By: Belinda Leon, Ed.D.
In the search for the perfect college, students and parents will ask about majors, degrees, tuition costs, meal plans, campus activities, and even career placement assistance. They will study web pages, walk all over campus, and ask a million questions. This is all correct! However, many students and parents will not ask about accreditation. Many assume that a college is accredited and that it has all its licenses, permits, and authorizations in place. This is not correct.
All colleges and universities need to have a license to operate that is typically granted by the state in which the school resides. This is very similar to any business that when they open, also needs to have a permit to operate. However, a license to operate as a college in no way indicates that that particular college is operating correctly. This is where accreditation counts.
The United States Department of Education (DE) has authorized several organizations in the country to award accreditation to colleges and universities. These accreditation agencies are required to establish a set of criteria that colleges and universities must meet in order to receive accreditation. The criteria is usually extensive and take years for a school to initially be accredited. It is the only way a school will be allowed to receive federal funding for its students. After initial accreditation, schools do have to re-do the process every few years in order to prove that they are maintaining the standards. Accreditation signifies that the school has passed a rigorous set of requirements to prove that it is providing quality education, running a sound organization, and is approved by the DE.
Seeking accreditation is actually a volunteer process by the school, but most of them will pursue accreditation because that stamp of approval is vital to their survival. There are different accreditation organizations that a school can chose to apply based on what type of education they offer. There are certain accreditations that are more prestigious, better recognized, and greatly pursued when compared to others. It is these particularly accredited schools that students should want to attend.
There are three types of accrediting agencies – regional, national, and specialized. Regional agencies are the preferred accreditation in that they accredit degree granting colleges and universities within a geographical region of the United States. National accreditation agencies accredit colleges and universities across the country regardless of region. Specialized accrediting agencies vary because they accredit something very specific in the school – such a nursing, engineering, or culinary program. Not all accrediting agencies are recognized by the DE. It is important that when researching your college or university, you find out whether they are accredited and check the DE website to see if it is an agency accepted by them (try: https://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/agencies.aspx).
If a school is not accredited, the student faces a variety of issues. The school may not be able to accept state or federal financial aid; students may not be able to transfer college credits to other schools; employers or other agencies may not recognize their degree as valid; they may be attending a school that offers a low quality education or have financial issues.
Over the past few years, several private for profit colleges have had to close due to improper practices on campus. The DE decided that in some cases the accrediting agency was also to blame for not upholding strict standards for those schools. Therefore, some accrediting agencies have lost their acceptance status with the DE and therefore this affects all of the agency’s “accredited” schools.
Your college education is a huge investment that should help you with the rest of your career and life. When deciding what school to attend, do not make the decision lightly. Research it carefully and in particular the accrediting agency. Ask questions and do not hesitate to call the DE because they are doing their best to ensure that you are given the proper information to make the right decision.