Online Guide to Accredited Colleges & Universities

What Is Accreditation?

What is accreditation? Accreditation is the process of evaluating colleges and educational programs to determine their academic merit. In the U.S., independent accrediting agencies review colleges, universities, and programs to grant accreditation. Schools and programs that meet the accrediting agency’s standards earn accreditation.

Colleges voluntarily undergo the accreditation process to demonstrate their ability to educate students and grant degrees. A college or university can apply for regional or national accreditation, while programs apply for programmatic accreditation.

Earning accreditation requires a rigorous and through evaluation. During an accreditation review, the accrediting agency evaluates student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and other factors to determine whether schools should earn accreditation. Accredited schools must regularly undergo a reevaluation process to maintain their accreditation.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) review accrediting agencies to make sure they follow the best practices. The CHEA and ED also maintain lists of accredited schools to help prospective students.

This page explains why accreditation matters and the process of earning accreditation.

Why Accreditation Matters

Prospective students must evaluate several factors when researching colleges, including cost, degree requirements, and admission requirements. Before researching specific factors, students should check a program’s accreditation status. If you wonder why accreditation is important, consider the many ways accreditation affects students.

First, students can only receive federal financial aid if they attend an accredited institution. When students complete the FAFSA to qualify for loans, grants, and work-study programs, the federal financial aid program uses accreditation as the first step in determining eligibility. Students attending an unaccredited school cannot receive federal loans.

DID YOU KNOW

Students can only receive federal loans if they’re enrolled at an accredited institution?

Similarly, other forms of financial aid often require attendance at an accredited school. Corporate tuition assistance programs frequently require accreditation, as do many scholarship opportunities offered by private groups and professional organizations. Some require regional accreditation, considered the gold standard for institutional accreditation.

Second, accreditation benefits transfer students. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, over 38% of college students transfer at some point during their undergraduate studies. Credits earned at an accredited institution are more likely to transfer to another school, saving transfer students time and money on a degree. Some institutions only accept transfer credits earned at regionally accredited schools.

Finally, accreditation is a marker of academic quality that matters to students and to future employers. Students at accredited institutions know that their program meets high standards for granting degrees. Employers often prefer candidates with a degree from an accredited institution.

In some fields, candidates must earn an accredited degree to qualify for professional licenses or certifications. For example, nurses must graduate from an accredited program to earn a registered nursing license, and educators must complete an accredited teacher preparation program to earn their teaching license. As a result, accreditation can shape a student’s career long after graduation.

Accreditation Red Flags: What To Avoid

Because accreditation matters so much, students must understand common accreditation red flags to avoid enrolling at an unaccredited school. On the surface, a school may appear to hold accreditation, but a closer look can reveal problems.

For example, schools may list accrediting agencies on their site that are not approved by the ED. Similarly, schools may post out-of-date accreditation information. By checking accreditation status directly with the ED or CHEA, students can avoid these red flags.

Accredited schools must meet certain standards for granting degrees. Programs that sound too good to be true can also indicate problems. For example, programs that set low standards for graduation or offer degrees in a short amount of time may not meet accreditation standards.

Types Of Accreditation

Schools often hold several types of accreditation, which can seem confusing at first. For example, a college might hold regional accreditation while also holding accreditation from several specialized accrediting agencies.

Also known as institutional accreditation, regional and national accreditation review an entire institution, including all degree-granting programs. In contrast, programmatic accreditation evaluates a single program within the school, such as the social work program or the counseling program. As a result, most colleges hold accreditation from multiple accrediting agencies.

This section explains regional accreditation vs. national accreditation and the difference between institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation.

Institutional – National

A form of institution accreditation, national accreditation recognizes vocational, technical, and religious schools. National accrediting agencies follow different standards than regional accrediting agencies because they typically focus on career training programs rather than liberal arts or research institutions.

In general, nationally accredited schools cost less than regionally accredited schools. However, the credits earned at a nationally accredited institution may not transfer to a regionally accredited college. They also may not meet the requirements for certain professional licenses.

Depending on their goals, some students may prefer a school with national accreditation. For example, students pursuing a technical degree benefit from the lower cost of nationally accredited institutions. However, students planning to transfer to a regionally accredited school or pursue careers in certain fields may not benefit from national accreditation.

Some of the best known national accreditors include the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. These national accrediting agencies focus on technical and vocational schools, including continuing education programs. Some national accrediting agencies, like the Association for Biblical Higher Education, are not approved by the ED.

Institutional – Regional

Regional accreditation recognizes liberal arts and research institutions that meet standards for academic excellence. Seven regional accrediting agencies grant accreditation to colleges and universities in six regions around the country. These accrediting agencies review two-year and four-year colleges and universities.

The seven regional accrediting agencies grant accreditation to around 3,000 schools in the U.S. These regional accrediting agencies work together as the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions to set standards for accreditation and maintain consistency across regions.

Regional accreditation remains the most prestigious standard in higher education. Public community colleges, private liberal arts institutions, flagship public universities, and elite private colleges all pursue regional accreditation.

Students who attend a regionally accredited institution benefit from their institution’s reputation. Regionally accredited degrees also meet more requirements for professional licenses and certifications. Some financial aid or scholarship opportunities may require attendance at a regionally accredited institution, and credits earned at a regionally accredited school are more likely to transfer. However, regionally accredited institutions may cost more than nationally accredited institutions.

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (and some schools in Asia)

Higher Learning Commission

Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming

Middle States Commission on Higher Education

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands

New England Commission of Higher Education

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some international institutions

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia

WASC Senior College and University Commission

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (in addition to certain schools in Asia)

Specialized Or Programmatic

In addition to regional and national accreditation, programs within a school can apply for specialized or programmatic accreditation. For example, nursing programs, business schools, and educator preparation programs often hold programmatic accreditation.

Programmatic accrediting agencies help set standards for education in their field. Nursing accrediting agencies, for instance, determine what academic content nursing programs must include in their curriculum to meet the highest standard for training nurses. Programmatic accrediting agencies also review the qualifications of faculty members, the program’s organizational structure, and graduation requirements.

Many professions that require a license or certification expect students to earn their degree from an accredited program. For instance, counselors, social workers, and healthcare professionals typically must attend an accredited program to work in their field.

Programmatic accrediting agencies also review specialized programs. For example, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) evaluates distance-learning programs to determine whether they meet educational standards. The DEAC, which dates back to 1926, assesses online schools on their student support services, academic quality, and graduation requirements. The DEAC holds ED and CHEA approval to accredit distance-learning programs.

How Does Accreditation Work?

Accredited institutions undergo a rigorous review process that can take several years. During the accreditation review, schools must complete a self-evaluation, submit to third-party reviews, and meet milestones to advance to the next steps. At a minimum, earning accreditation takes one year, while the process can take over a decade.

Before applying for accreditation, schools must meet the minimum criteria for becoming accredited. The requirements vary depending on the accrediting agency, but they can include the process for setting the curriculum, markers demonstrating the institution’s financial health, and a track record for granting degrees.

The accreditation process for online schools varies slightly from campus schools. While online programs at campus schools hold accreditation through the institution’s accrediting agencies, online schools may also hold accreditation from the DEAC.

  1. Meet Criteria

    Schools must meet the accrediting agency’s criteria before applying for accreditation. While criteria vary depending on the accrediting agency, common standards often relate to the institution’s academic record, financial health, and institutional mission. For example, schools must demonstrate that they primarily exist as an institution of higher education.

    The criteria can also include authorization from a government agency to award degrees, a track record of at least one year of granting degrees, and an institutional commitment to academic freedom and transparency. Schools may need to meet standards on their student learning outcomes, their process for maintaining financial accountability, and the quality of their academic programs.
  2. Self-Evaluation

    Schools cannot earn accreditation without completing a self-evaluation. Accrediting agencies require a detailed, thorough self-evaluation that analyzes the institution’s programs, structure, and effectiveness. The accrediting agency outlines the standards and process for the self-evaluation, which can take up to a year.

    During the self-evaluation, schools provide evidence of their institutional resources, academic effectiveness, and institutional processes.

    Accrediting agencies often provide accreditation workshops to explain the process for completing a self-evaluation. The workshop also covers the metrics for self-analysis and the timeline for moving to the next step in the accreditation process.
  3. Onsite Evaluation

    After conducting a self-evaluation and receiving approval from the accrediting agency, schools prepare for an onsite evaluation. During the evaluation, evaluators visit the school to conduct a comprehensive review. Evaluators interview students, faculty, and staff. They may also invite experts in particular topics to conduct an independent review.

    Scheduled in advance, onsite evaluations typically take several days. Onsite evaluators create a report based on their review, which the accrediting agency uses to make a decision on granting accreditation. Schools that do not meet the accrediting agency’s standards can re-apply for accreditation.
  4. Publication

    An onsite evaluation is one of the final steps in the accreditation process. After their visit, evaluators create a report for the accrediting agency. The accrediting agency then examines the self-evaluation, application, and onsite evaluation to make a decision. Schools that meet standards receive pre-accreditation status.

    For regional accrediting agencies, pre-accreditation status grants provisional accreditation. However, schools must still submit biannual reports, complete a second self-evaluation, and undergo a second onsite visit to gain full accreditation. This process can take up to 10 years. Students can find a school’s accreditation status by visiting the regional accrediting agency or checking the CHEA or ED websites.
  5. Maintaining Accreditation

    Once schools hold full accreditation, they must undergo regular reviews to maintain their accreditation status. Typically, schools must complete self-evaluations to show they still meet the accrediting agency’s standards. Regional accrediting agencies typically conduct these reviews every 7-10 years.

    Schools can lose their accreditation if they fail to meet standards. For example, schools that experience a financial crisis can lose their accreditation status. Similarly, an academic scandal or a failure to provide metrics to the accrediting agency can put a school’s accreditation at risk. Accrediting agencies typically issue a warning to give schools an opportunity to address the issue.
  6. Reevaluation

    While a school or program will always be monitored, those receiving accreditation will also be asked to undergo a continuous review process, ranging from every few years to every 10 years. This process will evaluate if the accredited or pre-accredited status can still be awarded to the entity. Generally, the school or program under reevaluation will be required to go through all of the same steps as the initial process. This high level of quality assurance has a two-fold purpose: keeping the university accountable to standards and assuring students and potential employers that the educational standards are being maintained.

Steps To Online Accreditation

Online accreditation functions very similarly to institutional accreditation. Online schools must meet specific requirements to earn accreditation from the DEAC. For example, online schools must submit an application, conduct a self-evaluation, and undergo onsite evaluations to earn accreditation.

The DEAC began accrediting distance-learning programs in 1926. Since then, the accrediting agency has evolved to specialize in online programs. As part of its mission, the DEAC reviews and accredits distance-learning programs to ensure their quality. During an accreditation review, the DEAC looks for evidence of student learning and a positive student experience at the institution.

Schools that primarily offer distance education programs can apply for DEAC accreditation. The DEAC Accrediting Handbook provides detailed information on earning accreditation from the DEAC.

Keep in mind that online programs at campus schools hold regional or national accreditation through the institution’s accrediting agency. For example, online programs at the University of Arizona hold accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission, the same regional accrediting agency that accredits the university’s on-campus programs.

Eligibility Requirements for Accredited Online Colleges

Before applying for DEAC accreditation, online schools must meet specialized eligibility requirements designed for online colleges. These eligibility requirements include rules about the institution’s record of enrolling students, ethical conduct, and financial responsibility.

First, schools must demonstrate a strong record of distance-learning programs. The eligibility requirements for DEAC accreditation state that each program offered by the online school must predominantly use a distance-learning format. Eligible schools must also hold the proper licenses, authorizations, or approvals from state educational institutional authorities.

When schools apply for DEAC accreditation, they must demonstrate at least two consecutive years of student enrollment in the school’s current programs. The DEAC also requires a minimum of two consecutive years under the school’s present ownership. The institution and its owners must demonstrate a record of integrity and ethical conduct. During an accreditation review, DEAC may conduct background checks on the owners and managers of the school.

Like regional accrediting agencies, the DEAC also sets financial eligibility requirements. The DEAC requires evidence that the institution meets financial benchmarks, which schools can provide through audited or reviewed financial statements. Institutions must not engage in any activity that could damage the reputation of the DEAC.

APPLICATION

Online schools seeking DEAC accreditation must submit a detailed application at the start of the accreditation process. This application provides evidence that the institution meets DEAC eligibility requirements. Schools must also provide financial information, details on their physical locations, lists of the institution’s educational programs, and information about the school’s ownership structure.

The DEAC also requires a list of students enrolled in each division of the institution. Online schools must also submit a $4,500 application fee with the application. After the DEAC accepts the application, the online school must complete the accreditation process within 12-18 months.

SELF-EVALUATION

After submitting an application to the DEAC, online colleges must complete a Self-Evaluation Report (SER). The SER must explain the institution’s mission, the school’s history, and the institution’s operation. The SER must also list all courses and programs offered by the institution. Schools must provide information on their finances.

The DEAC also requires detailed information on each school’s student experience. As a result, the SER must provide evidence on the school’s effectiveness at educating students, student services offered by the school, and program outcomes. The DEAC provides a guide for applicants on the self-evaluation process.

READINESS ASSESSMENT

Initial applicants for DEAC accreditation must undergo a readiness assessment as part of the accreditation process. The assessment, conducted by an independent evaluator, determines whether the school meets the requirements for an onsite visit. During the assessment, the evaluator examines the SER and additional evidence to reach a determination on whether the school meets DEAC standards.

The readiness assessment process typically takes 10-12 weeks. At the conclusion of the assessment, the school receives a report on the accrediting agency’s ruling. Schools deemed ready move on to the curriculum review and third-party assessment stage. Schools deemed not ready can resubmit a SER in six months.

CURRICULUM REVIEW AND THIRD-PARTY ASSESSMENT

The DEAC conducts a curriculum review and third-party assessment during the accreditation review. The approved quality curriculum process assesses the curriculum standards for programs offered by the online school. Independent subject specialists conduct a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether the program’s curricula meet high standards. Reports from these specialists become part of the school’s accreditation files.

When reviewing online schools, the DEAC also solicits third-party assessments. After receiving written comments from third parties, the DEAC lets institutions respond to the assessment. For example, the DEAC may consider accounts from another accrediting agency. These steps must take place before an onsite evaluation.

ONSITE EVALUATION AND QUESTION SESSION

Onsite evaluations indicate the accreditation process is almost complete. By the time the DEAC sends evaluators to the online school, the accrediting agency has already conducted a thorough evaluation of the school and its programs. The DEAC sends evaluators who specialize in education, business, and subject specialists to conduct the onsite evaluation.

During an evaluation, the visiting committee meets with staff members, instructors, and board members. The chair of the visiting committee writes a report after the evaluation, which the institution also receives. The DEAC’s accreditation commission uses this report, along with other materials in the accreditation file, to reach a decision about accreditation.

PUBLICATION AND MAINTAINING ACCREDITATION

The DEAC accreditation commission meets twice a year to review files and decide whether to grant accreditation. Schools that successfully complete the accreditation process earn DEAC accreditation. Newly accredited institutions maintain their status for up to three years, at which point they undergo a regular accreditation review. Accredited online schools maintain their status for up to five years.

The accreditation process generally takes 18-24 months. After earning accreditation, schools still regularly update the DEAC on their financial health, curriculum standards, and student learning outcomes. Schools that fail to meet standards can lose their accreditation.

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