How do colleges get accredited?

Accreditation requires a rigorous application process and review.
Accreditation requires a rigorous application process and review.

There are lots of ways to matriculate ... uh, enroll in college, but not all schools provide a great education. Diploma mills offer plenty of degrees, but their value is questionable. So, how do you decide which schools are worth your time and hard-earned dollars?

The task of finding the right school can be tricky if you don't understand the way universities and other postsecondary schools are evaluated. The formal process of evaluating the merits of a school is called accreditation. In the United States, the government doesn't get directly involved in school accreditation. That job is performed by independent, regional accrediting agencies that establish their own baseline standards. The U.S. Department of Education does recognize some accrediting agencies, however, and that recognition acts as a litmus test of quality in many cases. To be approved by the department, an agency is required to apply for recognition and undergo a rigorous application process and review [source: U.S. Department of Education].

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a national nonprofit that works with the Department of Educations and maintains its own list of approved organizations, accreditors fall into four categories based on the types of accreditation they offer [source: Eaton]:

  1. Regional
  2. Program specific, which can be an entire institution or a part, like a university's college of law or medicine
  3. Career-based
  4. Faith-based

Just because a school says it's accredited doesn't mean its accrediting agency is recognized by the Department of Education or CHEA, and that can be important. In some cases, Department of Education approval is required for attending students to be eligible for federal student aid programs or to perfect candidacy for certification in a particular field. It may also be required by a transfer school or as a qualification for reimbursement by an employer. A school's lack of transparency about its accreditation should be a red flag that additional research is necessary to discover the basic level of quality being offered [source: Federal Student Aid].

Even though Department of Education-approved accreditation may be a determiner of quality for baccalaureate and postbaccalaureate degrees, as well as for many career programs, not having it doesn't always mean a school is inferior. There are occasions where a school offering an excellent level of instruction may not be accredited. For example, this can happen if a school is still in the process of obtaining accreditation.

If you don't know whether a school is accredited, its introductory and promotional information may provide the answer. If not, both CHEA and the Department of Education publish lists of recognized accrediting agencies on their websites.

Nailing a degree to your wall can be the first step in pursuing that dream job, but long before you do the cap and gown walk, it pays to make sure you've chosen the right institution for your needs.

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