Why accreditation matters

Written by Ellen Partridge, M.A.

When you begin the process of looking at colleges, it can feel like schools have their own language making it difficult to validate if the claims they are making are true and why they should matter to you as a student. “Accreditation” is one of those terms that many schools will put on their materials without fully explaining its significance. So, what is it?

To fully understand accreditation, we need to go back to where the idea of academic governing bodies originated in the U.S. In 1784, the State of New York created the Regents of the University of the State of New York to govern King’s College (today Columbia University)  and other institutions in the state of New York. This led to other states creating similar organizations to oversee their own schools and institutions. Each had its own set of regulations and expectations. Since then, accrediting bodies have become a formal way to ensure the quality of the academics and faculty at educational institutions. In its simplest terms, accreditation ensures that schools provide quality education to their students and that the educational quality is comparable to other institutions.

There are two different types of accreditation a college or university can receive: national and regional. Let’s start with national accreditation.

National accreditation

As its name indicates, national accreditation accredits schools across the country and focuses typically on schools that specialize in a specific vocation, technical skills, or career-based fields. Accreditation also ensures the quality of the faculty. Institutions that hold any accreditation are also required to confirm that their faculty have certain levels of education or licensure to ensure that the teaching is of the highest quality. For example, North Central University holds a national accreditation with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), allowing our Social Work students to receive their social work license and advanced standing in many master’s-level social work programs across the country.

Schools that have national accreditation are considered accredited schools. However, because this type of accreditation is typically used for specific types of schools, not all of the credits from this type will transfer to other colleges. This is important if you are considering changing majors or planning to go to one college for a year or two and then transfer to another college later on. Also, if a school only holds national accreditation, it may not be considered fully accredited as it does not have national and regional accreditation.

Regional accreditation

The other type of accreditation is called regional accreditation. This is the highest level of accreditation that a university or college can receive. This type of accreditation is based on the region of the country where the university or college is located.

There are currently six different regional accrediting bodies, including the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), previously known as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits North Central University and many other schools in the Midwest.

Regional accreditation is above a national accreditation and schools can hold both types of accreditation simultaneously. To receive regional accreditation, schools undergo a more rigorous process and must have their accreditation renewed every ten years.

Regionally accredited schools also tend to be more particular about transfer credits and may deny credits from schools that do not also hold regional accreditation. The accreditation process is lengthy and expensive, so schools with this accreditation standard tend to be more costly than non-accredited schools. A college or university pays dues to the accreditation bodies to maintain membership. Regionally accredited institutions require a higher caliber of faculty to maintain their accreditation, meaning that you as the student are receiving a higher quality educational experience.

What does accreditation mean for students?

What does this mean for you as a student? First, it means you must do your research as you start your college search process to ensure that the schools you are talking with have at least one form of accreditation. Certain schools may choose not to go through the regional accreditation process or any accreditation process for many reasons.

As mentioned before, the accreditation process is lengthy and costly. Some smaller schools may find it challenging to make it through the accreditation process due to the time commitments, quality standards, or the cost. Suppose you are looking at a school that does not have any form of accreditation. In that case, you should be aware that the level of education may be lacking in certain areas and that the education you receive may not be recognized in your chosen field due to the lack of oversight and quality assurance that an accreditation organization would typically provide.

Second, accreditation is essential if you think at some point you may choose to transfer to another school. The best chance to get the most credits to transfer is to verify that the school has regional accreditation, if not national and regional accreditation, especially if you are looking to enter into a field with a licensure requirement such as Social Work or Education. Schools that do not hold regional accreditation may be a more cost-effective alternative when getting started. Still, it may cost you more in the end if credits cannot be transferred, causing you to have to retake classes that you had previously paid for at the other institution. It’s always a good idea to reach out to the school you are looking to transfer to ensure that all of your credits are transferrable.

Third, financial aid can be affected based on whether or not the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the school you are attending as being under an accepted accrediting body. Although a school without accreditation may have a lower sticker price, in the absence of federal funding that cost must come out of the student’s pocket. In contrast, at an accredited institution the sticker price is not the out-of-pocket price if you qualify for federal, state, and institutional funding to bring the cost down. If you qualify for federal financial aid but a school you are considering attending states that you are ineligible for federal funding, they are most likely an unaccredited school, and that’s a factor you would want to consider before you enroll.

The best thing that you can do for yourself as a student to help figure out the actual cost of attendance is to apply to each school that you are interested in and send them your FAFSA so that they can put together a financial aid package and give you the final out-of-pocket cost so you can adequately understand and know what you are taking on financially.

Gather information

Lastly, it’s important to gather information about the quality of your education. There is no better investment than an investment in yourself, so be sure you make the wisest investment possible. Choosing a regionally accredited school will help open doors of opportunity no matter where life takes you. This includes being able to apply for further education, such as graduate school, without the fear of your degree being considered subpar or ineligible for the educational admissions requirements of regionally accredited institutions.

Attending a regionally accredited institution also ensures that you get what you pay for in the quality of your education because the school is held to the highest standards of excellence. Rigorous admissions processes ensure that the students who attend their university will be successful both in the classroom and s in their chosen field once they have graduated. Students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the workplace. And each student is treated fairly and judged on the same criteria to create an equal footing in the classroom for the best educational experience.

Accreditation sets schools apart and is an indication of the quality of education that you’ll be receiving at that institution. Accreditation also ensures that students have access to the necessary funding from state and federal governments to help make their education more affordable. That is why accreditation is important. So next time you see a college state that they are fully accredited, you’ll be able to research their claims, better understand precisely what they mean, and ensure that you make the best decision for your future.

 

Sources

1 Flood, J.T., & Roberts, J. (2017). The Evolving Nature of Higher Education Accreditation: Legal Considerations for Institutional Research Leaders. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2016(172), 73-84.
2 Eaton, J.S. (2015). An Overview of U.S. Accreditation. Revised November 2015. Council for Higher Education Accreditation
3 EDsmart (2022) Regional vs. National Accreditation – There’s a Huge Difference. Posted In Colleges, Community Colleges, Higher Education, Resources, Uncategorized. Accessed 5/4/22.

 

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