When conducting a school search, one of the most important considerations to make is if the school is accredited. Why is it so important?
There are many different reasons why a school should be accredited. But, primary among them is to help determine if a college or university meets quality standards. In short, accreditation is a means of evaluating how good of an education you might receive at a certain school.
There are two primary types of accreditation: regional and national. Though education institutions with one or the other type are accredited, these two accreditations mean different things.
In this guide, you’ll learn all about accreditation. You’ll discover the many different reasons why it’s important. You’ll also learn about the difference between national and regional accreditation.
What is Accreditation in Education?
As noted earlier, the accreditation process involves evaluating the quality of education offered by a particular school. The process by which a school is evaluated is laborious and time-consuming. But, the time and effort put into accreditation can pay dividends for a school (and for you too, of course).
According to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), accreditation is a voluntary process. Not only that, but the process is one that’s initiated by the school.
Accreditation usually involves several components:
- A rigorous self-evaluation
- An objective peer review and appraisal
- A detailed Campus Effectiveness Plan
- An annual review
- Announced and unannounced site visits
The process of accreditation looks at many different areas, too. The school’s admissions requirements, course offerings, and faculty are examined. Exit requirements, program curricula, and the school’s facilities are also evaluated.
Moreover, schools that wish to be accredited must adhere to rigorous academic standards. Part of the evaluation process looks at the institution’s financial stability. But it also looks at retention rates of students as well as placement rates for graduates.
In other words, the evaluation of a school’s academic success is based on hard data. Combined with the school’s self-evaluation and peer appraisal, accreditors can provide students like you with a detailed overview of exactly how well a school is doing in its pursuit of academic excellence.
Accreditation also focuses on quality assurance and quality enhancement. Accreditors want to ensure that you will get a high-quality education. They also want to ensure that the school has a clear pathway for making improvements in its academic offerings.
Why is Accreditation Important?
Accreditation is important because it indicates that a school doesn’t compromise when it comes to academics. It shows whether an institution meets or exceeds educational standards, and explains exactly how the school has achieved that end.
At the same time, the lack of accreditation tells us the opposite. A school without accreditation might not have the academic track record you demand as a college student.
When you’re examining potential schools, you can use the accreditation status as a way to add or remove schools from your list. This isn’t just from an academic standpoint, either. To be eligible for federal financial aid, you must attend an accredited school. So there’s also a significant financial component to accreditation.
The importance of this process doesn’t end there, either.
Many professional certification exams require students to have a degree from an accredited institution to sit for the exam. If your goal is to be a counselor, for example, but you attended a non-accredited school, your pathway to becoming a licensed counselor could be in jeopardy.
Another way that accreditation is important is that many employers look for employees with degrees from an accredited institution. A degree from an accredited college or university simply has more validity as an instrument that measures the quality of your academics. Therefore, employers tend to view applicants with a degree from an accredited school as being more qualified.
Another benefit of accreditation in the workplace is that it could mean a difference in how much of your schooling you have to pay for. Some employers reimburse their employees for college tuition. Often, one of the primary factors that’s used to determine if reimbursement will be made is whether your classes are taken at an accredited college.
So, there are many different levels on which accreditation is important. It can have a very real impact on your finances and your ability to get the job you want.
Types of Accreditation: Regional vs National Accreditation
There are two very common types of accreditation: regional and national. Though they both represent a commitment to a quality academic experience for students, but you might be wondering, “what is the difference between regional and national accreditation?”
Regional accreditation is the more prestigious of the two. It’s also the most common.
As the name implies, regional accrediting organizations operate in specific areas of the country. They grant accreditation for all of a college’s instructional sites, including online programs and distance learning options. Non-profit schools are commonly regionally accredited.
Regional accrediting agencies accredit a diverse range of institutions of higher education that offer any or all of these degrees:
Roughly 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States are regionally accredited. Accreditation comes from one of seven regional bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
A regional accreditation is not the same as a national accreditation for an important reason: the difference between regional and national accreditation is that credits earned at a regionally accredited institution are more widely accepted.
Credits earned in college are like money in the bank, and students who make enough regular deposits by taking courses compile sufficient credits to earn a degree. At graduation time, students do the equivalent of cashing them in for a diploma.
Credits from a regionally-accredited school essentially have deposit insurance. If you take a course at a regionally-accredited school, the likelihood is very high that you can transfer those credits to another school – one that’s regionally accredited or nationally accredited.
National accrediting agencies, on the other hand, aren’t responsible for schools in a certain region. Instead, national accreditation is often based on the type of school.
For example, national accreditation is often reserved for career-based or religious schools. Technical schools, trade schools, and online schools (or distance education programs) are often nationally certified as well. For-profit schools are usually nationally certified as well. This is a major difference when comparing national accreditation vs regional.
National accreditation isn’t as prestigious because the process by which a school gains national accreditation isn’t as rigorous. For this reason, regionally-accredited schools often do not accept transfer credits from a nationally-accredited school.
So, say that you have 90 undergraduate credits from an online school that’s nationally accredited. Let’s also say you want to continue your education and complete your undergraduate degree at a regionally-accredited university. Unfortunately, the chances are high that the 90 credits you’ve already earned might not be transferable. This would be a much more manageable issue if you had only take a class or two. But still, you could find yourself out the time and money you put into taking classes at a nationally-accredited school.
But, sometimes, changes in plans or circumstances often make it impossible for you to graduate from the same school where you started. Transferring earned credits to another institution is easier if they were granted by a regionally-accredited organization.
Thinking of the credit transfer process in terms of money helps to explain the difference between regionally and nationally accredited schools. Regionally accredited colleges usually accept credits from other schools that hold similar credentials. Schools that have a national accreditation usually accept credits only from other institutions in their network. This is why the regional accreditation vs national comparison skews toward regional.
The money illustration is helpful because some types of currency are not as negotiable as others. In the United State, the dollar is the standard form of currency for trade, and it is accepted everywhere. To spend Chinese yen or Indian rupees in the United States, a person has to go to stores that accept them. However, credits from a regionally accredited institution are acceptable by many more colleges than those from a nationally accredited school.
One last thing in the regional accreditation vs. national accreditation debate. This isn’t to say that nationally-accredited schools are bad. They’re still accredited, and that still means something. But it’s necessary to be aware of these differences and the limitations you might experience as a result of getting an education at a school with national accreditation.
Examining a School’s Accreditation
Qualifying for regional accreditation is a rigorous process that schools work hard to earn. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes seven regional accrediting bodies that uphold the standards of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation:
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
Schools in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are accredited by MSCHE.
New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
Schools in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and internationally are accredited by NECHE.
The Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC)
Schools in Wyoming, Arizona, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Michigan and Kansas are accredited by HLC.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
Schools in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Latin America are accredited by SACSCOC.
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Unversities (NWCCU)
Schools in Montana, Utah, Alaska, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and internationally are accredited by NWCCU.
WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Schools in California and Hawaii in addition to some international schools are accredited by WSCUC.
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Schools that grant associate’s degrees in California and Hawaii are accredited by ACCJC. Additionally, ACCJC accredits two-year schools in:
- American Samoa
- The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
- The Republic of Palau
- The Federated States of Micronesia
- The Republic of the Marshall Islands
Regional Accreditation vs National Accreditation: It Matters!
When you search for colleges, the first thing you think of might not be the type of accreditation the school has. You might be more interested in the types of majors the school offers, what the campus is like, and how much financial aid they might offer you. You might also be interested in the sports teams the school has, Greek life, and clubs and organizations that are available on campus.
But as we’ve discussed, there are many practical reasons why national vs regional accreditation is an important comparison to make. There is simply more weight given to regional accreditation, and because of that, you might benefit more from your education now and in the future.
But, whether regional or national accreditation is appropriate for you depends on certain factors. Your major, your intended career, and your educational goals might be better suited to one or the other type of accredited school.
For example, if you want to be an auto mechanic, you don’t need to attend a typical regionally-accredited four-year university. Instead, a nationally-accredited trade school is the route you need to take.
There’s programmatic accreditation to consider as well. Some majors like education, psychology, or accounting are accredited at the program level in addition to the school level. Whether a program is accredited or not can factor into your college decision.
As with any big decision in life, it’s important that you do your research so you can make an informed decision. If you’re not sure what kind of school you should attend, speak with your high school guidance counselor. They will have the expertise and resources to help you on your college search.
If you’re no longer in high school, you can visit with admissions officers of the schools you’re interested in. They can explain what accreditations the school has. They can also help identify which programs the school offers that are most in line with your educational and career goals.
Looking for the ideal college is a big task. But the time and effort you put into the process now will help you make the best decision for your future.