What Is Accreditation and How Does It Work?


Updated October 27, 2022

National accreditation means the school has been vetted by an independent body and found to meet the high standards of a quality education.

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Accreditation means a school has been evaluated by an accrediting body and meets the rigorous standards of a high-quality education. The credential a person earns from an accredited school is typically valued and recognized by employers and other schools. Accreditation serves as a powerful way to ensure the student is not attending a “diploma mill” or similar scam institution.

Accrediting bodies, whether regional, national or specialized, should be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Specialized accreditation involved specialized programs, but what's the difference between regional and national accreditation? Does one matter more than the other? What does it mean for someone looking for the best possible educational path? Here's what students need to know about accreditation.

What is National Accreditation?

When a student begins looking at colleges, one of the most important pieces of advice to heed is to check the school's accreditation. Regional accreditation means the school has been vetted by an independent body and found to meet the high standards of a quality education. In addition to regional accreditation, there is also national accreditation. It's entirely different, but in some cases, just as important. Here's what students need to know about national accreditation.

  • How does accreditation work?
    “Schools have to get permission from various accrediting bodies before they can issue academic degrees,” said Zach Rinkins, college and career expert and author of “I Am College Material! Your Guide to Unlimited College, Career, and Life Success.” He continued, “The accrediting body verifies that the institution is operating with best practices and has modern education, faculty support and other protocols. It also requires that instructors have graduate degrees from accredited programs. It also ensures the school meets state, regional and/or national compliance requirements.”
  • What's the difference between national and regional accreditation?
    “Whether or not a school secures national or regional accreditation depends on the institution's priorities and operations model,” Rinkins said. For instance, many national accrediting bodies focus on schools that contain programs that aren't typically found in a traditional college or university. A good example is the Association of Institution of Jewish Studies. This accrediting body, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, provides accreditation only to those schools that have at least one program focused on Jewish studies or degrees.
  • Should a student attend a nationally accredited school?
    That depends on what the student's goals are. If a student is looking into a program that can only be found in a school that is nationally accredited, then they should certainly consider that school. However, if the student is hoping to eventually transfer credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited one, that might not always work out. They should also take into account whether they can move forward with their career goals if they choose a nationally accredited school.
    For instance, let's say someone wants to go to a law school that's nationally accredited. That's not good enough – in order to sit for the bar, law students must attend a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Students should examine their career goals, think about where they want to be a decade from now, and ask themselves if a particular school is the best one for them, based on their personal needs and career path.

Why National Accreditation is Important

For some students, regional accreditation is the only issue they need to worry about. But for others, national accreditation definitely matters. This is especially true if students are looking for a particular program of study that they simply can't find at a typical college or university. For instance, a student considering attending a school accredited by the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools is likely looking for a program that simply isn't available in a traditionally regional accredited school. For those students, national accreditation is vitally important.

It also matters when it comes to paying for that college education. “National accreditation is particularly important because it is connected to Department of Education recognition and funding (e.g. federal financial aid and subsidized student loans),” Rinkins said. “If a school loses its accreditation, it loses Education Department recognition and often closes. It is very difficult for schools to continue without federal recognition.”

Employers also care a great deal about accreditation. In some cases, choosing to attend a school that is not appropriately accredited can have long-lasting negative consequences. “Most employers and accredited graduate schools do not recognize non accredited diplomas,” Rinkins said. “In fact, I once worked with a colleague who earned a Ph.D. Their peers would never call them doctor and they didn't get a commensurate salary. I later learned it was because they earned their doctorate degree from an unaccredited program.”

National Accreditation Agencies

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

The ABHES is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a private, non-profit accrediting agency for private colleges offering allied health programs and is currently the only healthcare education accreditor recognized by the DOE. Widely respected organizations such as the American Association of Medical Assistants, the American Medical Technologists, the Liaison Council for Certification of Surgical Technologists all lend recognition to the ABHES, which has been accrediting programs for 40 years. The AMHES accredits programs offering associate degrees and certificates in medical assisting, medical laboratory technician and surgical technology.

Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges

Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges

The ACCSC has been accrediting schools for 50 years and targets both degree-granting and non-degree granting institutions with a focus on trade, occupational and technical education programs. These programs are designed to train students for occupations that require manual or technical skills. Online programs through established, accredited schools are also considered.

Institutions that apply for accreditation must be in operation for two continuous years prior to application. The school begins the pursuit of accreditation with a self-evaluation that takes into account the standards of accreditation such as financial stability, program length and organization, student graduation and employment rates. The school must provide evidence of meeting these standards on paper, then must further prove their worth through physical visits to the school by ACCSC evaluators. A report is generated by the evaluation team that is then presented to the school, giving them an opportunity to respond, before it goes before the Council for final review.

Accredited institutions must maintain high levels of educational standards and prove those standards through regular reviews. The same is true for online programs, which are held to the same rigorous standards as traditional classroom offerings.

Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training

Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training

Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education since 1978, ACCET evaluates schools that offer opportunities for non-credit training and education. This includes schools that offer certificate, diploma and degree programs up to the associate level through continuing education. Schools that offer bachelor's degrees are not eligible for ACCET accreditation. Only institutions that have been operating for at least the past two years are eligible for accreditation.

Schools that seek accreditation from ACCET must meet a demanding set of standards. The school must exhibit a defined and relevant mission, responsible and effective management, stable finances with a good financial outlook for the future, a sound curriculum with supporting materials and performance measurements.

To begin the accreditation process, the institution fills out a questionnaire that determines eligibility. Supporting documentation is required, as well as at least one representative from the school attending an accreditation workshop, which goes over the process and standards in detail. The following self-evaluation process analyzes data and practices from all aspects of the organization. After an on-site visit, the ACCET team creates a report that is sent to the commission for review.

ACCET also accredits online programs in continuing education and training. Its members review and analyze research and data on best practices within online programs and are well versed in the expectations of an accredited online program or online school. In the ACCET accreditation process, online programs are held to the same standards as traditional, face-to-face programs.

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools

The ACICS is the largest national accrediting organization of degree-granting institutions. ACICS accredits programs through the master's degree level. Eligible institutions must be independent schools offering certificates, diplomas, associate, bachelor's or master's programs, all which focus on professional, technical or occupational careers. Any applicant school must be licensed by the state in which it is located and should have offered programs for the previous two years prior to seeking accreditation. Financial stability is a must. Enrollment of at least 10 students per program and a minimum of seven graduates over the previous three-year period are considered sufficient to begin the accreditation process.

The process begins with the initial application, which begins with the self-assessment checklist, followed by registering the institution and completing all requested documentation. After initial review, the institution will provide further in-depth information while planning for a campus visit. After the initial visit (or visits, if deemed appropriate), a report is prepared, and the institution given an opportunity to respond to any concerns. Finally, the accreditation request is sent to the accreditation council, which then has the final say in approving accreditation status.

Maintaining accreditation requires rigorous attention to annual financial accounting, providing evidence of high academic standards, evaluation visits, notice of changes in the institution or ownership, and strong faculty development options. Student achievement standards, such as a minimum retention rate or placement rate, must also be met each year the accreditation is in force.

It's important to note that some states, such as Texas, are ending their recognition of ACICS, but this could change at any time. It's recommended that any students considering attending a school with ACICS accreditation check with the U.S. Dept of Education for the most up-to-date information on this accrediting agency's status.

Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation

Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation

As the name suggests, the ABHE is dedicated to accreditation of religious-based programs, which today comprises over 200 institutions that enroll more than 50,000 students. There are three levels of membership for educational institutions: Commission on Accreditation Membership, which is reserved for schools that have either received accreditation or are a candidate for accreditation; Associate Membership, meant for accredited members of other organizations, such as the Association of Christian Schools International; and Affiliate Membership, which is extended to institutions of biblical higher education that do not hold accreditation through any CHEA-recognized agency.

To obtain accreditation, a school must submit all appropriate documents that prove the school meets the minimum standards set forth by the ABHE, as well as submit to in-person visits by accreditation evaluators. Some requirements include an institutional mission that dovetails with that of the core Christian principles, a strong governing board and executive officer, adequate facilities and student resources, a current and accurate catalog detailing all potential programs and particulars, an active study body and requirements for undergraduates to attend bible-centered courses during their pursuit of a degree, certificate, diploma or training.

All members of the Commission on Accreditation are volunteers. The group is made up of up to 18 elected representatives of ABHE accredited institutions and three appointed public members. Evaluation teams usually consist of five members for institutional accreditation and three members for programmatic accreditation.

Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, Accreditation Commission

Recognized in 2011 as an accrediting body for postsecondary degrees in the bachelor's, master's and doctoral field, as well as First Rabbinic and First Talmudic degrees, AARTS is a historical authority as well as gatekeeper for traditional Rabbinical learning. The independent, non-profit organization consists of several experts in Rabbinical and Talmudic training. All programs under AARTS purview must meet set standards of education, as well as standards in finance, graduation rate and more to achieve accreditation status. AARTS does not have a website.

Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies

Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies

Recognized as a national accrediting agency since 2016, the AIJS focuses on institutions that provide certificates, associate or bachelor's degrees, or their equivalent in Jewish Studies or Classical Torah Studies. Schools must prove that they have the legal authority to operate in their state, provide all supporting documentation of such, have a clear mission, have enough administration and faculty to provide the required resources for students, be financially solvent over the last two fiscal years, offer one or more educational programs in Jewish Studies, and be in operation for at least one full year before accreditation can be granted.

Accredited institutions are required to submit annual reports to AIJS detailing their current programs and the work they have done to maintain and improve their educational offerings. A site visit occurs halfway through each accreditation cycle to ensure the reports are in line with what the commission sees in person.

Council on Occupational Education

Council on Occupational Education

The COE is a national accrediting agency of postsecondary occupational education institutions. Each institution seeking accreditation must meet certain requirements, including those that pertain to: institutional mission, educational programs, program and institutional outcomes, strategic planning, resources in learning, facilities, finances and personnel, structure organization, student services and activities, and distance education.

Career and technical schools that are licensed to operate as postsecondary institutions and meet certain other criteria are eligible to apply to the COE for accreditation. Schools that have been denied or dropped from accreditation in the past, however, are not eligible.

The process begins with a letter of intent. A representative from the school then attends a workshop to learn about the Council's accreditation standards and processes. Next, the school completes the necessary application and delivers it, along with a required financial report, to the Council. If all is in order, a team of two COE representatives visits the school and prepares a preliminary review.

Upon candidacy approval, schools must complete a self-study report, which is followed up by additional school visits and recommendations. If the candidate meets all necessary requirements, accreditation is awarded. Following accreditation, the accredited institution must continue to file self-study reports and receive site visits from the Council on a pre-determined basis to ensure continued compliance.

When a school seeks accreditation, they must have a variety of active programs to offer; these can be traditional, online or blended. However, a minimum of 25% of the school's full-time enrollment must be educated through traditional means.

Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Distance Education Accrediting Commission

With almost every school now offering at least some form of online learning, the DEAC is more important than ever. For more than 50 years, this accrediting agency has been evaluating programs from associate to doctoral levels. The commission began by accrediting correspondence courses, but the focus has changed with the times to now focus on online education.

The DEAC's Accrediting Commission – the body that ultimately decides a school's accreditation status – applies twelve standards toward the review of schools offering distance learning programs. These standards were developed to gauge how well the programs, finances, administration, and other aspects of an educational institution stand up in comparison to those of an ideal institution. Expectations include sound mission statement, adequate student services, honesty in advertising, and financial resources that fully support educational programs.

The eight-step accreditation process begins with a review of the Accreditation Handbook and application requirements. A preparatory course and self-evaluation report is followed by submission of the application and all supporting documents. A readiness assessment is the next step, and then the site visit is planned. Students are surveyed during the process to determine their satisfaction with the school. Final steps include a final version of the self-evaluation, an on-site visit, and a report to the commission, which then issues a final decision.

Accreditation by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission is recognized as proof of the quality of an institution's programs and equivalent to the regional accreditation of a traditional (face-to-face) school. The DEAC emphasizes self-improvement among all institutions that seek or maintain its accreditation resulting in the overall enhancement and protection of distance learning. A prospective institution must deliver a minimum of 51% of its programs via distance learning in order to be eligible for consideration.

Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission

Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission

With a strong focus on Christian higher education institutions, TRACS evaluates not only colleges and universities, but seminaries as well. Founded in 1979, this national accrediting body serves the specific interests of Christian schools, which might not offer the variety of programs necessary for regional accreditation.

There are two categories of standards that guide the Association's process of accreditation. “Foundational standards” look at the essential Christian focus of the institution and encompass the Biblical foundation, purpose, educational philosophy, and ethical values practiced there. “Operational standards” focus on the functional aspects of the institution, such as curriculum, faculty quality, student services, finances, and measurements of school progress, among others.

TRACS requires certain standards to be met before the accreditation process can begin, such as a minimum number of faculty members and evidence of legal authority to operate. The initial application and first site visit are required for a school to be considered an applicant. A self-study, delivery of pertinent documentation, another on-site evaluation are necessary to reach “candidate” status. Further self-study and on-site visits take place before final accreditation is awarded. Schools must adhere to TRACS standards in subsequent years to keep their status.

It's important to note that when it comes to online programs, any online program must also be offered in a traditional format by the school. Institutions that exclusively offer online programs or courses are not eligible for accreditation by TRACS.

What Types of Schools are Nationally Accredited?

Nationally accredited schools tend to be more narrowly focused than schools with regional accreditation, and focusing more heavily on a particular type of education. Vocational, career and technical schools often fall under national accreditation. So do religious schools, or those that have a limited focus, such as hospitality. In most cases, these schools are for-profit.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a nationally accredited school:

  • Transferring Schools
    In many cases, nationally accredited agencies will accept transfer credits from other nationally accredited agencies as well as regionally accredited agencies. However, some regionally accredited schools will be hesitant to accept credits from nationally recognized schools, and might reject them altogether. This is because many schools consider nationally accredited schools to be held to less stringent standards than those that are regionally accredited, and there is the fear that students haven't received a rigorous education that is on a par with what they would have received if they had enrolled at a regionally accredited university or college.
  • Employer Perceptions
    In many cases, the employers who will look over a graduate's resume will see a nationally accredited, targeted program that has prepared them for the job they want to work in. But there are some employers out there who still see regional accreditation as the “gold standard” even if the degree a person has earned through the nationally accredited institution is right on target. Given this, some students might face hard questions about the rigor of their academics, and should be prepared for that going into a job interview. Fortunately, the good reasons for choosing national accreditation are easy to enumerate and can often sway an employer to see the bigger picture.
  • Financial Aid Options
    It is important to remember that only schools recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are eligible for federal loans, grants, and other financial help through the government. A student should always review a potential school for their accreditation status, but then take it a step further and ensure that particular accrediting body is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Only then can a student know for sure that they might be eligible for financial aid through the government. To check accreditation status, go to the U.S. Department of Education Agency List.




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