What is Accreditation and Why Does It Matter? College & University Accreditation Guide

The United States is home to more than 4000 degree-granting institutions. With so many colleges and universities to choose from, how can you be sure that a school is worthy of your consideration? The short answer is accreditation.

What is Accreditation and Why Does It Matter? College & University Accreditation Guide
By Dr. Sara Austin

Accreditation is a stamp of approval from an independent accrediting agency which indicates that a college or university is meeting standards of quality, credibility, and currency. School accreditation is a form of educational quality control that denotes a college is providing up-to-date curricula, qualified professors, and meaningful degrees.

Every school ranked by the InfluenceRanking (IR) algorithm is an accredited degree-granting institution.

Note: Regional accreditation is widely regarded as a most rigorous standard of quality and credibility. We strongly recommend that students opt for regionally accredited schools for their educational pursuits. Regional accreditation ensures eligibility for federal loans and grants, ensures college credit transferrablity between schools, and ensures that your degree credits can be accepted if you wish to earn an advanced degree. Jump to our complete list of regional accreditation agencies you should look for when considering a college or university to attend.

What is Accreditation?

In the context of education, accreditation is higher education’s quality assurance program. Accreditation is the process by which an accrediting commission will grant recognition to colleges and universities under its jurisdiction for meeting a set of uniform standards surrounding performance, outcomes, faculty, curriculum, and more. School accreditation is an important mark of academic credibility, and one that has a direct impact on the eligibility of affiliated students for a wide range of opportunities including federal financial aid, graduate degrees, and professional licensure.

Accrediting commissions fall into three broad categories: Regional Accreditation, National Accreditation, and Programmatic or Specialized Accreditation. (Jump down to find out why regional accreditation is generally better than national accreditation, or to learn more about programmatic accreditation.) Accreditors in all three categories are considered independent, non-profit, non-government agencies. This accreditation system is unique to the United States. In many other countries, accreditation is granted directly through a government ministry of education. By contrast, the U.S. Department of Education delegates that authority to certified agencies.

In order to be considered a valid and trusted accreditor, a commission must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department recognizes accrediting agencies with consultation and input from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).

Accrediting commissions must meet the conditions provided by the Department of Education and delineated in the Accreditation Handbook.

Colleges and universities earn accreditation by meeting the standards set forth by these independent accrediting organizations. Accreditation status is not permanent. Colleges and universities must typically renew their accreditation during regular intervals. The review process for accreditation, as well as renewal of accreditation, will usually be conducted by an external team of professors, administrators, and industry experts. The goal of this external review is to confirm that a college or university is meeting a basic quality threshold in terms of resources, instruction, student support, faculty, and more.

Why is accreditation important?

School accreditation has an impact that extends well beyond the realm of academia. This stamp of approval is designed to indicate quality and credibility across not just across the educational landscape, but also in the areas of public spending, research funding, professional validation, and more. Agencies and organizations both within and beyond the educational sphere make important decisions on the basis of accreditation status. The accreditation status of a college or university can have a direct impact on the following:

Student Aid

Eligibility for federal financial aid is entirely contingent upon the accreditation status of a college or university. Only students enrolled in accredited colleges or universities may receive need-based grants or student loans through the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

Scholarships

Many competitive national and state-based scholarships will make enrollment in an accredited college or university a basic eligibility requirement.

Graduate School

Accredited graduate schools granting master’s or doctoral degrees will only recognize credits and degrees earned through undergraduate or graduate programs of equal accreditation status. For instance, a regionally accredited graduate school will typically only recognize an undergraduate degree earned at a regionally accredited college or university. (Jump down to find out why regional accreditation is generally better than national accreditation.)

Professional Licensure

Many professions which require a license to practice will also require a degree from an accredited college or university. For instance, an individual wishing to sit for the state licensing exam to become a public school teacher must first hold a degree from a regionally accredited college or university.

Employment Prospects

Many employers are seeking students with degrees from accredited schools, and may even filter out candidates with non-accredited degrees. To many employers, accreditation is an important marker of credibility.

How do colleges and universities get accreditation?

Accreditation is intended to provide an overarching structure for quality assurance in higher education. In order to receive accreditation, a school must submit to a review process that includes:

Formal Submission

A college or university seeking accreditation must first submit application paperwork including an array of requested materials, and a comprehensive written report based on specifications set forth by the accrediting agency.

Peer Review

Faculty, administrators, and industry experts will review submitted materials as well as the applicant school’s operational conditions.

Examination

Peer review is typically followed by a physical visit to a college or university, in which a team of volunteer educators and experts will be dispatched to determine that all required standards are being met.

Status Determined

The commission will review the assembled materials and findings in order to render a decision either granting or denying accreditation status.

Renewal

Accredited universities and colleges must submit to periodic reviews to determine that accreditation standards have been maintained. In some cases, these reviews are based on predetermined renewal schedules.

What are the different types of accreditation?

School accreditation generally falls into three broad categories — Regional Accreditation, National Accreditation, and Programmatic Accreditation. Regional and national accreditation are both forms of institutional accreditation, which means that they provide certification for entire universities and colleges. Programmatic accreditation, sometimes also called specialized accreditation or professional accreditation, typically applies to a specific program, department, or degree within a broader college or university.

What’s the difference between regional and national accreditation?

The technical difference between regional and national accreditation is one of jurisdiction. Regional accreditors generally hold jurisdiction only over schools in the states comprising their region, whereas national accreditors hold jurisdiction over schools in all states.

However, practically speaking, the biggest difference is one of quality. Regional accreditation is widely regarded as a more rigorous standard of quality and credibility than national accreditation. Attending a college or university which is not regionally accredited could limit opportunities. For instance, most regionally accredited graduate schools will not recognize credits or degrees earned from undergraduate schools which are not regionally accredited. A student who earns a bachelor’s degree from a college which has only national accreditation will have a very difficult time gaining access to a regionally accredited graduate school.

The same may be true of access to certain professional licenses, certifications, and employment opportunities, where regional certification is the basic threshold for eligibility.

Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is widely considered the gold standard in accreditation, and generally superior to national accreditation. The most influential colleges and universities will have received regional accreditation, indicating a compliant level of quality and credibility in curriculum, faculty, and degrees.

There are six regional accrediting commissions that have been recognized by the Department of Education. Each regional accrediting commission holds jurisdiction over a group of states within a specific region of the United States:

National Accreditation

National accreditation agencies are educational accreditors that provide accreditation for schools from across the United States. National accreditation is commonplace among trade or vocational schools, religious institutions, and some for-profit colleges. (Some for-profit colleges are regionally accredited.)

In order to be recognized by the Department of Education, national accreditation agencies must meet the same criteria as regional accreditors. However, national accreditation has a lesser reputation than regional accreditation and is regarded as a less rigorous standard of review and validation. To this end, most regionally-accredited colleges do not recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges which lack regional accreditation.

Is a nationally accredited school bad?

National accreditation is not necessarily bad. This certification can be a valid indicator of quality and credibility for students pursuing vocational training, religious seminary, competency-based education, or any number of legitimate programs that rely on for-profit education models.

However, in contrast to regional accreditation, less rigorous review standards do allow for a far wider variation in quality among nationally accredited institutions. Students considering colleges with only national accreditation must therefore proceed with caution. First and foremost, one must be sure that earning a degree from a nationally accredited school will not stand in the way of educational and professional goals. If these goals include attending a regionally accredited graduate school or sitting for a state-administered licensing exam, a nationally accredited college may not be the best option.

Another note of caution concerns the for-profit education sector. Some for-profit schools have actually earned the higher standard of regional accreditation. However, many for-profit schools are nationally accredited. While some of these nationally accredited for profit schools provide real vocational and technical education, this sector is also vulnerable to exploitation. Once again, less rigorous review standards make it possible for schools of lower quality to earn national accreditation. In contrast to regional accreditation, national accreditation may be available to for-profit colleges which have a documented history of prioritizing business imperatives over educational imperatives. This may even include what are known as “diploma mills”—businesses which pose as schools, but which sell meaningless degrees while providing no actual education. Students considering nationally accredited colleges must be aware of the risks, and should conduct comprehensive background research before applying to any such schools.

Begin by ensuring that, at a minimum, the national accreditation is from an agency recognized by the Department of Education.

Programmatic Accreditation

Programmatic Accreditation, also sometimes referred to as specialized accreditation or professional accreditation, is a form of national accreditation that is distinct from the institutional type of national accreditation outlined above. Regional accreditation and national accreditation are institutional forms of accreditation, granting accredited status to entire colleges and universities. Programmatic accreditation is instead granted to individual schools, departments, and degree programs within broader institutions.

Programmatic accreditation agencies typically do have national jurisdiction. But this form of accreditation should not otherwise be mistaken for the form of national accreditation outlined above. Programmatic accreditation is not only typically held in high regard, but it may even be mandatory for licensing in certain professions. For instance, if you wish to become a licensed social worker, you must have earned your degree from a program with specialized accreditation from The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Programmatic accreditation will usually coexist with regional accreditation, offering a discipline-specific form of recognition alongside recognition from a valid and well-regarded institutional accrediting commission.

How do I know if my degree is accredited?

The Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs provides a complete listing of all regionally and nationally accredited colleges and universities. You can also reach out directly to the admissions office for any school or university to find out more about their accreditation status.

Take a look at the Most Influential Accredited Colleges and Universities in the World!