College Accreditation Guidebook

Introduction

Why This Guide is Important

In the United States, land of free enterprise, colleges and universities have traditionally operated with a high degree of independence. Unlike some countries, we don’t have a centralized government agency that oversees higher education. Technically, anyone can open a college, and colleges vary greatly in quality. With the advent and increased popularity of online education, it’s become more and more difficult to tell whether a school is reputable or mainly focused on making a profit.

Fraudulent schools are commonly known as diploma mills. One of the best ways to avoid being taken in by a diploma mill is to check a school’s accreditation status. College accreditation is a process during which independent agencies evaluate a school’s ability to provide a quality education. It’s a higher education stamp of approval. Yet even the accreditation agencies are not all authentic. Your school should be accredited by an agency that’s recognized by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

This Guidebook will help you understand:

  • What college accreditation is
  • The importance of choosing an accredited school
  • The different types of accreditation
  • How traditional schools are accredited
  • How online schools are accredited
  • What the accreditation process entails

You will also find a list of resources related to college accreditation at the end of this guide. Use this information to find detailed information more tailored to your needs as you go about the college selection process.

Diploma Mill Warning Signs:

  • Not accredited by a DOE- or CHEA-recognized agency
  • Promise of earning a degree in significantly less time than is usual
  • A name that sounds a lot like a well-known university
  • Offers of excessive amount of credit for real-life experience
  • Charges tuition on a per-degree basis, vs. a per credit basis
  • Requires very little actual coursework
  • There is little to no interaction with professors
  • .com vs. .edu email address
  • P.O. Box mailing address

Table of Contents

  1. What is College Accreditation 1
  2. Benefits of Accreditation 2
  3. Types of Accreditation 3
  4. Accreditation Process 4
  5. Online College Accreditation 5
  6. Accreditation Outcomes 6
  7. Additional Resources 7
  8. Glossary of Terms 8

What is College Accreditation?

In the realm of higher education, college accreditation is validation that a school is legitimate and prepares students for success in their fields of study. It means an independent agency has thoroughly reviewed a school and is satisfied that it meets quality academic standards and has the financial resources to operate on an ongoing basis. It’s an official stamp of approval recognized by other schools, employers, and the government.

The college accreditation process in the Unites States has changed little since the first accrediting agencies formed in the 1880s. The original goal of accreditation was to provide minimum quality standards for institutions of higher education both regionally and nationally. Eventually professional schools also began developing accreditation standards specific to their disciplines. By the 1930s, standards for college accreditation were well established.

The federal government became involved in the accreditation process after the advent of the GI Bill, when it found itself spending a large amount of tax dollars on education. The Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 mandated the U.S. Secretary of Education (then Commissioner of Education) to publish a list of officially recognized accreditation associations. By 1965, Congress enacted the Higher Education Act, authorizing the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to withhold federal financial assistance from schools that not accredited by DOE-recognized agencies.

Today accreditation exists for all types of post-secondary educational institutions from vocational schools to degree-granting universities. Attending an accredited school is just as important for a student considering training in sonography as it is for someone selecting a law school. But not all accreditation agencies are legitimate, even those with very official-sounding names. The best gauge of an accrediting agency’s worth is whether it’s recognized by the DOE or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Both the DOE and CHEA websites offer a comprehensive listing of the accreditation agencies they recognize.

Benefits of Accreditation

Pursuing a college degree entails a significant investment of time, effort, and money. The expectation is that you’ll get a return on that investment, be it career advancement, salary enhancement, or maybe readiness to pursue a more advanced degree. Choosing an accredited college is akin to protecting your investment. It significantly minimizes the possibility that you’ll end up with a worthless diploma.

An accredited college has already been vetted by an outside agency to ensure it will prepare you to be successful in your field. This is important for you, but it’s also important to employers. Most employers only hire job candidates who’ve graduated from accredited schools. Hiring a graduate from a non-accredited school is a risk, as there is no assurance the person received a quality education and will be prepared to make significant contributions to the organization. In addition, companies offering a tuition reimbursement benefit usually require that employees use the benefit at accredited schools.

Accredited colleges will not accept credits from non-accredited institutions. If you attend a non-accredited institution and want to transfer to one that is accredited, any credits you’ve earned will not be recognized. Similarly, if you obtain a bachelor’s from an unaccredited school, you’ll be hard pressed to find an accredited master’s program that will accept you.

Very importantly, only students who attend colleges accredited by DOE-recognized agencies are eligible to receive federal financial aid. The U.S. government doesn’t want to make a bad investment either. Protect yourself and make sure any colleges you’re considering are accredited. Most schools mention their accreditation in their marketing materials and website. Both the DOE and CHEA websites offer a comprehensive listing of the accreditation agencies they recognize, as well as of schools that are accredited.

Types of Accreditation

There are two basic types of college accreditation: institutional and specialized or programmatic.

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation covers the college or university and all its programs. It accredits the school as a whole. There is no national accrediting agency that grants this type of general institutional accreditation. Instead, institutional accreditation is generally handled on a regional basis, by the following six DOE-recognized accrediting agencies:

AGENCY STATES
Middle States Commission on Higher Education Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools The Higher Learning Commission Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington
Western Association of Schools and Colleges California, Hawaii
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Alabama, Florida, Georgia Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
Specialized Accreditation

Programs, departments, or schools within a regionally accredited institution can also earn specialized accreditation. The DOE recognizes 40 specialized agencies in six categories, while CHEA recognizes a total of 60. Specializations range from business education to psychology to midwifery.

Say you want to attend college in Florida. You’d want a college that’s regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. You may also want to check whether the specific program in which you’re interested is accredited by a relevant agency. For example, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits business programs, while the American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law schools. In some cases, a program may be accredited by an agency that isn’t DOE-recognized. As long as the institution has regional accreditation, however, students can be assured of a quality education and can receive federal financial aid.

A college may, therefore, boast several accreditations. All schools should be regionally accredited, and some may have additional program-specific accreditation. You will find a list of all DOE-recognized accreditation agencies at the end of this guide.

State-Specific Accreditation

Three states require some type of accreditation by their state education boards in addition to any regional and specialized accreditation a school receives. All colleges and universities physically operating in New York are required to be state-accredited. All public colleges and universities in Oklahoma must also receive state accreditation. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Board for Vocational Technical Education must approve all public postsecondary vocational education (PPVE) institutions and programs offered at career and technical education institutions that are not offered for college credit.

Online College Accreditation

Online colleges are accredited depending on how the bulk of their education is delivered.

Online Education at Traditional Colleges

Online colleges, courses, and programs that live within what are primarily classroom-based institutions are accredited through the school’s regional accreditation process. The regional accrediting agencies apply the same criteria to all of an institution’s educational offerings, no matter the delivery system. There is no difference in the standards applied, because the expectation is that a degree earned in the classroom will be of the same quality as a degree earned online or through a hybrid program.

Depending on the regional agency, there are sometimes a few requirements that apply solely to online programs within traditional schools. Usually the institution must be able to verify that the student who registers for the program is the same student who participates and completes the program. Sometimes the school is required to have a written procedure for protecting the privacy of students enrolled in distance education programs. Thirdly, schools may be required to notify students, in writing and at the time of registration, of any projected additional student charges associated with student identity verification.

Online Colleges

Schools that deliver the majority, at least 51%, of their offerings online may forgo regional accreditation for accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). The DETC is the only DOE- and CHEA-recognized agency for accrediting colleges whose offerings are delivered primarily online. Its roots date back to 1926, when the agency was founded to set educational and ethical standards for distance education delivered via the US Postal Service.

Today, the DETC has developed standards to gauge the excellence of an online school’s educational programs, finances, administration, and other aspects. It ensures the school has a sound mission statement, offers adequate student services, practices honesty in advertising, and has the financial resources to fully support its educational programs. The DETC accreditation process is designed to enhance and protect the quality of education offered to students in distance programs overall. Accreditation by the DETC is equivalent to regional accreditation at a traditional bricks-and-mortar school.

Accreditation Process

For Traditional Colleges

Each accreditation agency has established a specific set of standards for the institutions and/or programs they accredit. A typical accreditation process will include:

  • Institutional Self-study: The institution or program undergoes an in-depth self-evaluation study and creates a report that measures its performance against the accrediting agency’s standards.
  • On-site Evaluation: A team selected by the accrediting agency visits the institution or program to ensure it meets the established standards.
  • Decision: An agency makes its accrediting decision.
  • Publication: If the agency grants accreditation status, it lists the institution in an official publication, along with other schools or programs it accredits.
  • Monitoring: The accrediting agency monitors each accredited institution or program to ensure it continues to meet the agency’s standards.
  • Reevaluation: The accrediting agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program in full to ensure its accredited status continues to be warranted.
For Online Colleges

The DETC’s accreditation process also involves several steps:

  • The school reviews the DETC’s Accreditation Handbook, completes a DETC course to prepare for becoming accredited, and starts collecting data about all aspects of its operations for a required self-evaluation report.
  • The school submits an application and self-evaluation report.
  • DETC reviews the self-evaluation report and determines whether the institution is ready for a site visit.
  • The school submits course materials to be reviewed, along with a finalized version of its self-evaluation report.
  • DETC surveys students about their satisfaction with the school.
  • DETC representatives conduct an on-site visit and prepare a report of their findings, which they share with the school.
  • The school has an opportunity to respond to the DETC report.
  • DETC makes its final accreditation decision.
Accreditation Outcomes

Not all colleges that undergo the accreditation process become accredited. The accreditation process can sometimes bring to light problems that need attention. In such cases, colleges may opt to work with the accreditation agencies to fix specific areas that need improvement, and may then reapply for accreditation. A college may also be put on notice or be stripped of its accreditation altogether, if the accreditation agency finds the school’s standards have been lowered. In all cases, a school may choose to challenge or dispute an accreditation agency’s decision.

Resources:

Regional Accreditation Agencies

Council for Higher Education Accreditation
US Department of Education
Middle States Commission on Higher Education
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools – Higher Learning Commission
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Specialized Accreditation Agencies (DOE-Recognized)

School Category
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges
Council on Occupational Education
Distance Education and Training Council
Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools
Arts and Humanities
National Association of Schools of Art and Design
National Association of Schools of Music
National Association of Schoolf of Theater
National Association of Schools of Dance
Education Training
Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
Teacher Evaluation Accreditation Council
American Bar Association
Association for Biblical Higher Education
Association for Clinical Pastoral Education
Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools
Commision on English Language Program Accreditation

Personal Care Services
American Board of Funeral Service Education
Commission on Massage Therapy Accrediation
National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences
Healthcare
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing
Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education
Accreditation Councili for Pharmacy Education
Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
American Dental Association
American Occupational Therapy Association
American Optometric Association
American Osteopathic Association
American Physical Therapy Association
American Podiatric Medical Association
American Psychological Association
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
American Veterinary Medicine Association
Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
Commission on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs
Council on Chiropractic Education
Council for Education for Public Health
Council for Naturopathic Medical Education
Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology
Liaison Committee on Medical Education
Midwifery Education Accreditatoin Council
State-Specific Accreditation Agencies
New York State Higher Education Services Corporation
Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education

Glossary of Terms

Accreditation Agency – An independent entity that reviews and evaluates institutions of higher education to ensure they meet certain standards of quality.

College Accreditation – A process during which independent agencies evaluate a school’s ability to provide a quality education. It’s a higher education stamp of approval.

Diploma Mill – A fraudulent school that grants worthless diplomas.

Institutional Accreditation – Accreditation that covers the college or university and all its programs. It’s generally granted by one of six regional accreditation agencies.

Institutional Self-Study – The period during a school’s accreditation process when it conducts a thorough evaluation of all facets of its operations.

On-Site Evaluation – A period of several days during which a group of representatives from an accreditation agency visits the institution and thoroughly reviews its operations.

Programmatic Accreditation – Accreditation granted to programs, departments, or courses that specialize in a specific discipline within a broader institution.

Regional Accreditation – Because institutional accreditation is conducted by six DOE-recognized regional accreditation agencies, it’s also known as regional accreditation.

Specialized Accreditation – See “Programmatic Accreditation”