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College Accreditation: A Complete Guide

04.30.2022 • 7 min read

Jennifer Rivera

Subject Matter Expert

The article explains what accreditation for colleges is, its importance, and the different available types. You’ll also learn how to check if a college is accredited or not.

In This Article

  1. What Is Accreditation?

  2. Why Is Accreditation Important?

  3. How Do Universities Get Accredited?

  4. Advantages of Attending Accredited Universities

  5. Disadvantages of Attending Non-Accredited Universities

  6. What Are the Different Types of Accreditation?

  7. How Do You Check if a University Is Accredited?

  8. How Can You Tell if a School Is Not Accredited?

What Is Accreditation?

Accreditation is when an institution of higher education has an outside body—a university accreditation commission—evaluate it. A wide variety of colleges and universities must recognize this outside body across the country, so it can’t be just anyone doing the evaluation.

To issue accreditation, evaluators come to a campus, look at collections of documents that the university has collected—like syllabi, course assessment reports, and teaching evaluations—and score that university on a wide variety of criteria. The evaluators themselves are often faculty or administrators at other universities who the accrediting agency trains on what to look for during these evaluation visits.

Accreditation is when an institution of higher education has an outside body—a university accreditation commission—evaluate it.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

Accreditation is very important, and something you should always look for in post-secondary educational institutions. Think of it as the “Consumer Reports” of higher education institutions.

Accreditation determines if the school:

  • Meets or exceeds quality standards

  • Is acceptable for student enrollment

  • Provides acceptable transfer credits

person at desk stamping approval on paper. This represents accrediting universities.

How Do Universities Get Accredited?

Accreditation processes for colleges can be very rigorous—which is good news for you! That means someone outside the college or university is really watching to make sure students aren’t being taken advantage of. But it’s an intense process. A college has to gather a huge amount of paperwork—syllabi, financial documents, graduation requirements, enrollment, faculty information, and that's just scratching the surface. Once they submit this information, a peer review team of outside accreditors usually comes to talk to the people on the campus and examine some of the materials in person. After leaving, they write a report and essentially “grade” the school for the accreditation.

Advantages of Attending Accredited Universities

Here are some advantages to attending an accredited university:

Only Accredited Schools Can Receive Federal Aid

That matters to you because federal aid is how many loans, grants, scholarships, and even work study are funded! This means if you aren’t attending an accredited institution, you don’t have the ability to access many of these important benefits.

Accreditation Makes Transferring Credits Easier

You may decide to take courses at a less expensive university or college to get some of your general education requirements done. But if you don’t attend an accredited institution, it is highly unlikely that your credits will transfer, and you won’t be able to count them towards general education at an accredited institution.

If you are thinking of getting some General Education courses under your belt, Outlier offers high quality courses at a low cost. Plus all our classes are accredited through a top 60 university, the University of Pittsburgh, so Outlier credits should transfer to wherever you need them to.

Accredited Universities Are More Rigorous

Don’t confuse academic rigor with “hard classes.” What this really means is that you are taking courses from a faculty who are recognized as having strong credentials, and are evaluated on their teaching and their ability to keep up with changing trends in their field. That means most, if not all, professors at that university have the highest degrees available in their field.

Accreditation Holds Schools Accountable for Results

Accrediting bodies evaluate colleges on their ability to graduate students in a timely manner. Having this accrediting body gives you quality assurance and helps protect you from predatory schools that may have you pay a high price for courses, but have a very poor record of graduating students.

Disadvantages of Attending Non-Accredited Universities

So you might wonder if going to a nonaccredited university is so bad. What are the drawbacks to attending these kinds of universities?

Here are five reasons you might not want to attend a non-accredited university:

1. No Financial Aid

This is one of the biggest drawbacks to non-accredited universities. Financial aid is controlled by the federal government and is only given to accredited universities. This is because accreditation ensures that students are getting their money’s worth. So if you attend a non-accredited university, your eligibility for financial aid may be significantly, if not completely, reduced.

2. Harder (or Impossible) To Transfer Credits

Most universities are accredited, so that means if you want to transfer your credits somewhere, you might be out of luck. Most accredited schools only accept transfer credits from other accredited schools.

3. You Might Have a Harder Time Finding a Job

Some employers insist on degrees only from accredited institutions. This may be especially true in health careers or other careers that require certifications or other types of licensure.

4. It Will Be Harder To Go To Graduate School

Because the vast majority of universities are accredited, that means most master’s degrees and other graduate programs are as well. Therefore, these graduate programs will not accept an unaccredited bachelor’s degree for admission into a graduate program.

5. You Might Receive a Low Quality Education

Some unaccredited programs are known as degree mills or diploma mills. These unethical institutions basically sell you a degree with a very short education time frame—some as little as five days—with very little actual learning taking place. If you see an institution advertising that they can get you a degree in a significantly shorter time period than other institutions, this may be a clue that this is a diploma mill.

What Are the Different Types of Accreditation?

There are a number of college accreditation organizations, but there tend to be three broad types:

  • Regional

  • National

  • Programmatic

Let’s take a look at each of them and how they may be similar and different:

Regional Accreditation

This type of accreditation is the most common and also the most prestigious. This institutional accreditation focuses primarily on academics, so you can be assured that a school with regional accreditation will have a strong program—including their online courses and programs.

These regional accrediting agencies have acronyms such as:

If you are unsure whether a school is regionally accredited, you can find out by searching the Regional Accrediting Organizations listed by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation.

National Accreditation

Schools that have national accreditation tend to have some sort of similarity between them. For example, schools that focus on one area of study—think art or dance schools). Some online schools are accredited nationally through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). But also, for-profit schools tend to be accredited under this category. Some regionally accredited schools won’t accept credits from a nationally accredited school. If you are hoping to transfer your credits, always double check first that the courses you take will be able to transfer.

Programmatic Accreditation

As the name implies, this kind of accreditation is geared toward academic programs, not toward entire schools. So that means that while the school may be accredited with regional accreditation, the degree program you are in, like Business, may be an accredited program as well. Some of these will be required by a job you might be interested in.

For example, one of the required paths to practice as a veterinarian in the United States is to have graduated from an AVMA Council on Education (COE)-accredited school. This programmatic accreditation is CHEA-recognized for schools and programs that offer the professional Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, or its equivalent, in the United States and Canada. As you explore your program and school options, make sure you are doing research on future jobs to find out if this type of accreditation is something you will need.

How Do You Check if a University Is Accredited?

There are a number of ways to find out the accreditation status of the school you want to attend.

Here are three ways to check:

1. Check the School’s Website

Accreditation is a very important way to show academic quality, so many schools display their credentials on their website.

2. Check if the School Offers Federal Aid

If the school has federal financial aid, it is accredited. All schools that offer financial aid must be accredited through an agency recognized by the federal government.

3. Check Their Status With a Higher Organization

You can check online through the U.S. Department of Education or through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

How Can You Tell if a School Is Not Accredited?

The best way is to look for their university accreditation in the ways we talked about above. But there are some quick signs you can look for that can be common in unaccredited schools:

Really High (or Really Low) Tuition Rates

Now, certainly there are schools with low and high tuitions that are accredited, but this should be a sign that you need to dig a bit further.

You Are Accepted Automatically

Education programs that accept you without looking at any of your academic background should always be suspect.

No Information About the Faculty

Most schools require that their faculty have the highest degree available in their field—called a terminal degree. If you can’t tell what kind of degrees the faculty have, that is a big problem.

You Can Get a Degree Based Only on Your Previous Experience

Many schools will take previous experience into consideration for earning some credit. However, if they take all of your experience and are willing to simply award you a degree, that is a school to stay away from.

They Don’t Have a Physical Address

If you can’t find any kind of an address or other contact information for your college, then it’s probably something you don’t want to be involved with.

Accreditation can sound complicated, but if you follow some of these tips, it’s fairly simple to figure out whether or not your institution is accredited, and by what organization. It’s an important piece of information that will help you get just the education you are looking for.

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