If you want a college or university degree, you need to understand school accreditation. Fly-by-night schools exist, dressed to impress, promising financial aid and printing fancy-sounding degrees, but in the end giving students neither the skills nor the credentials they need to advance their careers and lives.
So, when you start to seriously check out a school that you think you might want to attend, don’t just ask, “Is this school accredited?” You need more than just a simple yes or no answer to that question. You also need to ask, “Who accredited this school, and why should I trust their accreditation? Who are the legitimate accreditors.”
There’s an old expression that goes something like this: “Who’s guarding the guards?” “Who’s watching the watchers?” “Who’s minding the minders?” The point of this expression is that we need to be very careful about the people and institutions we rely on to protect us, making sure that they really are protecting us.
Many of us who saw our home values drop between 2008 and 2010 appreciate this point. The housing crisis that peaked during that time arose because financial accrediting agencies, like Moody’s, put their stamp of approval on mortgage backed securities that ended up being worthless. So who was keeping Moody’s honest?
Schools need to be kept honest, in the same way that financial institutions need to be kept honest. Even so, just as sleazy schools exist (“degree mills”), so too do sleazy accreditation agencies exist (“accreditation mills”). Accreditation mills often have reputable sounding names, but a tell-tale sign that you’re dealing with an accreditation mill is that they are eager to put their stamp of approval on degree programs not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, often abbreviated USDE.
If you complete a degree and go on the job market, or decide to transfer to another school, or realize that you would like to take your education to the next level, but find out only then that you have a degree from a non-USDE-recognized school, it could be too late. Your time and money are nonrefundable. If a school or program lacks USDE-recognized accreditation, you need to find out why.
Academia’s quality assurance system
Accreditation is academia’s quality assurance system, and you need to know which accreditors are legitimate. In the U.S., private non-profit accrediting organizations take on the task of accrediting schools by evaluating faculty, resources, curriculum, competency, and credibility.
The USDE and CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation) are responsible for validating whether an accreditation agency itself is competent and credible. These are the institutions that, so to speak, “guard the guards.”
Ultimately, USDE recognition is the most important. Institutions without USDE recognition cannot offer federal aid to students, and credits from non-USDE-recognized schools may not transfer to other schools. Also, savvy employers may dismiss or devalue the credits and degrees from such schools. There are exceptions to this rule, notably specialty programs such as clinical hypnosis, for which no USDE-recognized programs exist. Specialized programs like this will be of interest to select groups of individuals despite their lack of USDE recognition.
Submission to CHEA evaluation is not required for USDE recognition, but because of its high profile in the world of college and university accreditation, many accreditation organizations desire, in addition to USDE recognition, also CHEA’s mark of approval.
Numerous USDE- and CHEA-recognized accrediting agencies exist to evaluate specific programs of study. The USDE and CHEA recognize accreditation agencies of three different sorts: Regional, National (National Faith-Related, and National Career-Related), and Programmatic. However, your first concern should be with accreditation of the institution as a whole.
Regional accreditation: the gold standard of accreditation
Regional accreditation is the highest available form of accreditation. There are only 7 USDE-recognized regional accreditation agencies, and only 6 that are both USDE- and CHEA-recognized regional accreditation agencies. As noted above, CHEA’s endorsement of an accreditation agency has no real bearing on the merit of the agency; it’s an optional extra stamp of approval. USDE-recognition is what really matters.
Schools with regional accreditation give you the best hopes for transferability of credits as well as for acceptance into graduate degree programs. Here are the 7 regional accreditation agencies:
But what about schools lacking Regional Accreditation?
By now we hope you are convinced that you need to find out whether a school you are seriously considering attending has regional accreditation. If it does, you then want to make sure that the program of study you are considering at that school meets your needs and interests.
But what about a school that looks attractive to you but lacks regional accreditation? Should you simply dismiss such schools outright, looking elsewhere? Not so fast. The USDE also recognizes national accreditation agencies. Nationally accredited institutions may not be out of the question if you are looking for a specific kind of faith- or career-related school. For example, if you want to study for ministry, an institution that fits your desires and your beliefs may be nationally accredited. The same could be true if you wanted a school catering specifically to a particular career, such as criminal justice or healthcare.
Nonetheless, you need to ask why a school may lack regional accreditation. A school lacking such accreditation may have sound reasons for not seeking it. Some schools, by the specialized nature of the disciplines they teach, may simply not want or need such accreditation. A case in point considered above is programs in clinical hypnosis. As we note in our article on these programs, “there are no accredited schools offering standard college or university degrees in hypnosis.”
Schools lacking regional accreditation may have a good track record of landing graduates in well-paid, satisfying careers. They may provide a rigorous curriculum and solid education. And schools with regional accreditation may even accept some of their transfer credits.