An Online Guide TO AccreditedColleges & Universities
Quality higher education remains a critical step to career success. Students with degrees from respected institutions have solid footing when they hit the job market after graduation. But how do students, parents and employers gauge "quality", especially when every post-secondary institution has different faculty, curricula, resources and long-term goals?
In the United States, private, non-governmental entities spearhead quality assurance at the post-secondary level. While they do receive official endorsement from the Department of Education, these agencies act independently and develop their own processes and criteria with which to vet colleges, universities and degree programs. The institutions and programs that navigate the processes successfully and meet the necessary criteria become accredited, one of the most important (badges) they can earn.
Students can only receive federal loans if they'reenrolled at an accredited institution?
While a primary goal of accreditation is to measure educational quality against pre-determined, semi-universal standards, accreditation can (and does) vary. For example, some agencies work on a regional basis, others national, and even more assess colleges and programs dedicated to a single subject only. The following guide serves as a comprehensive resource for all things accreditation. It explains the numerous reasons why accreditation matters, explores chief accrediting agencies, breaks down the process, and looks at how online learning fits into the equation. Most importantly, it provides clarity to the confusion that often surrounds accreditation.
Why Accreditation Matters
Beyond the "quality" argument, accreditation means opportunity. For students entering college for the first time, accreditation opens doors to a wider variety of funding options - both public and private. It also allows students to more easily take their hard-earned credits from one institution to another. And finally, for graduates, it can expedite finding a job and building a career. However, truly understanding why accreditation matters calls for a deeper dive into each of these points:
From January 1 - March 31, 2013, nearly nine million students applied for aid via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) (Source: https://studentaid.ed.gov/about/data-center/student/application-volume/fafsa-school-state). Federal student loans fund a bulk of college educations in the United States at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In order to qualify for federal aid, however, a student must be enrolled at an accredited institution. Many states have the same requirement.
Thousands of college students transfer to new schools each year, either vertically (from a community college to a university) or horizontally (between institutions on the same academic level). If the school a student transfers from doesn't have proper accreditation from a regional or national agency, the student could lose credits and need to retake certain courses. This can lead to elongated times to graduation and, ultimately, to a more expensive academic journey.
Not all candidates are created equal, but potential employers do need to know their degrees come from properly vetted schools. Some companies even require applicants to possess credentials from a school or program with a specific type of accreditation - usually regional or specialized, depending on the occupation. Students interested in a specific career path may want to talk to employers in the field to better understand the qualifications they look for, and then use that information to chart a targeted educational path that leads to the career they want.
Who Accredits Colleges?
When it comes to accreditation, both the process and the criteria can be extensive. The former takes years to complete, and the latter often includes dozens of items that each institution must meet or exceed. This rigorous combination requires agencies with decades of collective experience visiting campuses, assessing curricula and reviewing faculty credentials. Before examining how the accreditation process works in full, we need to take a closer look at who accredits schools and the areas in which they preside.
Regional accrediting agencies concentrate on more academically oriented institutions, such as large public universities, state colleges and other non-profit four-year schools. As a result, their standards tend to be more stringent, with some states requiring regional accreditation for an institution to use the words "university" or "college" in its name. In Tennessee, for example, only schools accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools can use degree titles such as Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts.
The Department of Education endorses six regional accrediting bodies, each with its own benchmarks and set of states over which it presides:
Commission on Institutions of Higher Education: Part of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the commission focuses on the accreditation of post-secondary schools and programs in New England's six states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Its mission is to "assess and promote the quality of education through the accreditation of its members." The related Commission on Technical and Career Institutions, also part of NEASC, concentrates on accreditation for two-year schools with a vocational slant.
Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: The higher learning commission of NCACS oversees the largest collection of states, including Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In addition to academic and teaching excellence, the association places heavy emphasis on encouraging healthy relationships between the institutions that have earned accreditation.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education: A part of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, this higher education commission accredits post-secondary schools throughout Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and American institutions in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It focuses on a wide range of institutions, including:
- Four-year colleges & universities
- Two-year community and junior colleges
- Online learning programs
- Technical & vocational schools
The association's stated mission is to "provide the highest quality accreditation through peer evaluation."
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: The NWCCU began in 1917 and has a membership of 163 post-secondary institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Like its peers, the NWCCU pushes for educational and resource quality, but they also promote institutional self-assessment so colleges can prepare themselves for the rigorous process of initial and continuous accreditation.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - Commission on Colleges: Headquartered in Decatur, Georgia, SACS's commission on colleges accredits colleges and universities at various levels in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. SACS-CC updates its principles of accreditation periodically (generally every two years) to ensure standards remain consistent with the evolution of higher education.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges: WASC accredits higher educational institutions in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau and the Northern Marianas Islands - as well as American colleges throughout Asia. They do so under two separate bodies: the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (four-year schools) and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (two-year schools).
National accrediting bodies can have a less (stringent) set of standards than their regional counterparts. This is due in large part to the nature of the institutions they accredit. While regional associations focus on academically oriented colleges, national accrediting bodies usually cover non-traditional schools such as vocational schools, career schools, technical schools and other training centers. Higher learning with a religious focus, or distance learning, can fall under the national umbrella, as well. Three national accrediting agencies of note include:
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges: The ACCSC focuses on the accreditation of certificates, diplomas, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in the occupational, trade and technical spheres. Headquartered in Arlington, VA, the ACCSC emphasizes integrity, accountability, continuous improvement and community.
Council on Occupational Education: The Council concentrates on occupational education in career and technical fields. It covers non-degree granting programs, as well as those at the associate degree level, both on-campus and distance learning.
Other national accrediting agencies:
Distance Education and Training Council (DETC): The DETC is the primary accreditor of programs and courses for fully (or near fully) online schools. They accredit non-degree programs and degree programs from associate through the professional doctorate. Although some may view national accreditation as a notch below regional, the DETC has an extensive 28-page accreditation handbook that breaks down all its eligibility requirements, processes and timelines.
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation
Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, Accreditation Commission
New York State Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education
Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission
Some accrediting agencies work with specific degree programs only. For example, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education accredits programs in pharmacy that lead to the PharmD credential. Many colleges and universities (and their appropriate departments) seek programmatic accreditation in addition to regional or national. This gives both the college and the department an extra level of quality assurance to tout.
Active programmatic accrediting agencies, according to the Department of Education, include the following:
- Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
- American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation
- American Occupational Therapy Association, Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education
- American Optometric Association, Accreditation Council on Optometric Education
- American Physical Therapy Association, Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education
- American Psychological Association, Commission on Accreditation
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
- American Veterinary Medical Association, Council on Education
- Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., Accreditation Commission
- Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
- Commission on English Language Program Accreditation
- Commission on Opticianry Accreditation
- Council on Education for Public Health
- Council on Naturopathic Medical Education
- Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology
- Kansas State Board of Nursing
- Liaison Committee on Medical Education
- Maryland Board of Nursing
- Missouri State Board of Nursing
- Montana State Board of Nursing
- National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health, Council on Accreditation
- National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
- New York State Board of Regents, State Education Department, Office of the Professions (Nursing Education)
- North Dakota Board of Nursing
- Teacher Education Accreditation Council, Accreditation Committee
How Accreditation Works
Accreditation could be the most arduous process in the world of higher education. And rightly so. Assessing the quality of a college or university needs to be taken seriously, especially with the number of college students enrolled an institutions reaches the millions on a yearly basis. We already know that accrediting bodies examine curricula, faculty, resources and missions, but what do they look for specifically? What questions do they ask and how do they gauge answers? How long does it take? Let's explore both the criteria and the process in further detail.
The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities breaks up its accreditation criteria into five distinct categories or "standards". The first covers mission, themes and expectations. For example, when visiting a college (or even before), the NWCCU looks for a mission statement that communicates a clear purpose to the greater community, complete with guidance on "verifiable indicators of achievement". For an even more detailed rundown of the NWCCU's mission requirements, visit its Standard One page.
Resources and academics comprise a second category of accreditation standards. With resources, this means human, material/educational, financial and technological. With human resources, everything begins with leadership. Does the institution have qualified administrators who plan, organize and manage on multiple levels? Do they work collaboratively with various departments to develop academic policies and practices in line with the institution's mission and core themes? This extends to faculty, as well. Professors need to have the proper educational credentials, teaching experience and are available to help students for certain times each week.
Although some agencies separate academics and resources, for the NWCCU, resources also mean educational offerings. Specifically, a set of undergraduate or graduate programs with proper rigor and that follow the school's overall mission. Key questions poses include: Does the institution have the services necessary to support students and foster academic success? A career center, help desk and library with quality materials?
From a financial resource standpoint, this covers financial planning, budget development, infrastructure and other cost-related elements. Are spending practices organized? Does the budget foster growth? Is there a proper accounting system in place to make sure finances (both simple and complex) run smoothly?
Planning and implementation also take center stage in accreditation. Agencies want to know if colleges and universities plan comprehensively and with direction and flexibility. Administrators should be engaging in systematic data collection and analysis to identify pros and cons, and then working with fellow administrators and departments to craft primary and secondary plans that capitalize on the pros and address the cons. For some regional accrediting agencies, this step falls under the umbrella of improvement or adaptation. In other words, turning self-assessment into actionable items for the institution to follow.
Of course, the full list of criteria involved in the accreditation process runs as long as the average bill on the Senate floor. To see the complete set of standards for any regional accrediting agency, visit their website and read through the Accreditation Standards section.
In addition to the criteria, accreditation commissions must have a set process for institutions and themselves to follow. Colleges and universities without accreditation need to know how to begin the journey and what to do both during and after the process completed - pending the outcome. Although each agency handles things a bit differently, enough similarity exists to get a general yet accurate picture of progression from start to finish.
Step 1: Initial Candidacy
This is how a college, university or schools becomes affiliated with an accrediting commission. Candidacy lasts between four and five years and involves on-site evaluation. A team of peer reviewers visits the institution to see if it meets basic eligibility requirements, and to gauge its ability to meet full accreditation standards at the end of the term. The team then submits its findings for assessment by council. If their report is favorable and the council agrees based on its own evaluation, the institution receives candidacy.
Step 2: Midterm Evaluation
Some accrediting commissions require candidates to "re-prove" their commitment to achieve accreditation via a midterm evaluation, so to speak. In this case, another peer review team visits the institution to make sure it continues to move in the right direction. At this point, a viable candidate may seek full accreditation from the commission, although it may be asked to finish out the full four years.
Step 3: Applying for Accreditation
After the four (or five) years have been completed and all requirements fulfilled, an institution can apply for full accreditation. This step usually includes a self-evaluation, a visit from an official commission evaluation team and a hearing - with the final decision rendered by a Board of Trustees or similar administrative group.
Again, the process and the players can differ from agency to agency. The important thing to understand here is that accreditation takes time and involves dozens of professionals with years of experience in higher education.
Accredited Online Colleges
Distance learning, or online education, plays a somewhat interesting role when it comes to accreditation. For example, many not-for-profit colleges and universities have their online degree programs and courses accredited in conjunction with their campus-based ones. Many regional accrediting agencies have made this possible by amending criteria to include phrases such as "however courses may be delivered." The bottom line is, if a four-year college or university has regional accreditation, its online programs have been fully vetted.
Some institutions, however, especially those with national accreditation, may seek additional accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). However, the DETC reserves accreditation for schools where online education is the primary learning method for a majority of students. For a school to qualify, it must have two years of academics under the current owners and be approved by its state educational authority to teach there.
With online colleges, programs or courses, accreditation means everything. Before embarking on any distance-learning endeavor, check the institution's accreditation in detail. Too many diploma mills exist out there for anyone to skip over this crucial and potentially money-saving step.