Accreditation gives college students an important way of telling if a college is real or a scam. But accreditation can be tough to understand!

This article answers three questions about accreditation.

  1. What does college accreditation mean?
  2. Who does college accreditation?
  3. Why does accreditation matter?

What does college accreditation mean?

To “accredit” something is to say that it is legitimate. We actually use this idea all the time, we just don’t call it “accreditation.” For example:

  • In many sports, an “official ball” has to be used, and the ball sometimes has to be in certain condition — inflated to a certain pressure, a certain size, etc.
  • City or county health departments typically inspect restaurants regularly, and to stay in business the restaurant has to meet standards
  • In the US, beef is “graded” by inspectors and placed into categories — prime, choice, select, etc. — based on specific criteria
  • Before you can legally drive in the US, you have to meet your state’s requirements and get a license or permit — which makes you an accredited driver

Just like many of these examples, colleges have to meet specific standards (or criteria) to be accredited. Those standards differ among accrediting agencies (see “Who is accreditation?” below).

In general, though, a college can be assumed to provide quality education to students if they that meets the standards accrediting agencies use can be assumed to provide quality education to students — that is, it meets the expectations we have for colleges. Additionally, accreditation processes check to see that the college is achieving its mission (the reason the college says it exists).

Accreditation refers to the process used to decide if a college meets the standards and achieves its mission. If the college is found to meet these checklist or standards, it becomes accredited. If it does not meet the standards , it can’t receive accreditation.

The bottom line is that accreditation certifies that experts have reviewed the college and concluded that it meets specific standards and is able to fulfill its mission. Barbara Brittingham, an accreditation leader, has written an excellent summary of how important accreditation is for quality assurance.

Who does college accreditation?

Accreditation is provided by accrediting agencies that are approved by the US Secretary of Education. (There are other organizations that consider themselves to be accrediting agencies but are not approved and are not seeking approval. The US Department of Education calls these “fake accrediting agencies” and warns us not to trust their judgment.)

Different people categorize accrediting agencies differently. Maybe the simplest categories are actually types of accreditation, “institutional” and “programmatic.”

  • Institutional accreditation applies to an entire college or university, so agencies that grant institutional accreditation review all the college’s degrees, processes, etc.
  • Programmatic accreditation applies to specific kinds of programs, like teacher education or business or nursing. (Some programmatic accrediting agencies also accredit entire institutions.)

Another way of categorizing accrediting agencies is regional, national and specialized.

  • Regional agencies accredit colleges within a specific geographical region. There are generally seen to be six regional agencies in the US. You can see a map of the regions from Indiana University’s NSSE Institute for Effective Educational Practice. Often regional accreditation is called the “gold standard” in college accreditation, as in this article from the New York Times.
  • National agencies accredit colleges throughout the US. Typically these agencies focus on a specific type of education, like career schools or Bible colleges.
  • Specialized agencies accredit nationally, but only accredit specific kinds of colleges (law, nursing, cosmetology, etc.). Often these colleges are parts of larger universities, which also have overall institutional accreditation.

The US Department of Education provides a list of approved agencies divided into the above categories. (Note that the list includes some state/territory approval agencies in the regional list, making it longer than the typical six.)

The “who” of accreditation goes beyond these agencies, though. These agencies mostly use what is called “peer review” in the accreditation process. This means that accredited colleges host visits from teams of experts who work in higher education.

These team members are “peers” because they work at other accredited colleges. They are experts based on their education, experience and training. A team typically includes people with experience in different areas, such as academics, finances, student services, etc. In this way, accreditation uses an expertise-oriented approach to evaluation.

Typically a team takes into account a great deal of information, both documents provided by the college and interviews with college personnel, students, alumni, community leaders, etc.

Why does accreditation matter?

First, accreditation by a legitimate agency is one mark that a college is legitimate and not a degree or diploma mill. It’s not the only thing you want to consider about a college, but it’s an important starting point!

Accreditation is the main way colleges in the US assure students and others that they are doing their job, providing a quality education. If a college doesn’t have accreditation from an approved agency, you should find out why. You may also want to review this article about unaccredited colleges.

Second, unless a college is accredited, students generally cannot receive federal or state financial aid to attend. Many students use Pell Grants and other aid to help them afford college, so this is an important point! Also, many private scholarships, such as from civic organizations, only allow scholarships to be used at accredited colleges.

Third, by maintaining accreditation, a college shows that it’s committed to improvement. Much of this improvement may be “behind the scenes,” in offices students don’t directly work with. But the effects of institutional improvement make the student experience and learning better!

Finally, your college’s accreditation can affect your ability to transfer to other colleges or to attend graduate school. As academic dean and education blogger Matthew Reed wrote, “Typically, regionally accredited institutions only take transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions.” (Notice that not only having accreditation matters here, but even the specific type of accreditation.)

In terms of attending another college, or going on to pursue advanced degrees such as  a masters or doctorate, the US Department of Education says that “Accreditation is the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice.”

So your college’s accreditation can open educational doors for you in the future!