Unlike other countries, the U.S. doesn't have a central office overseeing its higher education system.
This is where accreditation comes in. The practice of accreditation serves to uphold quality standards in higher education. It protects students' investments of time and money, guarantees that they can transfer credits to other institutions, and ensures their degrees remain valuable.
Legitimate higher education institutions — including prestigious private schools, state universities, and online colleges — hold accreditation from one or more recognized accrediting agencies, such as the New England Commission of Higher Education and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Accreditation is a voluntary process. Colleges submit to rigorous, multi-year peer reviews to prove they meet quality standards and to organize their institutional goals within a continuous improvement framework.
What Does Institutional Accreditation Mean?
There are two types of U.S. college accreditation: institutional and programmatic.
As the name suggests, institutional accreditation applies to an entire institution. The accreditation agency looks at the school as a whole, from governance and finances to program design, learning outcomes, and student support services.
Institutional accreditation gives a stamp of approval to colleges. By attending an accredited school, you can easily transfer credits to other institutions. Graduate programs and employers will also recognize your degree as valid.
Perhaps most importantly, institutional accreditation allows colleges to participate in Title IV federal funding — the student aid money most colleges rely on. Many students rely on this funding to attend college.
Colleges and universities must be accredited by an independent agency recognized by the Department of Education (ED) for students to receive Title IV financial aid, including Pell Grants and federal student loans.
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List of Institutional Accreditation Agencies
The best institutional accreditors are recognized by both ED and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Currently, ED recognizes 18 institutional accreditors, while CHEA recognizes 12.
What Is Programmatic Accreditation?
Unlike institutional accreditation, which targets entire schools, programmatic accreditation — also called specialized accreditation — targets individual programs at colleges and universities.
Whereas the quality standards upheld by institutional accreditation focus more on the big picture, those set by programmatic accreditation tend to be more specific.
Attending an accredited program is extremely important in certain fields — particularly professional pathways like healthcare, law, and education — and determines whether you can attend graduate school and take state licensing exams.
National vs. Regional Accreditation: What's the Difference?
Regional accreditation was and still is often considered the gold standard of institutional accreditation. Usually, it's associated with public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. Both ED and CHEA recognize all seven regional accreditors.
In contrast, national accreditation was and still remains associated with career and vocational schools, religious colleges, and for-profit institutions. CHEA is less likely than ED to recognize national accreditors.
Both regional and national accreditation enable colleges and their students to participate in federal financial aid.
In 2020, ED eliminated the distinction between regional and national accreditors, creating a single set of institutional accreditors.
Because regional accreditors are no longer limited to their historical geographic areas, schools across the country can now apply for accreditation from any institutional accreditor.
Why Institutional Accreditation Matters
College accreditation performs three important functions — and they're all about validity.
In a nutshell, accreditation validates:
- A school's educational merit to attract prospective students
- A school's educational merit to receive government funds
- A school's educational merit so that credits and degrees can easily move with students on their academic journeys
Colleges that don't hold accreditation — or those that are in danger of losing accreditation — may be guilty of awarding credits and degrees for little learning. These "diploma mills" are precisely what the accreditation process is designed to weed out.