Accreditation is a key part of educational quality assurance. The U.S. government has required colleges to be accredited to qualify for federal financial aid since 1952.
Today, schools, state licensing boards, and employers hold accreditation in high regard. While the college accreditation process has changed over the years, its importance has only grown.
In 1996, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was formed to introduce more rigorous standards for assessing educational quality. The organization recognizes accrediting agencies that holistically evaluate institutional and programmatic academic excellence and accountability.
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) also recognizes accrediting agencies to ensure that schools and programs meet certain criteria for federal funding.
Although accreditation plays an integral role in higher ed, the process can be difficult to wrap your head around. We spoke with Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of CHEA, to help answer some of your biggest accreditation questions.
What does it mean for a college to be accredited?
"When a college is accredited, it means that the standards of accountability have been met or exceeded according to nationally established benchmarks," said Jackson-Hammond.
Accreditation gives schools academic legitimacy — so long as the accreditor is recognized by CHEA and/or ED. Colleges accredited by an ED-approved agency gain access to federal support programs, most notably federal financial aid.
"The [accreditation] process helps to establish and monitor standards of educational quality and shares evidence that the institution and its programs are indeed providing a collegiate experience of value to students, families, and the public," explained Jackson-Hammond.
What is the purpose of accreditation?
Since its early days, accreditation has served to ensure a high standard of academic quality and protect federal funds. The process forces schools to prove they're following through on their promises.
Additionally, accreditation promotes and encourages institutions to grow and adapt to industry changes.
"The accreditation process supports a 'continuous improvement' model," said Jackson-Hammond. "The continuous improvement process means that an institution or program will always seek to be better in their performance and will work to provide innovative and quality experiences for maximum student success."
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What are the benefits of accreditation?
"Accreditation affirmation builds public trust, ensures transparency and accountability, and serves the public good," said Jackson-Hammond.
For schools, accreditation demonstrates academic quality, guarantees access to federal support programs, and simplifies the credit transfer process.
For employers, accreditation can help when evaluating candidates. When considering candidates from unaccredited schools, employers can only guess at a program or faculty's quality. Most companies also only offer tuition assistance to students at accredited colleges for that same reason.
Perhaps most importantly, accreditation benefits students by offering consumer protection and an ever-improving educational system.
What types of accreditation for colleges are there?
Accreditation falls into two main categories: institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation.
Institutional accreditation includes a comprehensive evaluation of the school, examining its mission, governance, and student services. Programmatic accreditation evaluates the curriculum content, faculty qualifications, and student outcomes of individual (and often highly specialized or professional) programs.
Previously, institutional accreditation was divided into regional accreditation and national accreditation. On July 1, 2020, however, ED issued new rules to allow regional accreditors to expand their reach and accredit schools beyond their traditional geographic boundaries.
“Accreditation allows institutions and academic programs to examine their policies, practices, [and] protocols, and every aspect of the collegiate experience in order to provide evidence that the institution is keeping its promises to ensure student success.”
— Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, President of CHEA
How does a school become accredited?
The college accreditation process consists of five major steps:
Institutional accreditation begins with a school performing a self-study. The school then submits documentation and evidence to prove it meets the accrediting agency's quality standards. A peer review team then evaluates the institution's self-assessment and makes a site visit.
After deliberation, the accrediting agency announces its decision with an action letter. Schools may appeal the decision, which could result in an affirmation, amendment, or reversal.
Accreditation can last up to 10 years before requiring a renewal and review process, depending on the agency.
Which college accreditation is best?
Historically, regional accreditation was seen as the gold standard of institutional accreditation. Since the 2020 rule changes, however, the distinction between regional and national accreditation has become less important.
Still, students can protect themselves by following CHEA's guidance.
"CHEA is the only nongovernmental organization in the U.S. that provides a 'seal of recognition' (approval) for accrediting organizations," explained Jackson-Hammond. "The CHEA recognition seal provides a guarantee of fairness, expertise, transparency, and accountability to colleges and universities."
The best accreditors will be recognized by both CHEA and ED.
What are all the accrediting agencies for colleges?
Altogether, CHEA and ED recognize around 100 accrediting agencies.
This includes a mix of institutional and programmatic accreditors. Institutional accreditors accredit entire schools, while programmatic accreditors accredit individual academic programs within a school.
There are seven major institutional accreditors, formerly known as regional accrediting agencies:
Some common national accreditors you'll see include:
Some of the largest and most well-known programmatic accreditors are:
American Bar Association (ABA)
Is accreditation mandatory in the U.S.?
No, accreditation is not mandatory in the U.S. — which is why it's so important.
Colleges and universities can operate without any accreditation or with accreditation from an unrecognized agency. The responsibility, then, falls on the student to decide whether a school meets their standards.
Note that schools must have institutional accreditation from an ED-recognized agency to be able to offer federal financial aid to students. Most state and industry licensing boards also require candidates to graduate from accredited schools.
Candidates for licensure must graduate from an accredited program as well. For example, prospective registered nurses should enroll in a nursing program accredited by ACEN or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, both of which are recognized by ED.
“CHEA-recognized accrediting organizations meet rigorous standards for academic integrity, demonstrate their ability to be impartial reviewers, and have the expertise to carry out their charge associated with the accreditation process.”
— Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, President of CHEA
What colleges are accredited?
Most degree-granting U.S. colleges and universities hold institutional accreditation. This includes all public four-year universities and public community colleges. Since these schools operate using government funds, they need accreditation to function.
Private schools call for more investigation. While the majority of private nonprofit schools hold accreditation, many for-profit colleges do not — or they may hold accreditation from an unrecognized agency.
In August 2022, ED officially stopped recognizing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools as an institutional accreditor. This left over two dozen for-profit schools without federally recognized accreditation and access to federal financial aid.
Are online schools accredited?
Yes, many online schools are accredited. Online colleges undergo the same accreditation process as traditional colleges and universities.
Accredited online colleges may work with any of the seven regional accreditors. They may also get accreditation from a national accreditor, such as DEAC, which specializes in accrediting online schools.
To get DEAC accreditation, a school must run at least 51% of its programs online. CHEA and ED both recognize DEAC as a legitimate institutional accrediting agency.
How can you ensure a school is accredited?
You can check a school's accreditation status in several ways. Most accredited colleges readily post their accreditation details on their website, often in their "About Us" sections.
You can also search for the school in ED's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs or CHEA's accreditation directories.
Finally, you can check the websites of individual accrediting agencies, which typically maintain databases of accredited schools.
What are the best accredited colleges?
The best accredited college for you will depend on your needs, budget, interests, and goals. Schools should have accreditation from a recognized organization. Everything else comes down to the individual.
When choosing a college, consider your career goals and learning needs. Evaluate the facilities and resources available, along with the faculty and program options. You can then compare accredited schools by how well they serve you in these areas.
What does it mean if a college is not accredited?
Unaccredited schools do not guarantee a quality education. These schools usually award degrees that aren't valid or readily recognized by other institutions and employers. Often called diploma mills, unaccredited institutions require little to no work on the student's part.
If you attend an unaccredited school, you can't apply for federal financial aid. In addition, your credits may not transfer to other schools, you may not qualify for state or professional licensure, and you may not be eligible for the jobs you want.
Some schools intentionally remain unaccredited. By avoiding accreditation, these schools can sidestep regulations, providing them more freedom in what they can offer students.
Is there a list of unaccredited colleges?
While there is no exhaustive list of unaccredited colleges, you may find various databases available online. You can also learn to spot unaccredited schools with a little research.
For example, beware of schools with unprofessional websites or schools that hold accreditation from unrecognized agencies. You should also double-check that the school's accreditation is active and hasn't expired.
“Accreditation affirmation is a reflection of quality assurance. … Employers actively seek to employ persons who have graduated from accredited institutions.”
— Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, President of CHEA
What happens if you attend an unaccredited college?
Attending an unaccredited college can lead to undesirable outcomes. You won't have the same financial aid opportunities as you would at an accredited school, making large amounts of student debt a likely outcome.
According to Jackson-Hammond, unaccredited schools can "cause significant financial strain on the student."
Additionally, you might not get the same type of employment or continuing education opportunities.
While unaccredited colleges often boast impressive graduation rates and job placement stats, students should tread cautiously — many unaccredited schools "do not provide meaningful data regarding student academic success or college completion," warned Jackson-Hammond.
What happens if your school loses accreditation?
When a school loses accreditation, it loses access to federal funds. This often means students are left with degrees that may not be accepted by employers and credits that may not transfer to other schools. Sometimes, a school's loss of accreditation results in refunds and lawsuits.
For example, when HLC withdrew its accreditation of Mountain State University in 2012, the school faced a class-action lawsuit and more than 55 individual lawsuits from students.
If enough of these challenges pile up, losing accreditation can even result in the permanent closure of a school.
Recently, MSCHE announced that ASA College would lose accreditation in March 2023. This, in combination with civil penalties and class-action lawsuits, ultimately resulted in the school's closure in February 2023.
Does accreditation matter to employers?
Yes, accreditation matters when applying for jobs. Many employers rely on college accreditation to verify the quality of a candidate's educational background and degree.
"Employers want highly competent employees from accredited institutions," said Jackson-Hammond. "An accredited institution signals academic integrity and quality."
In regulated fields that require certification or licensure, like nursing, accreditation is mandatory.