In a nutshell, accreditation is a process of making sure that a school admits students, spends money and pursues educational goals and brings in faculty that meet basic quality standards. Although the U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly indicated this year (2007) that it would like to institution some kind of national accreditation process, the government is not in charge of college and university accreditation right now.
Keys to watch for:
Make sure your prospective school is accredited by a recognized body. Watch out for school websites that hedge by saying the institution is “approved,” “chartered” or “registered.” For basic “trade” training, it’s often fine to go to a school that is simply licensed by the state. But for an undergraduate degree, make sure the school is accredited (see our list of major accrediting agencies).
The U.S. Department of Education has a great search tool to help you check on the accreditation of all sorts of schools available here.
CHEA, The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, also has a comprehensive database of accredited schools.