Accreditation and Online Colleges

Accreditation of colleges and universities may seem dry, and much less exciting than thinking about a new degree and the opportunities afforded to you by continuing your education. But when it comes time to apply for financial aid, try to transfer credits, or land a job, accreditation may just be the difference between holding a useless piece of paper and starting a promising future.

While an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities do achieve the goals of advancing research, educating and supporting undergraduates, and preparing students for jobs, there are schools who fail to live up to commonly accepted standards. Unfortunately it's way too much work for any one potential student to keep track of how good schools actually are, how they're perceived by other schools, and how respected they are by employers. Fortunately there are unbiased, third-party organizations whose entire purpose is to keep track of the quality of institutions of higher education: accrediting bodies.

Regional Accreditation is the highest standard of accreditation in the United States. Stanford, Harvard, Yale, MIT and every flagship state institution in America are regionally accredited. All of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in America are regionally accredited, and many quality institutions with fewer accolades are also regionally accredited. While regional accreditation is the top accreditation standard for colleges and universities in America it should also be noted that it is largely the standard for accreditation in the United States. Over 17 million students will attend a regionally accredited school this year (of around 20 million full-time students). From the New England Association of Schools and College:

"Regional accreditation oversees the quality of research universities; community colleges; liberal arts colleges; state colleges; religiously affiliated institutions; special-purpose institutions in the arts, sciences, and professional fields; military academies; historically black and Hispanic-serving institutions; and tribal colleges. Regionally accredited institutions are public and private, for-profit and not-for-profit, secular and religious, urban and rural, large and small, old and new, traditional and non-traditional."

There are six main regional accrediting bodies that are recognized by the Department of Education:

  • The MSA, or Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • The NASC, or Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • The NCA, or North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (also known as the Higher Learning Commission)
  • The NEASC, or New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • The SACS, or Southern Association of College and Schools
  • The WASC, or Western Association of Schools and Colleges

In total, these regional accrediting bodies accredit 2,926 post-secondary degree-granting schools.

With thousands of schools to monitor the quality of, accrediting bodies seek to determine whether school's missions are in line with best practices, that student outcomes are at acceptable levels, and that universities have the proper resources to continue achieving their missions. Once accrediting bodies have determined that universities have the resources and procedures in place for continuing to achieve their missions, they grant accreditation for a set length of time. In short, accrediting bodies assess the ability to colleges and universities to self-regulate and continue to uphold their ideals. The longer a schools has been granted accreditation for, the greater the confidence of the accrediting body that a school has the ability to uphold high standards. 10 years is the longest length of time schools can be granted regional accreditation before being reviewed again.

The institution periodically evaluates the content and pertinence of its mission and purposes, ensuring they are current and provide overall direction in planning, evaluation, and resource allocation.

–The New England Association of Schools and Colleges "Standards for Accreditation" on self-regulation

Of course accrediting bodies go into much greater detail when assessing the quality of a school. To view an overview of what goes into accreditation at the regional level, check out the 2015-2016 guidelines enforced by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. In broad strokes, topics monitored in an accreditation process include:

  • A school's mission and purpose
  • A school's relationship to the community it serves
  • A school's planning of financial, academic, enrollment, and support operations
  • A school's procedure for evaluating its own success and failures
  • The maintenance of a governing board
  • Plans for internal governance
  • Planning and evaluation of academic rigor
  • Upholding of generally acceptable outcomes for undergraduate graduates
  • A coherent and substantive plan for general education requirements
  • Clear and upheld goals for majors or learning concentrations
  • Sufficient credentialing and support of staff teaching graduate level courses
  • Integrity and regularity in awarding academic credit
  • Consistent and principled admissions standards and procedures
  • Effective support for students enrolled (including academic, physical and mental health, financial aid, co-curricular activities, recreational or athletic programs, and public student policies)
  • Clearly defined roles and types of faculty
  • An adequate number of faculty and academic staff
  • A proper level of salary and benefits that allows the school to continue to attract and retain faculty and academic staff
  • Instructional methods and processes in line with the mission of the school
  • A functioning human resources department that is periodically reviewed
  • The ability to preserve and enhance financial resources needed to pursue the mission of the institution
  • Proper information physical and technological resources for the school's mission to be achieved
  • Well defined and regularly checked measures of student success
  • The governance of the school community in an effort to promote integrity and transparency

While there are many situations in which lack of regional accreditation are acceptable and ok (more in this in the next section), there are several distinct benefits of attending a regionally accredited school.

Regionally accredited schools…

Generally only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools
Are all eligible for federal financial aid (close to 91% of total financial aid granted)
Have the financial backing to stay around
Grant degrees that are recognized by employers
Provide education that's up to generally recognized quality standards
Offer support services students have come to expect

The second most popular form of accreditation in the United States comes from national accrediting bodies. Also known as specialized or programmatic accrediting bodies, national accreditation generally takes two forms. First, specialized programs or certain academic fields rely on national accreditation. An example is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. While many schools with CCNE nursing programs are regionally accredited, for nursing standards students should look to see if that one department is CCNE accredited. The second form national accreditation takes is in colleges and universities who do not (or are not trying to) meet regional accrediting standards. Some schools who receive accreditation in this manner are in fact of lower quality than regionally accredited schools. Others, however, simply hold different standards. Often this sort of school seeks to uphold a mission statement substantially different from traditional schools, or varies greatly in delivery method. A number of schools that are largely focused on trade and career skills fit into this category, and shouldn't be seen as lacking quality offered by regionally accredited schools, but rather seeking to provide a different service.

Three of the largest national accrediting bodies are:

  • Distance Education & Training Council (DETC)
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS)
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)

As well as subject-based accrediting bodies, particularly in nursing, engineering, business, and social work. Prominent subject-based accrediting bodies include:

  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
  • American Bar Association
  • American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
  • National Architectural Accrediting Board
  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration

There are a number of pros and cons of both regionally and nationally accredited schools, with no guarantee that either is a good fit for a given student. Whenever in doubt, future students should keep in mind their individual goals and go the extra mile with personal research. If you're trying to get into a given position, call the human resources departments of organizations that you would like to potentially work in. Ask their opinion of your proposed degree and institution type. Do they hire many graduates of the program you're interested in? Would they be excited to receive a candidate with a GPA of X, and Y extracurriculars? Admissions departments at most reputable schools are also more than willing to put students in touch with graduates of the university. If you're unsure if a school is a good fit, find an alum and determine what their experience during and after school was.

Related: Top 50 Online Learning Sites