In the US, accreditation is a big topic in higher education (i.e., college). To learn some of the reasons why it’s important, check out our article on why college accreditation matters — and this one on what it means if your college isn’t.

This article is part of a series about the three types of approved accrediting agencies. Unfortunately, there are also fake accrediting agencies. This series includes three articles.

  1. What is regional accreditation?
  2. What is national accreditation?
  3. What is specialized accreditation?

Regional and national accrediting agencies accredit the entire college or university. This means they evaluate all the college’s academic programs, as well as its processes and overall quality. While some specialized accrediting agencies also accredit entire institutions, they focus on accrediting specific types of programs.

A program is a specific area of study in which degrees or certificates can be earned. Here are some examples of programs that have specialized accrediting agencies.

  • Dietetics and nutrition
  • Nursing
  • Law
  • Counseling
  • Education
  • Medicine

Most of these programs are offered in colleges that also have other programs. An example might help explain the role of specialized accreditation. A large state university like the University of Michigan has an education school, a law school, a medical school and a nursing school, among others. A regional accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), accredits the entire university. HLC’s accreditation applies to all Michigan’s degrees, including those in education, law, medicine and nursing. Then, each of these schools has its own specialized accreditation.

So while Michigan is accredited as an entire institution by the HLC, the specific schools and their programs are accredited by the appropriate specialized accrediting agency or agencies.

In some cases, a specialized agency will accredit an entire institution — but only if that institution only offers specialized degrees or programs. For example, the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) can accredit institutions that only offer osteopathic degrees. (COCA also accredits programs within universities, like other specialized agencies.)

If you are considering attending a college with only specialized accreditation, you may want to be sure the college’s degrees or certificates are widely accepted and otherwise viewed as legitimate.

  • Can students receive financial aid from federal or state governments?
  • Do the college’s credits transfer to other colleges?
  • Can graduates get into additional programs at other colleges?
  • Can graduates take professional qualifying exams (like the bar exam for law, state boards for nursing, etc.)?
  • Do the college’s graduates have good job placement?

At the same time, if you plan to study in an area with specialized accreditation, you may want to see if the college has those specialized approvals. In many states, for example, teacher education graduates cannot qualify for state teaching licenses unless they graduate from a program that has specialized accreditation. The same thing would often be true in healthcare fields.