Making Sense of Online College Accreditation

What should be top priority on your list when choosing an online school? Is it the cost, the class size, the tech support? All those things are important, yes, but you can put them in the “ask later” box for now. First on your list: accreditation.

What is the big deal about accreditation? If you’re serious about your college education, you should know at least the basics about accreditation. Keep reading to find out what accreditation really is, why it’s so valuable, how it can save you money and kick-start your career, and which key questions to ask college administrators.

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is the hallmark of educational quality and integrity. An accredited college or program has been independently evaluated to ensure that it meets or exceeds education standards set by a group of education experts. In the United States, accreditation is the most important systematic method for higher education institutions to provide quality assurance to students, potential employers and other institutions.

What Does Recognition Mean?

Only accrediting organizations that are recognized by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education (USDE) can provide a legitimate stamp of approval in the form of accreditation. To be “recognized” means the accreditors have been evaluated by CHEA or USDE and met the quality standards set by those respective organizations. Accreditation granted by an unrecognized agency is virtually identical to no accreditation at all.

In the eyes of employers, professional boards and other institutions, unrecognized accreditation is meaningless. When you’re considering a college that claims to be accredited, find out which agency granted the accreditation. Then, search the CHEA database to see if the agency is on the list of recognized accreditors.

What Does Accreditation Demonstrate?

Accreditation demonstrates that a college or program measures up to established academic standards and specific criteria. The process of accreditation is extremely thorough. A college seeking accreditation status must submit a comprehensive written report of its accomplishments according to the standards set by the accrediting body. The report and other written materials must undergo an intensive review by administrative and faculty peers. A visiting team made up of these peers will spend time observing the workings of the college first-hand. Once accreditation has been granted, the college is reviewed on a rotating basis every few years to ensure that it continues to maintain the required accreditation standards.

Accreditation is not granted lightly, so you can be sure that a properly accredited college genuinely meets standards of quality. When you’re researching schools, you can rest assured that all accredited colleges have undergone a similar process of assessment.

What is the Difference Between Institutional and Programmatic Accreditation?

Accreditation is accreditation, right? Well, nearly right. There are actually two main types of accreditation, each with their own accrediting bodies. Both types of accreditation influence educational programs, but they serve different purposes.

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation covers the college as a whole. In order to achieve this coveted status, a college must demonstrate a commitment to quality education to the satisfaction of the institutional accrediting organization. All aspects of the college must meet the organization’s standards, including effective administration, high academic quality, research facilities, technology, evaluation strategies, and other services.

From your point of view, institutional accreditation is a guarantee that your degree will have value once you graduate. We do not recommend pursuing a degree from an institution without institutional accreditation.

Regional Accreditation Vs. National Accreditation

There are two types of institutional accreditors: regional and national. We prefer regionally accredited (RA) schools over nationally accredited (NA) schools for various reasons.

First, RA schools have more credibility in the work force than NA schools. Some employers will only hire students graduating from regionally accredited schools. Also, some companies with tuition reimbursement programs will only reimburse their employers if they enroll in an RA school.

Second, you will have much more options for credit transfer with RA schools. Credits from RA schools generally transfer to any other accredited school. However, credits from NA schools are sometimes not accepted for transfer by RA schools.

Third, a degree from an RA school is often a requirement to enter grad school. Many schools will not accept a degree from an NA school for their graduate programs

Fourth, RA schools have better reputations compared to NA schools. For example, all the prestigious schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are RA institutions.

Some students prefer NA schools because they tend to be cheaper than RA schools. However, if you shop around, you can find inexpensive RA schools with similar tuition costs as NA schools.

Programmatic Accreditation

This type of accreditation is also known as professional or specialized. As the name implies, it covers one specific department, program, or school within an institution like the business school or the nursing programs. Programmatic accrediting bodies focus on very specific aspects and processes of the programs being evaluated.

You may be wondering if you need to worry about programmatic accreditation as long as the college itself is accredited. The answer depends on your career goals. In fields that require a professional license in order to practice, such as nursing, it is usually beneficial to hold a degree from a school with the relevant programmatic accreditation. Find out the requirements of your desired profession before choosing a college.

Also, programs with programmatic accreditation may have higher educational standards and more prestige in the work place because they have undertaken further evaluation and scrutiny than programs without the accreditation.

How Can Accreditation Help You Get Your Dream Job?

Sure, it’s great knowing that you’re getting a good-quality education but accreditation also offers concrete benefits that extend well into your life after graduation. One key benefit is the enhanced opportunities it brings to your career.

Employers prefer to hire graduates who earned their degrees from accredited programs and institutions. It doesn’t matter how intelligent or experienced you are; if your degree is from a non-accredited college, you risk becoming chronically unemployable or being passed over for promotion. Because the accreditation process is so rigorous, a degree from an accredited college demonstrates to employers that your education has met current quality standards.

Accreditation enables you to compete at the highest levels for job opportunities nationwide, including those in government, armed forces, healthcare, education and commercial industries. When you’re filling out job applications or sitting down for a job interview, you’ll be extremely grateful that you earned your degree at an accredited institution!

How Can Accreditation Help You Further Your Education?

In addition to helping your career, college accreditation supports your educational journey in three ways. It allows you to transfer credits between colleges without having to retake completed classes, it ensures that you can pursue further education, and it saves you money. Here’s how:

1. Transfer Credits

Want to transfer to another college part way through your degree? You may be in for an unpleasant surprise if it turns out that your original college was not accredited by a recognized agency. Your new college will probably refuse to grant you credit for any of the classes you’ve already taken. You will essentially have to start from scratch. What a waste of time and money! On the other hand, if your first college is properly accredited, you should have no trouble transferring your credits.

2. Pursue Further Education

Want to go for your master’s so you can qualify for higher-paying jobs? Better hope your degree is up to scratch. If you want to apply to graduate school after completing your college degree, accreditation is a must. Without exception, accredited universities accept applications only from college graduates who earned their degrees from other accredited schools.

3. Save Money

Did you know that you may qualify for grants for tuition and other educational costs through federal financial aid programs? Also, you can take out low interest loans from federal programs. However, you must first enroll in an institution accredited by an agency recognized by the US Department of Education.

And if you still need financial help, check with your boss: some employers offer tuition assistance programs. There is only one catch, which you can probably guess by now: you must pursue your degree from an accredited college to qualify for employer-based aid programs.

Now you understand the basics of accreditation. You know what colleges have to do to be accredited, you know why employers love degrees from accredited colleges, and you know how your accredited degree will contribute to higher education down the road. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to selectively identify which colleges and programs justify an application. You’re ready to start your journey towards a valuable degree from the accredited college of your choice!

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