What's the first step in choosing a college? Many students start by researching each school's tuition rate, what majors it offers, and its reputation. But before digging into the specifics, it's critical to check whether the school holds accreditation.
Accredited schools meet high standards for academic quality, student learning outcomes, and faculty qualifications. But colleges can hold accreditation from dozens of institutional accreditors. Some schools even list fake accrediting agencies.
After checking a college's accreditation status, it can be hard to evaluate all the information. Does it matter which accreditation the school holds? And when comparing schools with different accreditors, which should you choose?
How to Check a School's Accreditation
Checking a school's accreditation is the first step in comparing accrediting agencies.
Colleges rarely announce that they're unaccredited. Even diploma mills typically list a fake accrediting agency — something the U.S. Department of Education (ED) warns students to avoid.
Instead of relying on the school's website alone, you can check its accreditation status using ED's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's (CHEA) school directory.
After confirming a school's institutional accreditation, you'll want to determine whether its accreditor is a regional or national agency.
CHEA offers a tool for learning more about recognized accreditors. Enter the name or acronym of the accreditor, and CHEA will tell you whether it's a regional, national, or programmatic agency.
You can also quickly see whether CHEA and/or ED recognize an accreditor using this list on CHEA's website.
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Regional vs. National Accreditation: What's the Difference?
Colleges can hold institutional accreditation from regional or national accreditors. In contrast, programmatic accreditation only applies to specific programs within a school.
But what's the difference between regional and national accreditation? And is it better to choose a regional accreditor?
Regional accreditation is the oldest form of higher education accreditation. It's also considered the gold standard for colleges and universities. Flagship public universities, Ivy League institutions, and other well-known institutions typically hold regional accreditation.
Seven regional accrediting bodies evaluate schools across the country. Generally, regional accreditors set higher academic standards than national accreditors.
National accreditors tend to evaluate specialized schools, such as trade and vocational schools, faith-based colleges, and for-profit schools.
Benefits of Choosing a Regionally Accredited College
- More colleges will accept transfer credits. Over 1 million undergrads transfer colleges every year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If you're considering transferring, a regionally accredited school is more likely to award credits.
- Some graduate programs require a regionally accredited degree. Considering grad school? Check the program requirements — many require a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited school.
- You'll have more academic options. Most colleges and universities that specialize in academia are regionally accredited. If you wish to earn a traditional college degree, you'll have more choices if you opt for a regionally accredited school.
Benefits of Choosing a Nationally Accredited College
- You'll have more trade and vocational options. Many nationally accredited schools specialize in trade and vocational education. A nationally accredited school could be a good fit if you're interested in vocational careers in allied health, the skilled trades, or other technical fields.
- You can attend specialized programs not offered at regionally accredited schools. Nationally accredited schools include religious institutions that offer specialized programs. For example, faith-related accrediting organizations accredit schools that specialize in religious education.
- Nationally accredited schools still qualify for federal financial aid. While many consider regional accreditation the gold standard in higher ed, nationally accredited schools also meet the requirements for federal financial aid. That means you can use the Pell Grant or federal loans to help cover tuition costs.
Should You Choose Regional or National Accreditation?
Say you're deciding between two colleges. One holds regional accreditation, and the other holds national accreditation. Which should you choose?
The answer depends on your priorities and career goals.
For example, if you're choosing a two-year college with the goal of eventually transferring to a four-year college, a regionally accredited school will likely save you time and money. That's because four-year colleges generally award more credit for coursework completed at regionally accredited schools.
If you have a specific four-year school in mind, check for transfer agreements with two-year schools to make the transfer process as smooth as possible.
Regional accreditation can also give you an advantage in certain careers. In any field that requires graduate training, attending a regionally accredited school for your bachelor's degree gives you more options when applying to grad programs.
On the other hand, if you're interested in vocational careers, a nationally accredited school might be a better fit.
Understanding your priorities will help you decide when comparing regional vs. national accreditation. Overall, most college students benefit from the higher standard of regional accreditation.
Regional vs. Regional Accreditation
Most U.S. colleges hold regional accreditation. But what if you're comparing two regionally accredited colleges? Does it matter which regional accreditor you choose?
Although each regional accreditor sets its own standards and processes, they all operate largely using the same rules.
What's more, all seven regional accreditors hold approval from both ED and CHEA. That means it's more important to check whether a school holds regional accreditation than to choose a particular regional accreditor.
There are seven regional accrediting agencies that cover six regions across the country.
Based on a 2020 rule change, these regional accreditors can evaluate schools in any location rather than restricting accreditation to their historical regions. Colleges can also apply for accreditation from an agency outside their state.
The following map shows the historical purviews of each regional accreditor.
Which Regional Accreditor Should You Choose?
Many students find themselves deciding between two regionally accredited colleges. Is it better to choose a school accredited by HLC or SACSCOC? Or are regional accreditors simply interchangeable?
Ultimately, choosing a regionally accredited school is more important than picking a regional accreditor. Credits earned at a NECHE-accredited school, for example, will transfer just as easily to a college accredited by a different regional accrediting body.
After confirming that a school holds accreditation, ask questions like:
- Which school offers the most affordable tuition rate or the best financial aid options?
- What's the school's graduation rate and placement record?
- Which school has programs that interest you?
It's essential to choose an accredited college for your degree. After all, accredited degrees meet high standards of academic quality.
As you research and compare accreditations, consider your other priorities as a degree-seeker so you can find the right fit for you.