Understanding Different Types of Accreditation

By University Staff

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When a college or university is accredited, it means that school has been found to meet certain basic requirements for academic quality. Before enrolling in an institution of higher learning, you should always check the school’s accreditation.

The US Department of Education and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) have recognized more than 75 accrediting organizations. You can learn about each of these organizations on their individual websites.

With so many accreditors, how do you know what they stand for?

First, accreditors fall into two basic categories: specialized and institutional. Specialized accreditors set standards for specific academic programs or for schools that have a single purpose. Many of these specialized accreditations are in addition to the school’s institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditors review and grant accreditation to an entire college or university.

Additionally, some schools are nationally accredited, while others are regionally accredited.

What’s the difference? Should you choose one over the other?

No school’s accreditation is “better” than any other school’s. National accreditation doesn’t mean that school’s academic quality is higher or lower than a regionally accredited school. But there are some benefits to regional accreditation that you should consider.

Related: Business School Accreditation: What's the Difference?

Regional Accreditation

The vast majority of US colleges and universities hold regional accreditation1 that is granted by one of six regional bodies recognized by the US Department of Education and CHEA. Their names reflect the regions they oversee:

  1. Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

(Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

  1. New England Association of Schools and Colleges: Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)

(Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, and American/international schools in more than 67 nations worldwide.)

  1. The Higher Learning Commission (A member of the North Central Association) (HLC)

(Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Including tribal institutions)

  1. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

(Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington)

  1. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS): Commission on Colleges

(Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia)

  1. Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Senior College and University Commission (WASC-SCUC)

(California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands)

When a school applies for regional accreditation, the accrediting body for that region evaluates that school as a whole, as well as its academic programs. The process is lengthy and thorough. It involves a site visit, self-study, peer review, action on the part of the accrediting body, and monitoring and oversight. If a regional body decides to accredit a school, they usually do so for a specified number of years, and they monitor the school throughout the entire time period, after which the evaluation process begins all over again. This cyclical process ensures that schools maintain ongoing efforts to uphold academic quality.

National Accreditation

Any postsecondary school in the US can apply for national accreditation. Some of these schools are degree-granting schools and others are non-degree-granting. Some schools prefer to apply for national, rather than regional accreditation, because their model of instruction or their course content differs from more traditional curricula. For example, regional accrediting agencies may not be able to compare a trade school’s hands-on, vocational learning with the type of reading and lecture that occurs at a liberal arts university.

Some national accreditors review only certain kinds of schools. For example, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges evaluates schools that are predominantly organized to educate students for occupational, trade, and technical careers like automotive technology, while the Distance Education and Training Council accredits distance-education institutions. The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools is an accrediting body for Christian institutions, colleges, universities, and seminaries.

Benefits of Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is the most widely recognized type of accreditation, which means your college credits are more likely to be accepted if you transfer to another school. You never know – you might be among the one-third of students who transfer schools at some point in their academic career. You will want your new school to accept as many of your previous credits as possible. Transferability is even more important for students who continue on to a graduate program. But the credits you earn from a school with national accreditation may not transfer to a regionally accredited university, and vice versa. Ultimately, decisions about transfer credits are made at the local level by colleges and universities.

A school with regional accreditation may be essential for your employer to approve your courses for tuition reimbursement if the company offers that benefit to its employees. Check with your human resources department to see if they place any restrictions on the types of schools they accept for tuition reimbursement. This benefit can substantially reduce the amount you pay for your education.

Before enrolling in any school, make sure to check their accreditation. Whether specialized, national or regional, accreditation is not a way to rank colleges or compare their quality. But accreditation does ensure that you are attending a legitimate school and earning a worthwhile education. Just remember, you’ll be able to transfer more easily from one regionally accredited school to another. Regional accreditation promotes mobility. And that’s essential for today’s adult learner.

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