When the U.S. government made accreditation a requirement for federal financial aid in the mid-20th century, trade schools needed to follow suit. In 1965, the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools (now the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges) was formed to accredit and promote trade schools.
Today, more than 12 million trade school students across the country rely on the accreditation process for quality assurance, financial aid, and postgraduate opportunities. If you're planning to earn a vocational degree, you should only apply to accredited trade schools.
What Are Trade Schools Exactly?
Many use the term "trade schools" interchangeably with "career colleges," "vocational schools," and "career and technical education schools" (or CTE schools for short).
Trade schools differ from traditional colleges in that they provide career-specific training. Trade programs are shorter than traditional academic programs as well, typically lasting up to two years.
According to the Congressional Research Service's CTE primer, trade schools can lead to a certificate, diploma, or associate degree.
The 16 career clusters covered by CTE and trade schools are:
- Agriculture, food, and natural resources
- Architecture and construction
- Arts, audio/video technology, and communication
- Business management and administration
- Education and training
- Government and public administration
- Health sciences
- Hospitality and tourism
- Human services
- Information technology
- Law, public safety, corrections, and security
- Transportation, distribution, and logistics
Explore Featured Trade Programs
How Do Trade Schools Become Accredited?
To earn accreditation, trade schools must meet the standards of a federally recognized accrediting agency.
While the criteria for accreditation can vary, schools generally need to meet the following requirements:
- Be in operation for at least two years
- Have at least one graduating class
- Demonstrate financial stability
- Provide credentials that qualify for state licensure (if applicable)
- Offer credentials up to and including associate degrees
- Feature the appropriate objectives, programs, policies, and procedures
- Maintain programs with an interactive component
- Run programs that provide the appropriate training outcomes
The exact process of accreditation also varies, but typically entails the following steps:
- Submit Letter of Intent: The trade school notifies the accrediting agency of its intent to apply for accreditation.
- Attend Accreditation Workshop: The trade school sends at least one representative to a workshop to learn more about the accreditation process and requirements.
- Submit Formal Application: After determining eligibility, the school submits a formal application and the necessary processing fee.
- Complete Self-Evaluation Report: The self-evaluation report usually includes specifics on the trade school's operational strengths and weaknesses. The report also confirms that the institution meets the educational objective and compliance requirements for accreditation.
- Host On-Site Evaluation: A team of experienced specialists from the accrediting agency visits the trade school. Through inquiry and observation, the team verifies and analyzes the accuracy of the self-evaluation report. Afterward, the team submits a report of its findings.
- Respond to Evaluation Report: The trade school has a designated period of time to respond to the evaluation report. It can provide additional documentation or proof of rectifications to satisfy compliance requirements.
- Review and Action: The accreditation agency reviews the documentation and makes an accreditation decision. In most cases, the agency will approve, deny, or defer accreditation. Schools can appeal the decision.
Who Accredits Trade Schools?
Technically, any independent organization can offer accreditation, but only federally recognized accrediting agencies can provide advantages like financial aid.
The Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation formally recognize accrediting agencies that set and enforce high accreditation standards. Schools accredited by an ED-approved agency get access to federal financial aid, among other benefits.
The major institutional accreditors — formerly known as regional accreditors — oversee most degree-granting schools, including many that offer CTE programs.
National faith-related and distance education accreditors may also work with schools offering CTE programs.
But trade schools have their own category of accreditors: national career-related accrediting agencies.
ED currently recognizes five national trade school accreditors:
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES): Accredits schools offering degrees and nondegree credentials in allied health disciplines, as well as medical assistant, medical lab tech, and surgical tech programs.
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC): Accredits trade and technical schools.
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET): Accredits private career colleges, along with organizations offering non-collegiate continuing education, corporate, and professional training.
- Council on Occupational Education (COE): Accredits trade and vocational schools offering certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees in career and technical education.
- National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS): Accredits specialized schools and programs in cosmetology arts and sciences.
What Trade Schools Are Accredited?
More than 2,850 schools and organizations have received accreditation from a national career-related accreditor. This includes both trade schools all around the U.S. and online trade schools.
Explore below to find accredited trade schools in your state.
5 Reasons to Attend an Accredited Trade School
Trade schools specialize in technical and vocational skills for a variety of careers and industries. Students enroll in these programs to reskill, upskill, access highly technical fields, and qualify for industry credentials.
Trade schools without accreditation, however, may not provide you with the same benefits.
Here are five reasons why you should attend an accredited trade school.
Quality Assurance Ensures a Strong Curriculum
Accredited trade schools have undergone a rigorous quality assessment process. Accreditation ensures that the school supports its students and that its programs provide effective and appropriate career training.
Your Credential Will Be Recognized in Your Field
Many fields require candidates to hold industry-recognized credentials (IRCs) for employment. Examples of IRCs include degrees, certificates, diplomas, and apprenticeships. Accreditation verifies that the trade school provides approved IRCs.
You Can Access Professional and Student Organizations
Many professional and student groups partner with trade schools to offer continuing education credits, reskilling and upskilling programs, and professional development opportunities. To best protect their members, these organizations primarily work with accredited trade schools.
You'll Get Access to Federal Financial Aid
Only accredited trade schools have access to federal financial aid. Students at these schools may qualify for federal loans and grants like the Pell Grant. They might also qualify for various scholarships.
You'll Qualify for Licensure and Certification
State licensing boards put the same trust in the accreditation process as students and employers do. In most states, you'll need a credential from an accredited institution and/or program to get professional licensure.
You may also need to maintain licensure via continuing education at an accredited school.