Accreditation: A Quick Primer

Have you ever wondered what accreditation is? Colleges around the world are accredited if they are recognized by their nation's government as meeting certain quality standards. However, in the United States, quite a different system is at work.
By Ben Smith

Accreditation, in the United States, is a mixture of private companies and government entities working together to ensure that a college or university provides an educational experience that meets certain standards.

There are two types of accrediting agencies in the United States; national and regional. Generally speaking, the regional agencies have more prestige. There are 6 major regional accrediting agencies, that, between them, provide accreditation for the entire country. These agencies generally handle not only collegiate-level accreditation, but accreditation for all educational institutions, from elementary school to high school.

National accreditation agencies generally work with for-profit institutions that offer career, vocational, or technical programs. These schools may offer certificates or degrees. However, many of the schools that are regionally accredited will not accept credits that are accrued at a nationally accredited school. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article, but one reason commonly given is that the level of educational quality is not as high at a nationally accredited school.

While private agencies are responsible for the accreditation process, the United States Department of Education has a mandate to print a list of all accrediting agencies that are determined by the Secretary of Education to be reliable authorities on collegiate educational quality. Confused? You aren't alone.

Legally, anyone can start an organization that claims to be an accrediting agency. Any educational organization can offer degrees. However, unless it is a real college that has been properly accredited, the student will receive a substandard education, if any. Degree mills (which offer degrees from nonexistent colleges) and diploma mills (which offer nonexistent degrees from real colleges) are used by less-than-conscientious job seekers to purchase credentials hoping to improve their resume and get a better-paying job.

However, the list of accrediting agencies published by the Department of Education helps to provide a standard by which schools can be judged. More importantly, students which attend schools that are accredited by agencies on that list are eligible to receive federal financial aid. If a school is not eligible to receive federal financial aid, odds are that it is not accredited.

In order to become accredited, a school must meet certain academic standards that are established by the body with which they seek accreditation. Once those standards are met, a self-evaluation is performed by the institution, so that it can see how it measures up against similar academic programs. Eventually, the accrediting agency will send an inspection team to perform an on-site evaluation. If the institution does meet the standards set by the accrediting agency, the agency grants either accreditation or preaccreditation status to the school. The agency then lists the school in an official publication. After that, the school is monitored by the agency and re-evaluated on occasion, to ensure that it continues to meet the standards of education that the agency has established.

The entire process is complex, to say the least. However, it is required to ensure that degree-seekers are adequately prepared for their future careers.
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