
There are important facts to know and a few questions to consider prior to selecting which accredited college to attend. First, there are two types of accreditation that an institution of higher learning can obtain; one is known as “institutional” and the other is “specialized” or “programmatic”. Institutional accreditation refers to the entire institution, meaning all parts of that institution are positively contributing to the overall objectives and mission. Specialized or programmatic accreditation refers to a specific program and its measured outcomes. In the U.S., higher education accreditation is voluntary and is granted through lengthy and arduous peer-review processes driven by accrediting agencies. Often, while in the process of obtaining initial accreditation, educational institutions and programs spend several years in “candidacy,” a status granted to qualified applicants.
The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions or programs directly, but the Secretary of Education publishes
a list of all recognized accrediting agencies that have been determined to be reliable through a review process as long and laborious as obtaining and maintaining accreditation itself. Although not mandatory, accreditation serves as a pass to institutional and programmatic eligibility for Title IV Federal Student Aid programs, such as Pell Grants and Direct Loans, while guiding institutions and programs to meet certain quality standards and continuously improve.
The two types of institutional accrediting bodies are Regional and National. Finding a school that is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education is the first step.
There are six regional accrediting agencies that oversee different sections of the country. They are:
- Middle State Association of Colleges
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Associations of Schools and Colleges
Unlike their Regional counterparts, National accreditors are not bound to specific geographic area, but rather evaluate certain types of higher learning institutions. For example, the Accrediting Bureau
of Health Education Schools (ABHES) is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an institutional and specialized accreditor focusing on health care education. Many nationally accredited colleges and universities focus on vocational or trade focused education, for example nursing or medical assisting.
The type of institutional accreditation does not play a role in determining the quality of education at a specific college or university. There are many examples of high quality institutions and programs under both regional and national accreditation; however, lower quality providers with poor outcomes exist under both types of accreditation as well.
What You Must Ask Before Choosing a Program of Study?
1. Why are you attending a specific program?
If the sole goal of your completing a program of study is an immediate entry into the workforce, then institution’s accreditation source, whether national or regional, will likely not make much difference (assuming you are comparing programs
of similar cost and quality). If completing a
specific program will serve as an educational ladder stepping-stone to a higher degree, then transferability of the earned credits and/or academic and professional credentials must be considered. Each educational institution sets its own transfer of academic credit policies and there is no guarantee that any earned credits would transfer. As a general trend, most nationally accredited colleges and universities accept credits and credentials from both regionally and nationally accredited institutions. However, some regionally accredited schools do not transfer in academic credits earned at nationally accredited institutions. To learn about transfer of credit policies at any specific higher education provider, please contact the institution’s admissions and/or registration department, or refer to the school’s academic catalog.
2. What is the cost of the program?
Public universities and community colleges are, generally, regionally accredited and, since these schools are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, their tuition and fees can be significantly less than at most private, nationally accredited institutions. However, competition for admission to a public university or community college could be much greater than at private institutions. When evaluating the value of an educational program, one must consider the entire cost
of attendance (COA). Questions regarding COA should be directed to the institution’s financial aid department. Among other factors that should be consider when evaluating the total value of a program are its acceptance and yield rates. In other words, how many qualified applicants receive admission offers and how many of those
enroll into the program of study? Conversely, how many qualified admissions applications are denied or waitlisted? The opportunity cost of waiting year after year to enroll into a specific program could become significant, as the earning potential that follows being a program graduate is delayed further and further.
3. What is the quality of the program?
As previously discussed, programmatic accreditation is voluntary. However, accreditation often signals an educational program’s higher level of commitment to excellence and high quality. Therefore, attending a program that is a candidate for or has obtained programmatic accreditation is highly recommended. Some of specialized programmatic accreditors are:
- American Medical Association (AMA) accredits medical programs
- Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits engineering programs
- American Dental Association (ADA) accredits dentistry programs.
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) formerly known as National Nursing League (NLN) accredits nursing programs
- American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law programs
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits business and accounting programs
Finally, institutions of higher learning are required to publish statistics on outcomes of their educational programs. Graduation and retention rates, licensure examinations’ pass rates, and employment placement rates are examples of published outcomes that may be found on the schools’ websites or by contacting admissions departments.
Accreditation is, indeed, important and is a way to differentiate and select the institution and
program that best meet one’s educational and career goals.
For more information about accrediting bodies in the U.S. please visit these links:
- U.S. Department of Education – Overview of Accreditation
- An example of nationally accredited agency: ABHES
- An example of a specialty accredited agency: ACEN
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)