How Does College Accreditation Work? Find out if Your Online School is Accredited & Learn How to Spot a Fake

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Dr. Todd Pfannestiel Read bio
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Accreditation is a form of certification in which an independent body will verify that a school or academic program meets minimum academic standards. It ensures that the academic credential a student works so hard to obtain means something substantial, and that it will be recognized as such by employers and other post-secondary institutions. Given the time and monetary cost of a college education, prospective students must make sure their chosen school and/or program is accredited. Learn more and find out how to determine if a particular school or program is accredited.

What is Accreditation?

Accrediting agencies are private organizations that work to ensure academic institutions within its jurisdiction meet acceptable levels of educational quality. These agencies can accredit schools at a national or international level, or they might focus on a specific region.

Most colleges and universities in the United States receive their accreditation from a regional agency; this is known as institutional accreditation. Accrediting bodies may also accredit specific programs, which is known as programmatic accreditation. Remember, just because a program is accredited, that doesn’t mean the school is and vice versa.

In the United States, there are six primary regional accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education accreditation.

  • Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE)

    The CIHE is one of four commissions that make up the NEASC. CIHE is tasked with accrediting post-secondary institutions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and select international locations.

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

    The HLC accredits post-secondary institutions in the following 19 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

    The MSCHE accredits post-secondary institutions in the mid-Atlantic region. This includes schools in Delaware, Washington, D.C, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What is CHEA?

Accrediting agencies look at the schools to make sure they are up to par, but who ensures the accrediting agencies themselves are up to the proper standards? That’s the CHEA, or Council for Higher Education. It is one of the two main organizations in the United States (the other being the US Department of Education) that recognizes other accrediting agencies. Basically, the CHEA makes sure that the organizations certifying schools and academic programs meet certain minimum accreditation standards. The CHEA consists of approximately 3,000 post-secondary member institutions and recognizes about 60 organizations that accredit either post-secondary programs or institutions.

How is the Department of Education Involved?

The U.S. Department of Education became involved in education accreditation when returning soldiers from the Korean War wanted to go to college on the GI Bill. With so many individuals wanting a college degree, unscrupulous degree mills sprang up to take advantage of unsuspecting prospective students. To ensure taxpayer dollars weren’t spent on worthless degrees, Congress created a law that required any post-secondary institution accepting students that received federal financial aid to meet and maintain certain minimum academic quality standards.

While the DOE doesn’t accredit schools and has no direct control over accreditation, it recognizes organizations that accredit schools. If an accrediting agency isn’t recognized by the DOE (or the CHEA), its accreditation granting powers aren’t given much weight or respect in the academic or professional communities.

How Colleges and Universities Get Accredited

Despite the importance of accreditation, becoming accredited is voluntary. However, any school that has concern for maintaining a student body and delivering a quality education will work toward receiving and keeping accreditation. The exact procedure will depend on which accrediting agency the school seeks accreditation from, but regardless of the agency, the entire process typically takes one to two years to complete.

  1. The first step to accreditation is to identify which accreditation credential to obtain. Among the CHEA or U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting bodies, some are more prestigious than others, due to their more rigorous accrediting standards. For the most part, the more prestigious the accreditation, the higher standards the school must meet. Then there’s the fact that a school can get programmatic accreditation for its individual programs, even if the school itself is already accredited.

  2. Once a school chooses which accreditation it wants, it must identify and satisfy the eligibility requirements. During this time, it may be in candidacy status. This means the school is not yet accredited, but it’s on its way to meeting the requirements for accreditation.

  3. During the candidacy status, the school will submit large amounts of paperwork and documentation to show it does qualify for accreditation. This will include information about its faculty, the financial viability of the school, class syllabi, graduation requirements, degree requirements and samples of student work.

  4. The next step is the evaluation, where commission members will review the school’s accomplishments and characteristics to determine if accreditation is warranted. This will usually include both document review and an on-site visit of the school’s campus and facilities.

  5. Finally, a decision is made. Until a decision is made, the school will be under the continuous obligation to provide updates on its academic and financial status. Should the school become accredited, it will have to renew its accreditation periodically, typically few years or so.

Recognizing Accreditation

Even if a school has the financial resources to operate without federal aid, unless it also has the money to provide an almost free education to its students, it cannot survive as an educational institution. Few students have the ability to pay for the full price of college with cash. Many students will therefore rely on financial aid, much of which comes from the federal government. Even students who can obtain generous scholarships must still avoid unaccredited schools; that’s because most financial aid awards, even private scholarships or grants, are dependent on the students enrolling in an accredited institution.

With accreditation being so important, it’s no wonder schools want to be accredited. But not all schools can obtain this credential, so they look for shortcuts. One of the popular shortcuts is to obtain accreditation from an organization that has the least rigorous requirements. While not every accrediting agency is expected to establish accreditation requirements that only a handful of schools can meet, they can’t make the requirements so easy that any school can meet them. That’s why accrediting agencies must be “recognized” by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

When the Department of Education works to determine if a school provides an education of sufficient quality to warrant federal money, it looks at accreditation. Only a school that has current accreditation can qualify for federal cash.

If a school is accredited by an organization not recognized by the CHEA or US Department of Education, it’s almost as if the school isn’t accredited at all. Just as accreditation ensures a school isn’t a degree mill, recognition ensures an accrediting agency isn’t an accreditation mill. These layers of protection for students help ensure their degree is much more than a simple piece of paper.

  1. Understanding Types of Accreditation

    There are two main types of post-secondary accreditation. The first is institutional accreditation and it refers to an entire school or institution having met minimum academic quality standards. Most colleges and universities in the United States receive institutional accreditation from one of the six regional accrediting bodies.

    Even though a school may be accredited, its individual programs can be accredited as well. This second type of accreditation is called programmatic accreditation. Not all of a school’s programs will have its own separate accrediting body, but many professional programs will; a few examples include engineering, nursing, law, medicine and business. Prospective students choosing to enroll in one of these types of professional programs are strongly encouraged to ensure that their chosen program and school are both accredited by their respective accrediting bodies.

  2. Why Accreditation Matters

    Accreditation signifies that the educational institution provides a quality education by meeting specific academic standards. These standards typically revolve around the school’s ability to provide academic support to its students, the rate in which students are expected to progress, how well students are prepared upon graduation, faculty quality and curriculum requirements. Accreditation ensures that all colleges in that particular region or area that obtain accreditation can compete against each other on a level playing field; for instance, a student won’t necessarily get a better education at one college over another. By attending an accredited school or program, a student knows that they will obtain a certain level of knowledge and training.

    Accreditation also increases the likelihood that an external party, such as another school or employer, will recognize the academic credential the students has worked so hard to achieve. Without accreditation, there is no way for an employer, government agency or another school to know that the student didn’t just buy a college degree from a degree mill over the weekend. Though that sounds far-fetched, before accreditation came along, it was an entirely possible scenario.

The Consequences of Attending a Non-accredited School

The consequences of going to a non-accredited school will depend on the exact reason the student enrolls in a course or program. But generally speaking, if a student attends a school that’s not accredited, they will miss out on certain advantages and face the possibility of graduating with a degree, diploma or certificate that is practically worthless beyond any personal satisfaction the student may garner from the accomplishment.

By attending a school that’s not accredited, a student:

  1. Will be ineligible to receive state or federal financial aid, including grants and loans.
  2. Will be ineligible to receive most private forms of financial aid, especially scholarships.
  3. May have employers disregard or simply ignore any academic credential that came from the unaccredited institution.
  4. Will be attending an educational institution that cannot receive any federal or state funding to help support the school.
  5. May not have the academic credits earned at the unaccredited school be accepted by another school when transferring or applying for admission.
  6. May open themselves up to the potential for criminal prosecution or civil liability for the unauthorized practice of a particular profession.

How to Find out if an Online School is Accredited

Students interested in an online college or university should be particularly careful to make sure the school is accredited. Most online programs in the United States today are not degree mills and expect the same level of academic performance from their online and on-campus students. However, the risk remains and prospective students interested in a particular school or program should verify its accreditation status as soon as possible, even before applying. This is because there’s little point in completing an application, possibly paying an application fee and writing an admissions essay to a school that’s not accredited.

But how can a student know for sure? The following is the process by which prospective students can tell if a particular school is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.

Check the School’s Website

Most accredited educational institutions will have a link to their accreditation status on the bottom or corner of their front page. At the very least, it should be easily found through the website’s search function. If looking for programmatic accreditation, the prospective student will probably need to find the accreditation information on the specific program’s homepage.

Check the Accreditation Agency’s Website

Even though a school’s website claims it’s accredited, an unscrupulous school could lie about its accreditation status and put whatever it wants on its website. Therefore, students should also check the website of the accrediting agency that has accredited the specific school. Any legitimate accreditation agency will have an easy way to look up a particular school and verify current accreditation status.

Check the CHEA or US Department of Education’s Website

So the school says they’re accredited and the accrediting agency confirms they’ve accredited the school. That’s it, right? Not quite. Because of the risk that a school has been accredited by an organization not recognized by the CHEA or US Department of Education, prospective students should verify recognition status with the CHEA or US Department of Education. This information is made very easy to find; a quick list of accrediting agencies recognized by the CHEA or US Department of Education can be found on the CHEA’s website and the US Department of Education’s website.

Accreditation Red Flags

Schools without Department of Education or CHEA recognized accreditation know they’re lacking a very important characteristic, one that most students will demand. Therefore, unscrupulous schools work very hard to confuse or trick prospective students into thinking the school is accredited. They might even take another route and claim accreditation isn’t necessary given the school’s other selling points.

One way schools will try to fool students is by getting accredited by an “accreditation mill.” An accreditation mill is an organization that provides an accreditation credential much more easily than a reputable accrediting body would. In some instances, an accreditation mill will simply provide the accreditation status after the school pays a fee.

The following is a list of red flags that may signify a school is not accredited or is accredited by an accreditation mill. Most of these red flags by themselves will not automatically mean a school isn’t properly accredited, but if there are multiple issues popping up, prospective students should probably apply elsewhere.

  1. Very similar name and website appearance to a well-known and accredited school, as if the questionable school is trying to confuse prospective students.
  2. Other schools and employers located in the same region have never heard of the school.
  3. Claims to be accredited, but the accrediting agency isn’t recognized by the US Department of Education or the CHEA.
  4. Has a pending accreditation status, with no estimated date for when accreditation should be obtained.
  5. Promises degree completion in an unusually short period of time.
  6. Unusually high or low tuition rates.
  7. A flat tuition rate, regardless of a student’s course load.
  8. Automatic acceptance into the school.
  9. Promotional information appears very “salesy.”
  10. Faculty credentials are not available.
  11. Makes impressive claims about its program, such as a high average salary for graduates or robust employment rates after graduation, without citing sources or offering ways to verify that information.
  12. Does not provide an address to a physical location of its campus or offices.
  13. Graduation and curriculum requirements are far less rigorous than comparable, accredited programs.
  14. Degrees can be obtained solely on prior experience.
  15. Provides academic credit for prior coursework without the student having to provide a certified transcript or other comparable academic credentials.
  16. Few, if any, class attendance requirements.

Experts Weigh in on Accreditation

Dr. Pamela Gent serves as the Associate VP of Academic Affairs at Clarion University. Holding both a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Kent State University, Pam was a full professor of Special Education and served six years as Chair of the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitative Sciences at Clarion University.

Dr. Todd Pfannestiel is currently the interim provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Clarion University, a regional public institution in northwest Pennsylvania. He previously served as Dean of the College of Arts, Education, and Sciences at Clarion, where he also taught as a professor of history.

When looking at accreditation, are there any particular points a student should investigate?

A student should be very careful when reviewing institutional accreditations, as some fly-by-night groups attempt to use “official sounding names” to imply that their accreditation is pertinent. The amount of time a school has been accredited is less of factor than looking for any gaps in an institution’s accreditation timeline (i.e., did they lose accreditation for any stretch of time).

Sometimes schools will lose accreditation only to regain it soon after. Should a student be wary of a school that has lapsed in accreditation?

Regional accreditation does not just lapse. Before a university actually loses accreditation from a regional accreditor, the university is given multiple opportunities to improve unless the issues are truly egregious. If the regional accreditor removes accreditation status, then there are truly egregious issues or the university repeatedly failed at its efforts to improve. This is a red flag.

Losing programmatic accreditation is different and may or may not be a red flag. In several instances, a university may simply choose not to renew programmatic accreditation (say, for example, AACBS accreditation of business programs) simply because of the cost of maintaining these specialized, programmatic accreditations. Other accreditations simply lose their relevance to prospective students or employers.

Would you provide some tips for students when evaluating schools?

It is important to do a cross-university comparison. Go to the accreditation site and see what other universities are accredited by the same body (as the school at which you are looking). One can learn much about the validity of accreditation when you see a range of schools that hold the same accreditation.

Also, don’t be shy about looking into the “details” page of an institution’s accreditation (again, this can often be found on the accreditation body web site). Beyond simply holding an accreditation, the details page will tell you if there are/were any overriding particular concerns that the accrediting body had about a university’s finances, quality of instruction, etc. Don’t shy away from schools that may have those details – it is perfectly common for an accrediting body to ask for progress reports on particular items of interest to them. But when you start to see “warnings,” pay close attention.

Anything else you might like to add about accreditation?

Accreditation can be an important form of assessment as a student chooses a particular program or university/college. The key is regional accreditation, especially as it relates to Title IV federal funding (i.e., financial aid). Regional accreditation is also the “common denominator” among varied universities – a real “apple to apple” comparison. Specialized or programmatic accreditations should be taken with a grain of salt. There are several great degree programs that may not have specialized accreditation for any variety of reasons – so don’t dismiss a school that may lack that accreditation in your field of interest (unless required for state licensure, as referenced above). As with many other factors, accreditation is one of many tools a student can use to help them make the right choice when it comes to college.

Accreditation Resources

  1. Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)

    Along with the US Department of Education, the CHEA is one of the two primary organizations that certify accrediting organizations. In essence, the CHEA accredits accrediting agencies.

  2. Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

    Formerly known as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), which accredits schools at all levels, the HLC now focuses solely on accrediting colleges and universities in 19 states.

  3. Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA)

    The MSA accredits most schools in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, including elementary and secondary schools (through the MSCESS) and post-secondary institutions (through the MSCHE).

  4. New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)

    The NEASC is made up of four separate commissions, with each commission accrediting a different group or level of schools in the New England region and select countries. The post-secondary group of schools is accredited by the CIHE.

  1. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

    As its name implies, the NWCCU accredits colleges and universities in the northwest region of the United States.

  2. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

    Through its college and university accrediting arm, the SACSCOC, the SACS’ mission is to foster accreditation of educational institutions in the southern region of the United States.

  3. WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

    The WSCUC accredits the post-secondary institutions in the western region of the United States, including a few schools located outside the United States.

  4. United States Department of Education

    The US Department of Education is the federal agency that oversees how federal funding is spent on education in the United States. Due to its interest in only providing federal financial assistance to reputable education institutions, it is also one of the two primary agencies (along with the CHEA) that certify accrediting agencies.