Online Guide to Accredited Colleges and Universities

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Last updated: May 2020

What is Accreditation?

“What is accreditation?” This is one of the most common questions students ask when researching prospective colleges.

Accreditation is an objective endorsement of an educational institution’s quality. Bestowed by independent organizations and agencies, accreditation signals that the school meets rigorous academic standards and provides an important measure of public accountability while guaranteeing that the certifications, diplomas, and degrees awarded by the institution carry recognized value. 

Three types of accreditation apply to American higher education institutions: regional, national, and programmatic (or specialized). Regional accreditation typically signals a school’s nonprofit status and academic focus, whereas institutions that provide technical, religious, or vocational training usually hold national accreditation. Programmatic accreditation does not cover the school as a whole, instead functioning as an endorsement of a school’s particular department or program.

Two agencies play a major role in the accreditation process: the private Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the federal U.S. Department of Education (ED). These organizations recognize accrediting organizations and maintain searchable databases students and administrators can use to verify a school’s accreditation standing. 

Why Accreditation Matters

Many students wonder why accreditation matters. They may not know that institutions must work hard to earn accreditation. These endorsements carry weight and ensure that other accredited schools, both nationally and internationally, will recognize a student’s credits and completed credentials. Many employers view accreditation the same way and will only consider academic qualifications earned at accredited institutions.

Moreover, accreditation standing can affect a student’s ability to secure various forms of financial aid. Federal loan programs are available only to students enrolled at accredited institutions recognized by authoritative agencies like the CHEA and the ED. Similarly, many companies offer tuition assistance to employees who return to school to improve their academic credentials but only if the student attends an accredited institution. Some employers further restrict their offers to schools with regional accreditation, which is widely considered the most prestigious and authoritative type.

Accreditation also affects a student’s ability to transfer their credits between institutions. In most cases, accredited schools will not recognize coursework completed at an unaccredited institution. In considering regional accreditation versus national accreditation, the regional form displays tangible benefits in this regard. Credits completed at regionally accredited schools hold wider recognition, therefore transferring more readily. 

Most importantly, accreditation signals that a school meets high standards of academic quality as determined through a rigorous peer review carried out by an independent agency. To earn accreditation, an institution must complete a demanding, comprehensive testing process. In essence, it signals that a school has committed to a continuous process of educational and academic improvement, as accreditations carry limited term lengths and remain subject to regular reviews for an institution to maintain its standing.

What to Look for in Accreditation

When considering schools, prospective students should perform careful, thorough research into the institution’s accreditation standing. Some institutions use shortcuts and questionable practices that allow them to claim good accreditation standing despite not actually holding authoritative credentials.

One crucial consideration applies to the accrediting commission or agency. If the ED does not recognize the accrediting body, a school’s endorsements do not hold much value. Most experts strongly recommend that students only consider schools with accreditations granted by ED-approved organizations.

Schools unaccredited by the CHEA and ED commonly make it difficult for students to ask questions or receive assistance. Institutions that hold verifiable, universally recognized accreditation make it easy to obtain information. If you find your queries being cycled around, deflected, or left unaddressed, consider it a red flag.

You also have grounds to question a school or program that seems too good to be true. If a degree path requires far fewer credits than normal to complete or if the institution loudly proclaims its learners can graduate in very short timeframes, take a close look at its accreditation standing.

Types Of Accreditation

In most cases, regional and national endorsements apply to the entire school. However, in some cases, these institutional accreditations only cover certain programs or degree paths. Reputable schools openly provide complete details explaining their current accreditation standing and will make distinctions in their literature if they pertain.

Regional accreditation has a longer history than national accreditation and serves as a kind of gold standard. National accreditation evolved as a separate path for schools with narrow or exclusive focuses on technical, career-oriented, or faith-based programs. Regional accreditors generally hold institutions to higher standards and their endorsements usually carry greater prestige and utility.

Institutional – National

Typically, national accreditation signals that an institution orients itself toward a concentrated area of instruction. Examples include career colleges that develop hard skills and religious institutions that provide theological training and education. Some well-known national accrediting organizations include the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and the Association for Biblical Higher Education. Unlike regional agencies, national accreditors operate across the United States and their authority is not limited to particular geographic areas.

Institutions with national accreditation typically offer affordable tuition rates and have impressive program-completion rates. Graduates often fare well on standardized certification and licensure examinations.

However, these benefits come with some drawbacks. Because national accreditors tend to endorse schools with narrow, vocational, and religious focuses, credits may not transfer to institutions recognized by regional bodies or other national organizations. In other cases, students may only succeed in transferring limited numbers of credits, and the transfer process may take longer to complete.

Institutional – Regional

In contrast to their national counterparts, regional agencies primarily endorse institutions that focus on traditional academics rather than trade-based, vocational, career, or religious training. Most observers agree they apply higher standards than most national bodies.

Regional accreditors operate in limited jurisdictions, evaluating and approving institutions in their geographic purview. 

Regional accreditation holds the most prestige and provides a far more reliable path to ensuring other institutions will recognize course credits, certifications, and degrees. Regional accreditation also makes it easier to secure funding from sources such as employer-based tuition programs. However, regionally accredited schools typically cost more and usually impose loftier admission standards.

Seven regional agencies operate in the United States. While they function independently, each organization also holds membership in a collective known as the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, or C-RAC. Approximately 3,000 American institutions hold endorsements from C-RAC members.

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (and some schools in Asia)
Higher Learning Commission Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming
Middle States Commission on Higher Education New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
New England Commission of Higher Education Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some international institutions
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia
WASC Senior College and University Commission California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (in addition to certain schools in Asia)

Specialized or Programmatic

Accredited online schools and campus-based programs may also hold a third type of endorsement known as programmatic or specialized accreditation. This class of credentials applies to particular programs or academic departments within an accredited institution rather than the college or university itself. This accreditation is an optional extra level of quality assurance signaling that the endorsed program or department meets higher-than-normal standards of academic excellence.

In most cases, specialized accreditation applies to programs and departments offering study opportunities leading to licensure or high-profile professional designations. Two common examples include nursing and business administration. Top nursing schools frequently feature endorsements from organizations such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Meanwhile, organizations like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the International Accreditation Council for Business Education lend added prestige to MBA and other business programs seeking to differentiate themselves in a crowded field. Specialized accreditors affirm programs in other academic disciplines, including engineering, graphic design, computer science, and social work.

Some paradigms also include online accreditation, such as endorsements from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), as another type of specialized authorization. Accredited online schools recognized by DEAC offer distance-based programs that meet especially high quality standards. Established in 1926 as the National Home Study Council, DEAC evolved to become an ED-recognized national accreditor in 1959. With online learning having essentially replaced correspondence-based models, DEAC now largely works with schools and programs that primarily deliver courses online. 

How Does Accreditation Work?

One of the main reasons why accreditation is important derives from the thorough process institutions must complete to earn it. While specifics vary among accrediting agencies, typical timelines cover years, not months. In most cases, an institution’s journey from candidacy to formalized accreditation takes a minimum of 12-18 months. For some specialized endorsements, the process can extend as long as five years.

Requirements also vary from one accreditor to the next. However, as a bare minimum, schools must show that their programs conform to standards of rigor and quality consistent with those seen in comparable accredited institutions. Candidate institutes must also offer transparent evidence of financial and academic integrity and show that they have developed and implemented internal quality control standards designed to continually improve learning outcomes.

In most cases, institutional accreditations extend to online programs at campus-based colleges. Fully online schools follow a slightly different process, as explained in the subsections below.

Eligibility Requirements

National, regional, and specialized accrediting bodies apply their own standards when evaluating applicants. Some agencies use more lax criteria, whereas others maintain inflexible, demanding standards that institutions and programs must work hard to meet. Regardless of differences in specific standards, all ED-recognized accreditors apply some common criteria: Applicants must meet the accrediting body’s eligibility guidelines, which define clear standards of academic integrity and quality. Accreditors also impose external oversight mechanisms such as peer reviews and site visits to ensure compliance and objectivity. 

As an example, consider the core values and principles used by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), a C-RAC member agency. SACSCOC requires institutions to meet its standards in seven key areas:


1. Programs must demonstrably conform to and advance the candidate institution’s stated educational mission, as expressed in writing and submitted to SACS during the application process.


2. Institutions must display financial and academic integrity, and maintain an internal governing board with the authority and freedom to make and implement policies and operational decisions.


3. All programs must undergo regular evaluation to ensure they remain current and relevant.


4. The school environment must support ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity. 


5. Institutions must generate adequate financial resources to fully maintain operations.


6. Schools must provide students with necessary support resources, such as academic counseling and career services.


7. Administrators must use internal quality control protocols to continuously improve student learning outcomes.


By comparison, consider the eligibility standards maintained by DEAC. In addition to considering an applicant’s financial integrity, solvency, and governance, DEAC also requires institutions to demonstrate that its leaders possess sound ethics, which may include personal and professional background checks. Additionally, when considering private schools, DEAC expects applicants to display stable ownership that has remained in place for at least two consecutive calendar years.

Self-Evaluation

Accreditation agencies require that institutions applying for membership complete an internally guided self-evaluation. As with other aspects of the process, the specifics of this step vary slightly among accreditors with each body maintaining its own unique set of evaluation metrics. In general, self-evaluations involve a thorough, data-based analysis of the school’s strengths, areas for improvement, learning outcomes, and student and faculty achievements. 

Candidate institutions appoint committees to carry out the self-evaluation. To illustrate, consider the WASC Senior College and University Commission’s (WSCUC) committee guidelines. WSCUC suggests that schools involve senior executives and administrative leaders, tenured and adjunct faculty members, student government representatives, support personnel, administrative personnel, and members of governing boards in committees.

Early in the process, committees can join accreditation workshops. Offered by accrediting agencies, these sessions give candidates the chance to deepen their understanding of the accreditor’s standards and evaluation processes as well as learn from the experiences of other schools. Timelines for full completion of the self-evaluation step vary. Smaller schools usually complete it in a few months, while larger schools may take a full academic year.

Online schools follow a similar process in conducting self-evaluations. This process phase concludes when the institution completes a formal self-evaluation report (SER). SERs provide a comprehensive presentation of the collected data, covering every aspect of the school’s history, organization, financial and administrative governance, academic structure, educational objectives, learning outcomes, and achievements. 

Application and Readiness Assessment

Schools submit formal applications to accrediting agencies, signaling their desire to earn endorsement. The order in which the steps in the process unfold varies among accreditors, but as an example, consider the standards followed by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). The ACCSC splits its application process into two phases. In phase one, candidate institutions attend an accreditation workshop and submit an initial application (along with an application fee) within six months. At this stage, the ACCSC also requests an audited year-end financial statement, which its committee reviews.

If a candidate institution passes the first phase, it proceeds to phase two, which includes the initial self-evaluation and an orientation session. The ACCSC may also request additional supplementary documentation such as specialized reports on graduation rates, student achievements, or other technical aspects of institutional performance.

Other accreditors function differently, especially with regard to online schools. For instance, after accepting an initial application from an eligible school, DEAC gives candidate institutions one year to submit their self-assessment. Assuming the self-evaluation’s acceptance, DEAC then proceeds to a step unique to online schools known as the readiness assessment.

During the readiness assessment, DEAC appoints a representative to guide the online school as it readies for a complete site evaluation. This representative judges the completeness and suitability of the institution’s self-evaluation, informs the institution of the steps involved in the site evaluation, and offers preparation guidelines and suggestions. If DEAC evaluators decide the school is not yet ready, it will provide specific points of annotated feedback and encourage the school to address them before reapplying. 

Timelines vary among accreditors, but typical expectations add 1-3 months to the usual SER completion duration. Institutions whose initial applications do not succeed must usually repeat the application process in its entirety.

Curriculum Review and Third-Party Assessment

Online schools typically undergo an additional series of steps that cover a comprehensive curriculum review and third-party assessment. During the curriculum review, representatives of the accrediting agency conduct assessments of the school’s programs and courses, evaluating their rigor and quality and determining whether they accurately reflect institutional objectives. They also evaluate faculty, research initiatives, and the school’s financial resources. Some agencies also review student-submitted surveys.

As an additional check, the curriculum review typically remains subject to a third-party assessment in which another independent evaluator audits the initial representative’s findings. This quality-assurance step provides vital authentication and protects the integrity of the accreditation process.

Onsite Evaluation

The onsite evaluation allows accreditors to assess factors that are difficult to judge solely through written application materials. Agencies typically schedule these sessions rather than conducting surprise visits.

Accrediting agencies maintain varying policies regarding the size of their evaluation teams, but they invariably consist of multiple representatives. Usually, 2-6 agency members participate, including at least one senior administrator. Peer reviewers and third-party experts may also receive invitations to join the evaluation team. Prior to the onsite evaluation, the accrediting agency will usually submit a roster of representatives who will conduct the visit, along with a list of individual faculty members or administrators they wish to meet with during their stay.

For traditional campus-based schools as well as online-only institutions, site evaluations consist of intensive meetings that cover introductions, program reviews, interviews with key faculty members and administrators, and daily closeouts. The school’s lead contact may also participate in individual interview sessions with evaluators before a final closeout concludes the visit. 

Site evaluations include visits to facilities including classrooms, research labs, libraries, computer labs, and other key operational assets. For uniquely online schools, evaluators focus on whether the school’s facilities accurately reflect the standards as presented in written application materials. 

If a school fails to meet the accreditor’s standards, the agency may submit a list of amendments and corrections the institution must implement. Depending on the degree to which the school fell short, accreditors may schedule a follow-up visit to observe the requested corrections or reroute the institution back to the initial application process after it enacts the necessary changes.

Publication and Maintaining Accreditation

As a means of signaling a pending accreditation decision, institutions sometimes indicate they hold pre-accreditation status. This means the school has opened an active accreditation application but does not necessarily signal the impending arrival of a positive decision. 

If the candidate institution’s accreditation application succeeds, the accrediting agency will inform school administrators in writing. At this stage, the accreditor will also specify the formalities of the accreditation publication process. In some cases, schools will receive approval to publish their accreditation status immediately. In others, the accreditor will impose a brief delay to facilitate the complete resolution of all administrative loose ends.

Prospective students and other interested parties can usually find a school’s accreditation status by conducting a targeted search on the institution’s website or with a general internet search engine. Many schools feature dedicated accreditation tabs in their navigational headings, making this information easy to find. As a general rule of thumb, institutions that make it difficult for site visitors to locate accreditation information often have questionable status.

In most cases, regional and national accreditation remains valid for a five-year or 10-year period. Institutions must undergo reevaluation to maintain their accreditation status, which typically occurs a year or two prior to the current endorsement’s scheduled expiry. The Higher Learning Commission also maintains a policy ensuring that member institutions will not face reevaluation within four years of their initial affirmation.

When applying to maintain existing accreditations, schools must demonstrate their adherence to obligations standards, submit a formal institutional update, and provide requested interim reports covering such aspects as enrollment, governance, and financial standing. Institutions must also notify the accreditor of any substantial changes in their organization or operations. In the event of major changes, accreditors may conduct supplementary site visits.

The nonfulfillment of the institution’s stated obligations or failure to maintain acceptable standards can result in a school losing its accreditation status.

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