The way U.S. colleges and universities are accredited doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. But you need to understand it. If you don’t, your investment in a college degree can turn out to be worth very little.
Accreditation is the “stamp of approval” employers want to see on a school, or sometimes on a particular degree program. It’s also the main measuring stick you need to live up to if you want to transfer from one college to another. Just to make things confusing, however, there are some degree paths where accreditation doesn’t matter at all.
The reason accreditation is so confusing is that there’s no national system that governs it. It’s handled by a mishmash of independent agencies that have evolved gradually since they 1700’s, when the first one was established in New York State. Today the main accreditors alternately cooperate and compete against each other, with some getting into occasional arguments about their practices with the U.S. Department of Education. But a key reason accreditation isn’t going away is that schools need it, because it’s required for student grants or for loans from the federal government.
You definitely want to learn about this before choosing an online or traditional college – not after you’ve completed your degree. There are three basic levels of accreditation to understand.
Regional Accreditation And It’s Variants
The closest thing to a national accreditation watchdog is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). But it only oversees groups that give accreditation – it doesn’t handle the job directly. If you’re like most college applicants, you may assume that national accreditation is probably better than regional. But in the weird world of American higher ed, that’s not so. Regional accreditation from one of the CHEA approved agencies is the most highly prized type. It’s given to “academically oriented” schools that give bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate level degrees. (more below on other types of accreditation for professional training programs) Generally, you can assume that an employer won’t doubt the basic quality of your degree if your school is accredited by one of these six regionals (click on + to see a list of states served by each) :
The District of Columbia
The Virgin Islands
Northern Marianas Islands
A few pure online schools do, by the way, have regional accreditation if their programs meet key standards. Although they have no campuses, they are accredited in the state where their headquarters is located (Click list below of online-only and for-profit schools with regional accreditation).
Beyond The Regional Colleges Accreditors
When you look past these old line regional accreditors, things get confusing very fast. A host of new accrediting agencies have risen in the past few decades as changes in college education – particularly the rise of online accredited courses – have disrupted old teaching models. The changes have caused heated debates among educators, accreditors and the Department of Education about the quality of schools. New learning models have also run into frequent resistance from college professors and administrators who basically don’t want to see their jobs disrupted by any type of change. At the same time, however, there have been real problems of for-profit colleges and diploma mills being started up by hucksters and trying to fool prospective students and the accreditors alike about the quality of their programs.
There are several national accreditors that generally approve schools focused career training – which includes many online and for-profit schools. Whether or not a nationally accredited school is adequate for you depends on how high your career aspirations are. Nationally accredited schools are not the Harvard Universities of this world (Harvard, by the way, is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education). The most sophisticated employers may look down on schools with national accreditation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get hired by many small to mid-sized employers with a nationally accredited degree. Nationally accredited school have to conform to certain academic standards and are far more desirable than schools with no accreditation at all.
The biggest national accreditor is the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) which, as the name implies, focuses on online degree schools. DEAC grew out of a company that approved home correspondence courses way back in the 1920’s. It has the approval of both the Department of Education and the CHEA (which oversees the respected regional accreditors), but there have been off and on debates in academia about whether or not it’s standards are stringent enough. It now accredits over 100 for-profit and nonprofit schools around the world. Schools accredited by DEAC run the gamut from fairly well-known names like American Sentinal University and Grantham to distinctly lesser-known institutions like The University of the People and The National Tax Training School.
Accrediting Council Troubles
The second best known national accreditor is Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which accredits many for-profit schools. ACICS has actually been around since 1912, but in recent years it’s had a turbulent history. The Department of Education revoked it’s recognition during the Obama administration, only to give it back during the Trump administration. The pendulum seems to be swinging back against ACICS recently. In January of 2021, a key committee of the U.S. Department of Education recommended that ACICS’s authority be revoked again. The story is clearly to be continued. But it’s safe to say that accreditation from this agency is not the gold standard.
Transferring From A Nationally Accredited School
A big hazard to be aware of is that if you take some courses at a nationally accredited school and then want to transfer from a regionally accredited one, it will probably be a challenge getting all your credits accepted in transfer. But it’s not impossible. CHEA has actually recommended recently that “Ins”itutions…need to assure that transfer decisions are not made solely on the source of accreditation of a sending program.” What that means in plain English is that if you’re trying to jump to a regionally accredited school, you have a strong chance of getting credits accepted if you make a real effort to get your new school to focus on the exact content and quality of each course you took at your nationally accredited school.
Applying for a graduate or post graduate degree can present a particularly sticky problem. If you’re going for an MBA or any other type of master’s program at a regionally accredited school, your entire bachelor degree may not be accepted if it’s from a nationally accredited school. That, obviously, is a disaster you’d like to avoid.
Programmatic and Professional Accreditation
There are “programmatic” accrediting agencies that focus on specific types of degree programs – usually those that lead to some type of professional certification. You should be aware that in many professional areas, you will absolutely have to get a degree from a school with the right accreditation if you want to take your professional certification test.
Among the best known examples or programmatic accreditors are The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), two highly respected groups that accredit college nursing programs. You must have a nursing degree from a school accredited by one of these to qualify for the NCLEX exams to be a nurse. There are programmatic accreditors in all sorts of other professional categories, though the health and education fields have the most . Some interesting examples:
- Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education – (ACME)
- Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation (ABHE)
- Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI)
- Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE)
- National Association of Schools of Theatre Commission on Accreditation (NAST)
- Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC)
- National Association of Schools of Dance Commission on Accreditation (NASD)
- Council on Accreditation of Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Related Professions (COAPRT)
- Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)
Different Accreditation Rules For Professional Degrees
It’s not necessarily bad if a professional-type program doesn’t have regional accreditation from a CHEA-approved agency. In fact many accreditors in the education field are not even approved by the U.S. Department of Education. If you are considering a degree in a professional area, you need to spend some time researching what the standards are for certification and getting hired in your particular career category. Here’s a full list of programmatic accrediting agencies in the U.S.. If you want to do a really deep dive on this subject, the U.S. Department of Education’s massive database of schools and accrediting agencies it approves is here.
Where Accreditation Doesn’t Matter At All
There has been a rise of training programs, mostly in computer coding, where hiring employers frankly don’t care if your program was accredited or not. These coding academies or “bootcamps” focus only on job skills and don’t provide the broader education of a bachelor’s or even and associate’s degree. Virtually none of them have any type of accreditation. But most require some type of state-level approval to obtain a license to operate.
The two best ways to figure out if a coding boot camp is good are:
- Find some people in the business and ask for their guidance.
- Ask the admissions person for the coding school lots of questions about exactly which platforms you will be studying, what certificate of completion you will get at the end of the program, and how much professional support you will get both during the program and after graduation.
The demand for coders is high and many of the coding schools have excellent reputations. It’s up to you to ask around and do other research to figure out which one is right for you.
Accreditation Can Be Key To A Good Job
The most sophisticated employers won’t take your degree very seriously if it’s a non-accredited institution. If you want to feel comfortable walking into a job interview after finishing your degree, you absolutely want to go to an accredited college, whether it’s online or ground-based. Find out more here on whether or not an employer will take your online diploma seriously.
List Of Online Schools With Regional Accreditation
Some people assume that the large online schools don’t have the high-quality regional accreditation that old colleges and universities have. That’s not necessarily true. Here’s a list of examples of widely recognized institutions that are either partly or entirely online, including some for-profit schools, that have regional accreditation.
- American InterContinental University System
- Argosy University
- Benedictine University
- California University of Pennsylvania
- Capella University
- Colorado State University
- Colorado Technical University
- Grand Canyon University
- Keiser University
- Liberty University
- Northcentral University
- Post University
- Purdue University Global
- South University
- Southern New Hampshire University
- University of Phoenix
- Walden University
- Western Governors University