The Coaching Educator

What Accreditation Is and Why It Counts

student in academic gown
(Photo by Charles DeLoye)

Just yesterday, a 136-year-old college in Georgia lost its regional accreditation, and the situation appears bleak.

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT

College accreditation can be a confusing subject for multiple reasons. There are different types of accreditation, and some accredited institutions have more than one kind. Other institutions have some form of accreditation but not the type that carries the most weight. Some schools remain unaccredited against their will, while others–often for religious reasons–hold themselves aloof from what they perceive as outside interference. Still others, not to be named here, have been known to invent their own official-sounding accreditation bodies and accredit themselves.

In the woefully ungrammatical words of the U.S. Department of Education, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meet [sic] acceptable levels of quality.” Accreditation helps establish eligibility for federal, state, and private financial aid programs and is frequently necessary for admission to professional certification and licensure programs. Employers often do not recruit or hire among graduates of unaccredited schools, and credits earned through such institutions are seldom transferable to accredited ones. Employers are also less likely to pay for employees to take courses through unaccredited schools.

The rapid expansion of online education in the last few years has made it much easier for enterprising individuals and groups to establish higher education programs, often for profit, some of which offer a quality product and others of which can only be called diploma mills. With more variety available than ever before, families considering their options for higher education need to be familiar with the accreditation landscape.

85 percent of U.S. colleges are regionally accredited.

The mainstream view of accreditation is that it is an absolute essential, that prospective students should not even consider a non-accredited institution, and that regional accreditation is the most important type. As Value Colleges puts it:

“Earning regional accreditation in the United States is a voluntary, self-regulating (non-governmental) process. However, it is so common, students should view unaccredited institutions with caution, as [those institutions] could be covering up financial instability, unqualified faculty, or questionable business practices. The qualifications sought [for] regional accreditation are set by a peer review board containing members of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities.”

The Department of Education recognizes (perhaps it would say it recognize) six regional accrediting bodies, non-governmental membership organizations for the institutions within their boundaries: the New England Association of Colleges and Schools, and the North Central, Middle States, Southern, Western, and Northwestern Associations. The Department of Education reports that 85 percent of U.S. colleges and universities are regionally accredited.

The Southern Association in fact made national news just yesterday as a federal judge ruled that the Association is within its rights by withdrawing the accreditation of Paine College in Georgia, a private, church-affiliated school established in 1882, because of the college’s longstanding financial difficulties. The administration at Paine said the college now expects to be accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which is recognized by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (see below), but the loss of regional accreditation will mean loss of access to Title IV federal financial aid programs. Since 95 percent of Paine’s students are on financial aid, the situation looks grim.

National accreditation: not always as valuable as it sounds…

In addition to the six regional organizations, the Department of Education recognizes ten national accrediting organizations, most of which deal with occupational training, continuing education, or religious studies, TRACS being one example. Nationally accredited schools often have more directly practical curriculum models than regionally accredited ones, with fewer course requirements outside the major field of study, and they tend to be less expensive, but credits earned in such institutions are usually not transferable to regionally accredited schools. Another serious drawback is that graduates often are excluded from eligibility for certification and licensure in career fields like accounting, health care, and teaching, as they would be if their almae matres were unaccredited altogether.

Get with the program–or not.

Specialized or “programmatic” accreditors, as opposed to the institutional accrediting bodies discussed above, belong in a separate category among national entities, overseeing schools or departments in professional fields like medicine, law, dentistry, nursing, and business. Examples include the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration.

A professional school within a university, its business school for example, may lose its specialized accreditation for one reason or another while remaining part of a university that remains very much within good standing regionally.

Compliance with the standards of a specialized accrediting entity is mandatory in some fields, such as teacher training and certain health sciences. In other fields, such as journalism or business, compliance is optional. The communications school at Ithaca College in New York is one example of a school that eschews specialized accreditation on the grounds that the accrediting body’s standards do not allow the school to exercise its own best judgment about what to require of students; the dean at Ithaca argues that her communications school is more demanding–and provides better career preparation–than the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications actually allows.

Alongside the Department of Education at the national level in recognizing or not recognizing the accreditors is the non-governmental, non-profit CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which has about 3,000 member schools and recognizes approximately 80 different accrediting entities.

Technology doesn’t change everything.

The proliferation of online education has sown confusion in matters related to accreditation and what the prospective student should insist upon, but the situation is not as complicated as it at first appears. Accrediting bodies hold online programs to the same standard as traditional programs, with additional criteria specific to the online learning environment. The same financial aid rules and procedures apply.

Caveat emptor.

In the last analysis, selection of a college should always involve the simple task of determining whether a school is accredited and by whom, and whether that accreditor is legitimate and reputable. The institution should be clear and upfront about this on its website and in other promotional materials, and the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) provides an easily searchable database with information on institutional and programmatic accreditation for particular schools. CHEA has similar databases.

Staying up to date is essential because colleges are examined for their accreditation-worthiness every few years. While it’s unlikely that the school your brother or sister attended a few years ago has fallen into disfavor with the accreditors since then, you can’t always assume that all has remained well. Obviously this is much more the case with institutions your parents attended way back when.

While lack of accreditation does not necessarily mean that a school is bad, such a status does raise warning flags and should prompt diligent research. All in all, the drawbacks of unaccredited institutions can be considerable, even if a particular school offers distinct benefits, so prospective students should tread carefully in order to avoid a misstep that may have lifelong repercussions.

The Coaching Educator has a proven track record of helping students and their families identify the colleges that will best meet their needs. We provide guidance at every step of the application process, and that includes the quest for financial aid. To learn more about what we can do for you, book a free consultation today.

Paul Culp writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level. He has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

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