When it comes to choosing an institution to earn an education, the decision-making process is no easy task. There are many factors you should take into consideration, some of which may be more obvious than others. If you have done any research on the top ranked online universities, you may have come across the following word: accreditation. Accreditation is a voluntary process that educational institutions go through to provide students with assurance that the education offered is of the utmost quality. A complicated and detailed process, accreditation may not be the easiest thing to understand, but it's important that you do. Here are some facts that may clear it up so that you can make the best academic choice for you.
Fact 1: Accreditation has a longstanding history.
In the 1800s, the first regional accrediting agencies were founded "to protect public health and safety and to serve the public interest," according to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. These agencies focused on admissions procedures and educational standards, and first developed accreditation stages on a regional basis. Later, national accreditation standards were developed so that minimum quality standards throughout the country could be established.
Following in the footsteps of regional agencies, professional schools started creating their own accreditation standards. By 1912, the first national accrediting agency was formed by 23 private careers schools, known today as the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. By the 1930s, accreditation was a solid player in higher education, and it has been ever since. Today, there are more than 19,000 brick-and-mortar and online accredited universities that have earned institutional accreditation through agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Fact 2: There is a difference between institutional and programmatic accreditation, and both are important.
Institutional accreditation is granted by a regional or national accrediting agency that evaluates an entire institution of higher education to determine whether or not it meets certain educational standards. These types of standards are usually set in areas such as institutional management, finances, goals, planning, curricula, faculty and staff, and student admission and services. The agency initiates the peer-review process to determine whether or not educational standards are met. This typically involves a self-evaluation study conducted by the institution itself, as well as an on-site evaluation conducted by representatives from the accrediting agency.
In addition to institutional accreditation, colleges or universities may also seek accreditation for an individual department or degree program in a specific field of study. This is known as programmatic accreditation. While it's not necessary for every type of academic program to be accredited by a specialized agency, there are some disciplines where it may be more common, such as business, education, journalism, allied health, psychology, and more. Graduating from an institution with programmatic accreditation may be required to sit for national certification or licensing exams. Fields of study that typically require certification or licensing for professional practice include architecture, medicine, interior design, engineering, nursing, and teaching.
Not only is programmatic accreditation important because it enables graduates to meet professional requirements, but it can add value to a degree. Graduating from a program that has specialized accreditation verifies that the education you received met industry standards and practices, and therefore adequately prepared you for to work within a particular field. For example, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is a specialized accrediting agency that accredits institutions with business degree programs. It, along with many others, is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation among programmatic accrediting organizations that have standards consistent with its own expectations for academic quality, improvement, and accountability.
Fact 3: The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit institutions but it does recognize agencies that do.
The federal government leaves the accreditation process up to accrediting agencies and does not exercise any authority over post-secondary educational institutions. Still, it recognizes many of the agencies that do have such governance. The Secretary of Education recognizes agencies that act in accordance to the procedures and set criteria published in the Federal Register. This criteria is established in areas regarding Federal programs, geographic scope of accrediting activities, accrediting experience, operating procedures, enforcement of standards, and more.
The majority of accrediting agencies strive to meet the Secretary's criteria to gain national recognition as a high-quality accrediting agency. Therefore, while the Department of Education does not accredit institutions, it still plays a role by setting the bar for those agencies that do have that power. Regional and national institutional accrediting agencies recognized by the department are published here. The department recognizes the six major regional accrediting agencies as well as many national agencies, including the Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commissionÿwhich accredits many online colleges and universities.
Fact 4: Accreditation is a continual process.
Accreditation is not a one-time deal, and just because an institution has been accredited at one point does not mean that it currently holds that same accreditation status. Sometimes schools lose accreditation because they no longer meet an agency's standards, and other times they simply no longer wish to be accredited by a specific agency and drop their status. To ensure schools' continued compliance with accrediting standards, agencies must monitor and re-evaluate institutions and programs. Re-evaluation is periodically conducted, typically every five to 10 years, and once again requires a self-study and on-site evaluation. In addition, agencies may monitor institutions by having them submit periodic reports and data regarding key performance indicators, like finances, student achievement, overall growth, and more.
When an institution is found noncompliant with an agency's accrediting standards, adverse action must be taken. This can be in the form of an official warning informing the institution to make the changes necessary to once again comply with agency standards. Changes must be completed within a certain time period, typically from 12 months to two years. Failure to do so may result in loss of accreditation. Institutions that make the necessary changes are granted continued accredited status. Students can visit the Department of Education's Database of Accredited Programs and Institutions to check out the current accreditation status of a particular institution, academic program, or top rated online university.
Fact 5: Accreditation is necessary for an institution to issue federal financial aid.
Only institutions that hold either accredited or pre-accredited status from an accrediting agency recognized by the Secretary are eligible for federal funds. If the college or university you are interested in attending isn't accredited, it also won't be offering federal student financial aid programs. These types of programs include, but are not limited to, Federal Pell Grants, TEACH grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, PLUS loans, Perkins loans, and work-study programs. In short, federal student aid is only granted at institutions accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. This ensures that the institutions distributing federal funds provide students with an education that is of a certain level of quality, rather than that characteristic of a diploma mill.
According to the Department of Education, diploma mills are unaccredited institutions offering certificate, diploma, or degree programs that require the student to complete little or no educational course work and therefore have hardly any educational value. Prospective students can search the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to identify accredited online universities that may offer these types of financial aid programs.