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What Does “Accredited” Mean and Why Does It Matter?

As you’re looking through different options for schools, you may be wondering, “What does ‘accredited’ mean?” This should be an important criterion for your college decision — let’s get into what it means.

If you’re investing in a college education, it’s entirely reasonable for you to want to get your money’s worth. But how can you know what to expect when not all schools promise the same level of education? Fortunately, there’s a system in place that ensures that colleges meet certain academic standards. This system, known as “accreditation,” ensures that institutions of higher education are credible and trustworthy. Read on to learn more about how accreditation works and why it matters.

Related: How to choose a college

What is accreditation?

Accreditation is a status that colleges and universities achieve when they maintain certain academic standards. An accredited school has the stamp of approval from a group of experts. The point of accreditation is to ensure that the education provided by institutions is acceptable in quality.

By now, you may be wondering who has the authority to deem schools worthy of accreditation status. There’s actually no single entity that accredits colleges and universities. In fact, accreditation is performed by numerous private agencies throughout the United States. These are the most widely recognized accrediting agencies for colleges and universities: 

While these are the main agencies, there’s actually many other accrediting agencies throughout the country. There’s even a number of fake accrediting agencies that attempt to give credibility to fraudulent online schools. If you’re unsure whether your school has accreditation from a reliable agency, check the U.S. Department of Education’s list of reputable agencies

Why does accreditation matter?

Accreditation status is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, accreditation ensures that academic standards are being met. But attending an accredited university also qualifies you for financial aid and sets you up for post-graduate success. Let’s discuss the main reasons why accreditation matters. 

1. Quality of education

Not all institutions of higher education are equal. When you attend an accredited school, you can count on receiving a quality education. You’ll have peace of mind knowing that your school’s academic programs have been reviewed and deemed fit for students. 

2. Financial aid 

You won’t be eligible for federal financial aid if you attend an unaccredited institution. Federal aid can make a big dent in the cost of a college education, so you’ll want to be sure you attend a university where you can qualify. 

3. Career goals 

Attending an unaccredited institution may mean that you won’t be able to obtain the appropriate professional licensure in your field. In many cases, attending an accredited school is necessary to secure a job in fields such as nursing, dentistry, psychology, and law. Employers may not consider your degree valid if you didn’t attend an accredited institution. 

Also see: Top fastest growing careers

4. Transferring 

At some point in your college career, you may decide to transfer schools. However, you won’t be able to transfer academic credits between institutions unless both schools have accreditation. Accreditation does not guarantee that your credits will transfer to another school, but it makes it far more likely.

Different types of accreditations

There are two types of accreditations – institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation is offered to entire colleges, while programmatic accreditation is designed for specific programs within an institution. Let’s discuss them both and how they differ from each other: 

Institutional accreditation

Institutional accreditation is designed to review colleges and universities as a whole. This is the form of accreditation you should look for when applying to undergraduate school. Within institutional accreditation, there are two types of accrediting agencies – regional accreditors and national accreditors.

Regional accreditors

Regional accreditors operate in specific areas of the country and generally evaluate academically oriented, non-profit, or state-owned institutions. 

National accreditors

Meanwhile, national agencies typically offer accreditation to for-profit, vocational, or religious institutions. It’s important to note that most regionally accredited institutes do not accept credits from nationally accredited institutes. 

Programmatic accreditation

This type of accreditation is designated for specialized or professional programs within a college or university. This is the type of accreditation you should pay attention to if you’re applying to graduate school. For example, the American Bar Association accredits law schools while the American Library Association accredits libraries. Specialized agencies exist to accredit other professions, such as dentistry, nursing, and psychology.

Also see: Scholarships360’s scholarship search tool

Why are some schools not accredited?

In most cases, the institutions themselves request accreditation. Schools may not seek accreditation for a variety of reasons. The first is that the accreditation process is costly, and some schools may not be able to afford accreditation checks. The other reason is that some schools simply have poorly designed programs that are unworthy of accreditation. Some schools may even be fraudulent diploma mills that sell students degrees and require little in the way of actual academic work. Whatever the reason, you should do your best to steer clear of unaccredited institutions. 

Also see: What is the average starting salary out of college?

How do I know if my school has accreditation? 

In most cases, you can trust that colleges and universities have proper accreditation. This is especially true for well-known schools that have established reputations. But if you have any doubts about your school’s status, be sure to crosscheck accreditation claims with the U.S. Department of Education’s list of accredited postsecondary institutions. With just a little research, you can have peace of mind knowing your school will provide you with a high-quality, rewarding education.  If you are interested in more tools to assess colleges’ reputability, check out how to use the College Scorecard.

What are some accreditation red flags to watch out for? 

Unfortunately, there are many instances of diploma mills fooling students by getting fake accreditation from fake accreditation agencies. Therefore, here are some accreditation red flags to watch out for: 

  • The school has a very similar name to another school
  • The accreditation website has a very similar name to another accreditation agency
  • It has incredibly high or low tuition rates
  • Faculty credentials are not easily found
  • The school’s website does not have an address listed for its campus
  • You do not need to submit an official transcript to gain credit for previous classes you have taken
  • The school has a pending accreditation status with no estimated date

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Accreditation is a status that colleges and universities achieve when they maintain certain academic standards
  • Accreditation is performed by private agencies throughout the United States
  • Schools that are not accredited should be avoided 
  • When in doubt about whether a school is accredited, check the status on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of accredited postsecondary institutions
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions about college accreditation 

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Which Ivy League school accepts the fewest transfer students?

Do I need SAT/ACT scores to transfer from a community college to an Ivy League school?