Educational accreditation is a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of educational institutions or programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the appropriate agency.
In most countries the function of educational accreditation is conducted by a government organization, such as a Ministry of Education. In the United States a quality assurance process exists that is independent of government and performed by private non-profit organizations. Those organizations are formally called accreditors. All accreditors in the US must in turn be recognized by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which is an advisory body to the U.S. Secretary of Education, in order to receive federal funding and any other type of federal recognition. Therefore, the federal government is the principal architect and controlling authority of accreditation. The U.S. accreditation process was developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century after educational institutions perceived a need for improved coordination and articulation between secondary and post-secondary educational institutions, along with standardization of requirements between the two levels.
The US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education. They also provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the US Department of Education nor the CHEA accredit individual institutions. However the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity is involved in certifying accrediting agencies, as it applies to the issue of higher education institutions' qualifications to disburse federal financial aid to their students and their students' ability to qualify for federal financial aid.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.
What are accrediting agencies?
Accrediting agencies are organizations (or bodies) that establish operating standards for educational or professional institutions and programs, determine the extent to which the standards are met, and publicly announce their findings.
Are there different types of accreditation?
There are two basic types of educational accreditation, one identified as “institutional” and one referred to as “specialized” or “programmatic.” Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality.
Specialized accreditation normally applies to the evaluation of programs , departments, or schools which usually are parts of a total collegiate or other postsecondary institution. The unit accredited may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized accrediting agencies review units within a postsecondary institution which is accredited by one of the regional accrediting commissions. However, certain of the specialized accrediting agencies accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational or other postsecondary institutions which are free-standing in their operations. Thus, a "specialized" or "programmatic" accrediting agency may also function in the capacity of an "institutional" accrediting agency. In addition, a number of specialized accrediting agencies accredit educational programs within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.
Can the institutional accreditation system be used to determine whether my credit hours will transfer or what courses will satisfy my professional license renewal?
Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers. Acceptance of students or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer. For these reasons, besides ascertaining the accredited status of a school or program, students should take additional measures to determine, prior to enrollment, whether or not their educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution. These measures should include inquiries to institutions to which transfer might be desired or to prospective employers and, if possible, personal inspection of the institution at which enrollment is contemplated.
Is every accrediting agency included in the database?
Only agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are included in this database.
Regional accreditorsRegional accreditation map
Main article: Regional accreditation
There are six regional accreditors involved in higher education accreditation in the United States.
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
(NEASC-CIHE) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
(NEASC-CTCI) Commission on Technical and Career Institutions
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
Higher Learning Commission(HLC) (formerly, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA))
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC-ACCJC) Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
(WASC-ACSCU) Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities
Additionally, the Board of Regents of the State of New York is recognized as an accreditor for degree-granting institutions of higher education in the state that designate the agency as their sole or primary accrediting agency. New York is the only state that is eligible to be federally recognized as an accreditor under a grandfather clause in federal law that allows recognition for state agencies if they were recognized as accreditors before October 1, 1991. Through a 1984 Charter with the Board of Regents of the State of New York, the New York State Association of Independent Schools provides accreditation for New York independent schools that are pre-K through 12th grade.
The national accreditors get their name from their common (but not universal) practice of accrediting schools nationwide or even worldwide.
Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
These accreditors typically cover a specific program of professional education or training, but in some cases they cover the whole institution.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE-ADA))
Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM)
Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)
Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC)
American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE)
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT/COAMFTE) Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) Council for Accreditation (CFA)
American Association of Nurse Anesthetists Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (CoA-NA)
American Bar Association (ABA) Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) Committee on Accreditation
American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) Division of Accreditation
American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) Board of Trustees
American Culinary Federation (ACF) Accrediting Commission
American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation
American Institute of Certified Planners/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Planning Accreditation Board (PAB)
American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
American Optometric Association (AOA) Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE)
American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA)
American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) Council on Podiatric Medical Education (CPME)
American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
American Society for Microbiology American College of Microbiology
American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP)
American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB)
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Division of Education and Research
Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE)
Association for Computing Machinery Accreditation Committee
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)
Council on Accreditation for Recreation, Park Resources and Leisure Services, sponsored by National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA)
Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation
Commission on Opticianry Accreditation
Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)
Council on Aviation Accreditation (CAA)
Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) Commission on Accreditation
Council on Education for Public Health
Council on Naturopathic Medical Education
Council on Occupational Education
Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) Commission on Standards and Accreditation
Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Office of Social Work Accreditation and Educational Excellence
International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT)
Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT)
Liaison Committee on Medical Education
Midwifery Education Accreditation Council
Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE)
National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)
National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)
National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)
National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT)
National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health Council on Accreditation
National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) Commission on Accreditation
National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) Commission on Accreditation
National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) Commission on Accreditation and Commission on Community/Junior College Accreditation
National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA)
National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) Commission on Accreditation
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
National Council for Preservation Education
National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC)
National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC)
Planning Accreditation Board
Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS)
Society of American Foresters (SAF)
State Bar of California Committee of Bar Examiners
Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC)
There are hundreds of colleges and universities in the world that do not have recognized accreditation. They range from totally fraudulent degree mills run by ex-convicts who sell worthless degrees to anyone willing to pay, to major new academic endeavors, well-funded and run by experienced educators of good reputation, and extremely likely to become properly accredited before too long.
Unaccredited Schools Offer Shortcuts
In almost every instance, the unaccredited schools cost less, and offer a faster path to a degree, with more flexibility. It is a tempting consideration, and a common dilemma for many people in search of a school. As a result, this is probably the most common question we get:
"Should I pursue an unaccredited degree?"
Since we cannot know each questioner's situation and needs, we typically reply by saying, "If you are absolutely confident that an unaccredited degree will meet your current and your predictable future needs, then it might well be appropriate to pursue such a degree."
Note: For the purpose of the following discussion, we include schools with accreditation claimed from an unrecognized accreditor as equivalent to unaccredited, for that is how such schools are almost certain to be treated by evaluators and decision makers.
Should I get an accredited or an unaccredited degree?
The simplest answer is that you can rarely go wrong with a properly accredited degree. We do hear from a moderate number of people who have made good use of an unaccredited (but totally legitimate) degree, but we hear from many more who have had significant problems with such degrees, in terms of acceptance by employers, admission to other schools, or simply bad publicity.
Will an unaccredited degree be accepted as legitimate?
Acceptance is very low in the academic world and the government world, though somewhat higher in the business world. One large and decent unaccredited school, in operation for a quarter century, can only point to a dozen instances in which their degrees were accepted by other schools, most of those on a case by case basis. Some companies have no clear policy with regard to accreditation, and indeed may not even understand the concept. Such was the case with the head of human resources for one of the ten largest companies on the planet, who told us of her astonishment at learning there were unaccredited schools and fake accrediting agencies.
Can anyone benefit from an unaccredited degree?
The unaccredited option may work for people who really don't need a degree, but rather want one, either for self satisfaction ("validating my life's work" is a phrase we hear often), or to give themselves a marketing edge. One large subset of satisfied unaccredited degree-users, for instance, are therapists, who typically need only a Master's degree for their state license. But they feel that if they have a PhD, and use that title in their advertising, they will have an edge over competitors without the doctorate. The same is the case with owners or executives of small businesses. A real estate agent with an MBA or a business planner with a doctorate in finance, may get more clients because of the higher degree, and indeed may have additional useful knowledge.
What problems can arise?
We get a lot of mail from people who were having major problems with a previously satisfactory unaccredited degree. This situation occurs after one of two events. One is a change in employer policy. A company that may have accepted or tolerated or unwittingly gone along with unaccredited degrees may have a change, either due to new personnel policies or new ownership, and previously acceptable degrees no longer are. Similarly, when an employee seeks work at a new company, he or she may learn that the degree held is no longer useful. The other is when there is bad publicity, and the light of public scrutiny is focused on the school or the degrees. In recent years, the media have devoted more and more attention to these matters. 60 Minutes, American Journal, Inside Edition, Extra, and dozens of local television consumer reporters have addressed the matter of bad schools and degrees. When American Journal devoted a long segment to a popular unaccredited school, and when a large daily newspaper gave an 8-column page with one headline to the state's lawsuit against another large and popular unaccredited school, many students and alumni of those schools had some highly uncomfortable moments.
Does the level of the degree make a difference?
We think it does. We can find very few reasons why it would ever make sense to pursue an unaccredited Associate's or Bachelor's degree. There are two reasons for this. One is that there are so very many distance Bachelor's programs with recognized accreditation, and those degrees can actually be faster and less expensive than some of the unaccredited ones. The other is that a person with at least one accredited degree, as the foundation, is seen to be someone clearly capable of doing university level work; if they chose to pursue an unaccredited Master's or Doctorate after earning the accredited Bachelor's, they must have had a good reason. Alternatively, a person with only an unaccredited degree, or series of degrees, will often be under a cloud of suspicion, especially in a world where it is possible to get a not-illegal Bachelor's degree in three months or less.
Will degrees with recognized accreditation always be accepted?
Most annoyingly, no. In the sometimes-snobbish world of higher education, schools without regional accreditation are sometimes seen to be inferior. As one simple but telling example, Regents College, one of the largest and best-respected distance learning schools in the US, itself with regional accreditation, will not accept degrees or credits from schools accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, a recognized accreditor. Quite a few regionally accredited schools will accept DETC accreditation, in our experience, but by no means all. This depressing fact is just one more reason to 'shop around' to be sure any given degree will meet your needs.
Another factor in acceptance is regional accreditation versus professional accreditation. In some fields, such as psychology, architecture, and engineering, accreditation from the relevant professional association can be especially important. For example, there are job descriptions for therapists that require degrees accredited by the American Psychological Association, a professional accreditor, which accredits fewer than half the psychology programs in America.
What happens if my school becomes accredited after I earn my degree?
Theoretically one only has an accredited degree if it was earned after accreditation. For many practical purposes, however, it is unlikely that an employer will say, for instance, "Did you earn your degree from the Graduate School of America before or after November 17, 1997?" Once a school has been accredited, it is likely (but not certain) that all its degrees will be regarded as accredited, whenever earned. Some schools offer the option of going back and doing a modest amount of additional work, and earning a "replacement" degree after the accreditation is gained.
What happens if the accreditor is recognized after I earn my degree?
In this scenario, the student earns a degree from a school that is accredited by an unrecognized agency, and later the agency is recognized by the Department of Education. This is such a rare situation, we really don't know if there is a precedent. Common sense suggests that if the school or degree was accredited all along, and if the only change is that the accreditor becomes recognized, then the student would have a degree with recognized accreditation. But common sense does not always prevail in the world of higher education.
Is unrecognized accreditation worse than none at all?
In many cases, we think so, because it adds one more layer of possible irregularity to attract the attention of investigators, regulators, decision-makers, and others. When, for instance, a national magazine did an extremely unflattering article on the unrecognized World Association of Universities and Colleges (Spy, February 1995), the caustic comments and the various revelations led readers to think less favorably of the schools this association had accredited. On the other hand, some of the larger distance learning schools make no accreditation claims whatsoever (California Coast, California Pacific, Fairfax, Southwest, Greenwich, etc.), and still manage to attract students.
It is common for unrecognized accrediting agencies to talk or write about their intention to become recognized by the Department of Education. In our opinion, however, of the more-than-thirty active unrecognized accreditors listed under Non-GAAP Agencies, only one has even a remote chance of recognition, and that one, the National Association, has been turned down many times over the past twenty years. Some of these accreditors suggest that it is their choice not to be recognized, by writing things like, "This association has not sought recognition..." or "... does not choose to be listed by the Department of Education."
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