Accreditation and Why Is It Important?
The accreditation status of a college, university, or program can give you
an indication of its general quality and reputation. But just what does
accreditation mean, and how does it affect distance learners?
In the United States, authority over postsecondary educational
institutions is decentralized. The states, not the federal government,
have the authority to regulate educational institutions within their
borders, and as a consequence, standards and quality vary considerably for
"state-approved" schools. You will find many state-approved schools that
are not accredited and many that are. In order to ensure a basic level of
quality, the practice of accrediting institutions arose. Private,
nongovernmental educational agencies with a regional or national scope
have adopted standards to evaluate whether or not colleges and
universities provide educational programs at basic levels of quality.
Institutions that seek accreditation conduct an in-depth self-study to
measure their performance against the standards. The accrediting agency
then conducts an on-site evaluation and either awards accreditation or
pre-accreditation status-or denies accreditation. Periodically the agency
reevaluates each institution to make sure its continued accreditation is
warranted. So accreditation is not a one-shot deal-an institution must
maintain high standards or it runs the risk of jeopardizing its
accreditation status as a result of one of the periodic evaluations.
Seeking accreditation is entirely voluntary on the part of the institution
of higher education. The initial accreditation process takes a long
time-as much as five or ten years-and it costs money. You can see that a
very new school will not have been in operation long enough to be
accredited. For example, Western Governors University, a virtual
university established in 1998, was awarded accreditation candidacy status
in 2000 and, if all goes well, will be fully accredited in two to five
years. Of course, being awarded candidacy status does not ensure that an
institution will eventually be fully accredited.
Institutional and Specialized Accreditation
There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional accreditation
and specialized accreditation. Institutional accreditation is awarded to
an institution by one of six regional accrediting agencies and many
national accrediting agencies, such as the Distance Education and Training
Council. The regional accrediting agencies play the largest role in
institutional accreditation (see the Appendix for a list of the regional
accrediting agencies). If a college or university is regionally
accredited, that means that the institution as a whole has met the
accrediting agency's standards. Within the institution, particular
programs and departments contribute to the institution's objectives at
varying levels of quality.
What does accreditation mean to you?
There are several benefits of enrolling in a program at a regionally
accredited college or university. You are assured of a basic level of
quality education and services. Any credits you earn are more likely to be
transferable to other regionally accredited institutions, although we've
seen that each institution makes its own decisions on transfer credits on
a case-by-case basis.
Any certificate or degree you earn is more likely to be recognized by
other colleges and universities and by employers as a legitimate
credential. You may qualify for federal loans and grants because
regionally accredited institutions, like nationally accredited
institutions, are eligible to participate in Title IV financial aid
What is specialized accreditation?
In contrast to institutional accreditation, specialized accreditation
usually applies to a single department, program, or school that is part of
a larger institution of higher education. The accredited unit may be as
big as a college within a university or as small as a curriculum within a
field of study. Most specialized accrediting agencies review units within
institutions that are regionally accredited, although some also accredit
freestanding institutions. There are specialized accrediting agencies in
almost fifty fields, including allied health, art and design, Bible
college education, business, engineering, law, marriage and family
therapy, nursing, psychology, and theology.
Specialized accreditation may or may not be a consideration for you when
you evaluate distance education programs. That's because the role of
specialized accreditation varies considerably depending on the field of
study. In some professional fields, you must have a degree or certificate
from a program with specialized accreditation in order to take qualifying
exams or practice the profession. In other fields, specialized
accreditation has little or no effect on your ability to work. Thus, it's
especially important that you find out what role accreditation plays in
your field since it may affect your professional future as well as the
quality of your education.
Checking on a School and Its Accreditors
It's important to find out what role accreditation plays in your field,
since it may affect your professional future as well as the quality of
your education. Since accreditation is awarded by private organizations,
any group can hang out a shingle and proclaim itself an accrediting
agency. Some diploma mills, for example, have been known to create their
own accrediting agency and then proclaim themselves "accredited."
So how can you tell (1) if the school or college in which you are
interested is regionally accredited, (2) if the program has the
specialized accreditation you need, and (3) if the agencies that have
accredited the school and program are legitimate?
Of course, you can simply ask the school or program, but since
accreditation is so important, it's probably a lot wiser to check
elsewhere. First, check with the regional accrediting agency that covers
the state in which the school is located. Then check with any specialized
accrediting agency that may assess the particular program in which you are
interested. To find out if an accrediting agency is legitimate and
nationally recognized, you can consult the Council for Higher Education
Accreditation (CHEA), a private agency that accredits the accreditors
(http://www.chea.org). Or you can check with the U.S. Department of
Education (USDE). Their Web site has a complete list of institutional and
specialized accrediting agencies recognized by the federal government.
This Web site will also tell you whether or not accreditation by a
particular agency makes the school eligible to participate in federal
financial aid programs. See the link to the Web site at the end of this
Checking on Canadian Institutions of Higher Education
In Canada, as in the United States, there is no centralized governmental
accrediting agency. Instead, the provincial governments evaluate the
quality of university programs in each province, with a few nationwide
agencies evaluating professional programs. To check on a Canadian
university, you can contact the appropriate provincial department of
education. To get general information about accreditation in Canada, visit
the Web site of the Council of Ministers of Education at
http://www.cmec.ca. Their Web site also has contact information and links
to the provincial departments of education.
Checking on an Unaccredited Institution
As we've seen, seeking accreditation is a voluntary process, and some
legitimate schools choose not to undertake it. In addition, the newer
virtual universities may not have been around long enough to be
accredited. So what can you do to make sure a school is legitimate if it
is not accredited?
First, you can call the state agency with jurisdiction over higher
education in the state in which the school is located. The agency can at
least tell you whether or not the school is operating with a legitimate
charter, and it may be able to tell you if any complaints have been lodged
or legal action taken against it.
Second, you can call the school and ask why it is not accredited and
whether the school has plans to seek accreditation. If the school tells
you it has applied for accreditation, double-check its status with the
agency it names.
Third, you can consult with people in your field about the school's
reputation and the value of its degree. Remember, in some fields, a degree
from an unaccredited school or program will bar you from professional
licensure and practice. So, keep in mind that enrolling in an unaccredited
school or program can be risky. If you can avoid it, do so.
Accreditation Issues Relating to Distance Education
In the United States during the 1990s, controversy arose over the
accreditation of online programs within traditional universities and the
accreditation of completely virtual universities. On the one hand, many
felt that online degree programs should be evaluated using the same
criteria as other degree programs within institutions of higher education.
Others thought that new standards were needed to properly evaluate
distance education. Although this issue has not yet been settled, the six
regional accrediting agencies have proposed uniform guidelines for
evaluating distance education.
The impetus for this move is the fact that many distance education
programs cross regional borders; the agencies want to ensure that similar
standards are adopted across the country. Among the proposed criteria
specific to accrediting distance education are faculty control of course
content, technical and program support for both faculty members and
students, and evaluation and assessment methods for measuring student
learning. However, until these or other guidelines are accepted, distance
education programs will continue to be evaluated using the same criteria
as on-campus programs.
Recognized Accrediting Bodies and Categories of Accreditation
Listed below is a Web site that provides lists of USDE approved agencies: