Online Guide to Accredited Colleges & Universities

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Why Accreditation Matters

The purpose of accreditation is simple: to measure educational excellence, spearhead quality assurance, and ensure pre-determined standards are maintained. Quality higher education remains a critical component of future career success; however, understanding the different types of accreditation and knowing which accrediting commissions are reputable can be confusing. This comprehensive guide will help students understand why accreditation matters, how it works, who provides accreditation, and how online education fits within the framework.


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

Why Should I Care About Accreditation?

Attending an accredited institution or program makes a significant difference for students in a number of ways. In addition to upholding educational quality and ensuring high standards are maintained, accreditation means students will:

  • Have access to federal financial aid
  • Have greater ease in transferring existing college credits
  • Rest assured that their education will be led by qualified faculty
  • Know their degree will be recognized by employers

Selecting an accredited college or university truly makes a difference to students.

What happens if a college isn't accredited?

Financial Aid

As of 2013, 57 percent of undergraduates received some form of federal financial aid; however, this type of funding is only available to students enrolled in institutions accredited by an agency that is recognized by the Department of Education. This is also true of many state loans. Students who select a school without proper accreditation will have greatly limited financial aid options.

Transfer Credits

While an institution has the final say on whether or not to allow students to transfer existing credits, the likelihood of those credits being accepted is greatly reduced if they were earned at an unaccredited college. This will likely result in the transferring student being required to retake certain courses. If a student is considering attending a community college for his/her first two years, it is worthwhile to contact prospective four-year programs to assure courses will transfer.

Quality of Education

Accreditation works as a stamp of approval, ensuring educational rigor and excellence are maintained on an institutional and/or programmatic level. If a college is not accredited, quality of education may not be on par with similar institutions. While lack of accreditation could be due to a program being new or currently undergoing the process, for others it could be a sign that the quality of education is subpar.

Quality of Faculty, Counselors, and Other Academic Staff

According to a study by the Journal of Education for Business, faculty of unaccredited schools are paid less, publish less, and teach more than their peers at accredited institutions, leading to a lower level of passion and engagement with their subject. Additionally, academic staff at these schools will not be required to maintain the same standards of discipline knowledge or continued professional development as accredited institutions, meaning their awareness of their subject and ability to teach students could lag.


Whether regional or specialized accreditation will affect a student's ability to gain employment in their field should be researched thoroughly. When competing with other graduates of similar programs, proper accreditation can make the difference between one candidate and another. Accreditation may not be a job requirement, but employers may feel more confident hiring an applicant who graduated from an accredited college.

Types of Accreditation

Two main types of accreditation exist: institutional and specialized (sometimes called programmatic). Within institutional accreditation, there are significant differences between schools accredited by a national commission versus those accredited by a regional agency. Read on to learn about the differences and what to consider when selecting a school with specific types of accreditation.

Institutional – National
What is it?

Unlike regionally accredited schools, most institutions receiving national accreditation are less academically-focused and instead fall under the category of career or trade schools, which offer vocational courses and programs or training centers. Requirements for national accreditation tend to be less stringent. Schools with a religious focus or those with distance learning programs can also fall into this category.

Examples of major accrediting bodies
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission
Institutional – Regional
What is it?

Considered the most prestigious form of accreditation, more than 85 percent of higher education institutions in America are regionally accredited. These schools are held to the highest standards and frequently hold their students to similar requirements. Admission to regionally accredited schools can be more competitive, but the recognition provided is attractive to both students and potential employers. Regionally accredited schools tend to be large public universities, state colleges, or non-profit four-year institutions.

Examples of major accrediting bodies

The United States is divided into six different areas for the purposes of regional accreditation. Three examples of regional accreditation bodies include:

  • Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Colleges and Schools
Specialized or Programmatic
What is it?

Programmatic accreditation is offered to singular programs, departments, or schools within a college and the accrediting body is often focused on an individual discipline, such as pharmaceutical science or engineering. Though different than regional accreditation, it offers the same level of prestige. The specialized nature means specific components such as faculty, curriculum, and student services are more heavily scrutinized in relation to the specific program at hand.

Examples of major accrediting bodies

The United States is divided into six different areas for the purposes of regional accreditation. Three examples of regional accreditation bodies include:

  • Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Council on Education for Public Health

Who Accredits Colleges?

U.S. Colleges are accredited by private educational commissions that conduct independent peer evaluations based on a set rubric of specific criteria. While the U.S. Department of Education does not accredit any schools or programs, it does release a list of nationally recognized accreditation organizations considered reputable. In much the same way colleges must apply to be accredited, these accreditation commissions must be evaluated by the USDE in order to be published as a trustworthy accrediting body.

While multiple forms of accreditation exist, the most desirable and prestigious universities will be regionally accredited. These are typically more academically rigorous, competitive, and offer graduates an excellent foundation for entering the job market. Additionally, if a student is looking to change colleges, transferring existing credits between universities with the same accreditation is typically much easier. The Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes six regional accrediting commissions:

  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges

    Operating as two separate commissions, the WASC was formed in 1962 with the mission of promoting higher education in the Western region of America. This is done through the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which accredits both community colleges and other institutions offering associate degree level programs within the California, Hawaii, and the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Senior College and University Commission (SCUC) accredits four-year universities in the same geographic area. Gate-keeping/compliance, improvement and accountability are the three main functions the organization looks for when determining if a school should be accredited.

  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

    Holding the accreditation responsibilities for nineteen states within the South-Central and Midwestern regions, the HLC is responsible for regionally accrediting a large number of four-year universities and colleges. The organization uses five criterions for assessing whether an institution should be accredited. These include:

    • Mission
    • Ethical and Responsible Conduct
    • Teaching and Learning: Quality, Resources and Support
    • Teaching and Learning: Evaluation and Improvement
    • Resources, Planning and Institutional Effectiveness

    In addition to academic and teaching excellence, HLC is dedicated to forging and growing relationships between institutions receiving accreditation from the commission.

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education

    Formed in 1919, MSCHE is responsible for providing regional accreditation to schools located in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, the organization also accredits American institutions located in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. MSCHE is very focused on providing a status for schools that "instills public confidence" in the accredited institution's mission, goals, performance, and resources.

  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education

    Serving as the regional accrediting body for Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the NEASC has been assuring quality educational standards since 1885. As of 2015, the commission currently accredits 243 colleges and universities in New England. Institutions seeking to be accredited must undergo a rigorous process including meeting a significant list of requirements for affiliation before moving into the candidacy phase and finally reaching full accreditation. The related Commission on Technical and Career Institutions, also part of NEASC, concentrates on accreditation for two-year schools with a vocational slant.

  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

    The U.S. Department of Education recognized the NCCU as the regional accrediting body for the Northwest region in 1952. Since then, the organization has assessed the educational quality and institutional effectiveness of post-secondary institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges

    SACSCC accredits higher education institutions in the 11 states making up the Southern region, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The commission updates its requirements biannually to ensure the highest levels of educational and institutional excellence are upheld. Schools must comply with all the standards set forth in the organization's principals of accreditation before receiving accredited status.

National & Specialized Accrediting Organizations

In addition to commissions offering regional accreditation, the Department of Education also recognizes a number of independent bodies providing national and specialized accreditation. National accreditation providers can be further divided into those focused on faith-related and career-related institutions. Specialized accreditation organizations are many and varied, ranging from a focus on the culinary arts to dental technology, orthopedic medicine to journalism and mass communications.

The search tool below will help students to look up accrediting bodies by school and location.

How Does Accreditation Work?

Higher education institutions and programs seeking accreditation must undergo a long and thorough process to be recognized by a respected accrediting body. Often, the school must complete a series of requirements before even starting the accreditation process. Depending on the size of the university, individual requirements of the commission, and any need for revisions, the process can take anywhere from 1-3 years. The following outlines the individual steps necessary to become fully accredited.

1. Meet Criteria
2. Self-Evaluation
3. On-Site Evaluation
4. Publication
5. Maintaining Accreditation
6. Reevaluation
1. Meet Criteria

While each accrediting body has developed their own set of criteria for accrediting a school, a good example is the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which uses different measurements to assess candidacy. The categories include: mission; ethical and responsible conduct; quality, resources and support; evaluation and improvement; and resources, planning and institutional effectiveness. Accrediting bodies list individualized requirements and most schools will begin reviewing this document long before ever applying for accreditation.

2. Self-Evaluation

The next step in the process is a self-evaluation that the institution seeking accreditation must complete. This involves an in-depth study identifying how the institution sees itself measuring up against the established standards required by the accreditation commission. This undertaking engages many different areas of the college, ranging from faculty, senior leadership, and the governing board. Most accreditation commissions require interested institutions to attend an accreditation workshop before undertaking the study.

3. On-Site Evaluation

After the accrediting agency has reviewed the school's self-evaluation, a team compiled by the agency will be visit the school (or program) to assess first-hand if the institution does indeed meet the established standards. In addition to members of the accrediting agency, this team will likely also comprise peer reviewers or other members of the public with a background in assessing quality standards.

4. Publication

If the accreditation commission rules that a school has satisfied all of the requirements and criteria, the agency will award the institution accreditation or pre-accreditation status. From there, the school or program will be listed on the commission's list of approved institutions, though sometimes those in the pre-accreditation phase may be listed separate from those with full accreditation status. Schools can advertise their pre-accreditation certification, as they will more than likely become fully accredited in the near future.

5. Maintaining Accreditation

Accrediting commissions are tasked with monitoring all of the entities accredited throughout their entire period of holding the accredited status. This process ensures that all schools and programs are continuing to meet the commission's standards.

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.

What's the Process for Accredited Online Colleges?

Online programs offered via brick-and-mortar institutions will be evaluated against the same set of criteria used to assess classroom-based courses. For instance, if a university is regionally accredited for its on campus classes, online offerings will carry the same type of accreditation. This is especially useful for students wishing to transfer credits gained online to another university.

This also holds true for institutions receiving national accreditation, though frequently the online programs at these schools will seek further accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) to add an additional level of legitimacy. DEAC first received recognition by the Department of Education as reputable accreditation commission in 1959. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation also recognized it in 1996. Schools approved by the DEAC must satisfy the same set of standards required by regional accreditors. Evaluation of online colleges is divided into 12 topics, including mission and objectives; educational program objectives, curricula and materials; educational services; student support services; student achievement and satisfaction; qualifications of administration and faculty; admissions; advertisement and recruitment; financial responsibility; tuition policies; facilities and equipment; and research and self-improvement.

In order for a school to even be considered for accreditation by DEAC, there are a number of requirements they must first meet. These include:

Eligibility Requirements for Accredited Online Colleges

Required to be operating as an "educational institution or organization whose primary purpose is providing education or training" which meets five classifications surrounding enrollment, qualified faculty, educationally sound curricula and supporting materials/technology, proper student evaluation, and the amount of study being completed online.

Must be properly "licensed, authorized, exempted or approved" by the appropriate institutional authority for the state and be compliant with all local, state, and federal requirements.

When applying, should have been offering classes for at least two years.

Must be able to document that the institution is financially healthy and able to meet any financial responsibilities.

Must show that those involved with the institution – owners, board members, administrators, etc. – have behaved in ethical ways, free from any misfeasance

Agrees to the possibility of owners, officers, and managers undergoing a background check.

Cannot have any pending or finalized action enacted by a state or accrediting agency to "suspend, revoke, withdraw or terminate the institution's legal authority to operate or to deny accreditation or reaccreditation".

Steps to Online Accreditation

Online schools and programs can apply to be accredited by the DEAC. The steps involved in this process include:

Step One 1

Institutions must first elect an internal point person to attend the DEAC Compliance Officer course and handle the application process on its behalf. Afterwards, the school can begin writing the self-evaluation report (SER), which involves gathering and analyzing data relating to many different aspects of the institution, such as its strengths and challenges, practices and procedures, goals and outcomes, and overall effectiveness. This process involves soliciting information from many stakeholders and key members of staff to elicit a holistic self-analysis.

Step Two 2

The institution must next submit its application, along with a fee, to the DEAC. This begins the formal accreditation process. The institution must also submit the names of the first 100 students who were enrolled 18 months prior to the application. The DEAC will then post the name of the institution applying for accreditation on its website and in publications, and ask peers to comment on the institution and its suitability for receiving accreditation.

Step Three 3

Initial applicants undergo a readiness assessment conducted by a DEAC-chosen evaluator. This involves a full review of the SER and a written report assessing the readiness of the institution to move further into the accreditation process.

Step Four 4

If the institution is deemed ready, the next step is to submit a selection of course materials to be reviewed by subject matter experts. An onsite examination is then scheduled and typically last one or two days, depending on the size of the institution. Students are also given surveys during this time with questions relating to their views of and experiences at the institution, including their level of satisfaction. The DEAC will also survey a number of outside organizations that interact with the institution, including Better Business Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, consumer protection agencies, and federal and state regulatory agencies to learn more about the institution's reputation.

Step Five 5

The institution receives the subject specialist reports and surveys conducted earlier to prepare for a question session with a visiting committee. This group is typically made of up evaluators and could also include educators, senior management, and members of the business, technical, and service fields. Staff members from state and federal agencies are also invited to observe the process. Examiners will look for verification of all the self-analysis provided in the SER during their visit through observation, interviews, data and record review and file examinations. The examiners will then write reports on their findings, typically received by the Examination Chair 4-6 weeks after the onsite evaluation.

Step Six 6

After reviewing the comments, the Chair will prepare a cohesive report for the DEAC; the commission will then send the report to the institution and solicit comments. This gives the institution the opportunity to respond to any queries and report on any forward movement to requests for corrective action.

Step Seven 7

After receiving comments from the institution, the DEAC will make a decision based on all of the research and findings presented. This decision will be given to the institution within 30 days and the DEAC will notify other accreditation commissions, state and federal agencies, and the general public of the institution's accreditation status.

The Future of Accreditation and Affordability

In 2013, President Obama proposed holding higher education institutions more accountable for cost, value, and quality during his State of the Union Address. In order to do so, Obama called for a reformation of the accreditation process, particularly the addition of value and affordability measures to address rising college costs. In 2014, student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion, signaling a change is indeed necessary.

The governing legislation for this action is held within the Higher Education Act, which is currently up for reauthorization by Congress. The Higher Education Affordability Act emphasizes four goals: increased college affordability, help for struggling borrowers, holding schools accountable to students and taxpayers, and improved transparency to help families make more informed decisions.

Accreditation Red Flags: What to Avoid

Students researching potential institutions and programs should familiarize themselves with common red flags surrounding accreditation, particularly for online education. Some significant red flags include:

Does the online school also have an on campus presence?

While there are many reputable online-only schools, questionable institutions are out there. Students should research if these schools have actual offices and proper documentation, especially smaller colleges.

How long does it take to earn the degree?

Schools promising a shortened time frame may be cutting corners and, therefore, may not be accountable to a proper governing body or accreditation agency. In general, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

Is the commission accrediting the school listed on the registry of agencies approved by the Department of Education?

So-called diploma mills give online education a bad reputation, as many will list fake accrediting bodies. But not all online colleges are dishonest–make sure the college you are interested in holds proper and current accreditation from a DOE-recognized organization.

Does the school make itself easily available for student assistance?

It is important that impeccable levels of communication be maintained when undertaking online learning. If a school is difficult to get in touch with, this could signal a lack or proper organizational controls.