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Understanding Accreditation

Is it possible for a student to transfer credits from their online courses to another institution?  Will the online degrees you’ve received be valued by employers?  More importantly, will the online program you select provide a worthwhile and rigorous educational experience?  The key to answering many of these significant questions is the basic understanding of accreditation and the accreditation process.  The following information will provide you with essential information you need to make wise and informed decisions when selecting an online course or program.

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So what is Accreditation?

Accreditation is basically a validation process in which established standards are evaluated by institutions of higher education to ensure a high level of educational quality.  Typically, this is accomplished using a peer-viewed process in which faculty from accredited institutions help to conduct evaluations of either accredited institutions or non-accredited institutions seeking renewal.  This process is regulated and evaluated by the U.S. government via the Department of Education.  There are standards used to conduct these evaluations but they vary and in general they asses: goals and objectives, the mission of the institution, student admission requirements, student support services, resource and resource allocation, and the quality of the faculty and educational offerings.

The United States is different than most other countries with the accreditation process because it is not conducted by the government.  It is actually a voluntary process that is implemented by private nongovernmental accrediting agencies.  At this point in time, there are both national and regional agencies involved in the accreditation process.  The government only plays one rule; to identify those to be considered “reliable authorities” on the quality of institutions of higher education by evaluating these accrediting agencies using well developed criteria.

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So why should I care about accreditation?

It is important that you know about a school’s accreditation because that alone will tell you a lot about the value of the course or degree for which you are paying.  You may find that some degrees are not recognized by some employers or that the course credits may not transfer to other institutions if you obtain a degree or take a course from a non-accredited institution.  The understanding of accreditation can also help you identify and avoid diploma mills. (i.e. institutions that are unaccredited and that will grant degrees without ensuring students are properly qualified.)

It is important that the student understands that the term “accredited” is used rather loosely by some institutions.  Therefore, you should always be aware of what to look for when checking a school’s accreditation.  All institutions of higher education, “brick and mortar” or online, should provide open information on their accreditation to prospective students.  First, it is very important to pay attention to the words that are used.  The institution should clearly state in their documentation that the institution is “accredited” and should list the accrediting agency.  There are some instances were unaccredited schools will use terms that give the appearance of accreditation when in fact none exist.  These phrases you should be wary of include: “chartered”, “pursuing accreditation”, “recognized”, “authorized”, “approved”, or “licensed and registered.”  You should make sure to conduct a more detailed investigation if these phrases are used without the term “accreditation.” 

The qualifications of the accrediting agency should also be thoroughly reviewed.  For example, there was a fake institution that sounded rather official that was invented several years ago by a less than prestigious college called the, “American Association of Accredited Colleges and Universities.”  This example clearly illustrates why the Department of Education evaluates accrediting agencies.  There are many agencies that are not approved yet still operate, in often cases in less than reputable ways.

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How can you make certain that the accrediting agency is reputable?

Easy, make sure to check whether the agency is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education by visiting their listings of national and regional accrediting agencies

The other alternative is to check the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).  CHEA is a nongovernmental coordinating agency that helps in recognizing accredited agencies in the United States based on policies and research on accreditation issues.  CHEA also maintains a list of national and regional accrediting agencies which has been evaluated and deemed to meet the highest of standards.

A Quick Tip:  A very easy way to check on any institution’s accreditation is by visiting CHEA’s institutional database.  All you need to do is conduct a search by entering the institution’s name or state and that will provide you with information on whether it is accredited by a recognized and reliable accrediting agency.  CHEA also maintains an international database on their website in case the university or college you are interested in is located outside of the United States.

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What is Carnegie Classification?

Based on data prior to the 2000 classification, Carnegie Classification data is a snapshot of U.S. higher education.  The data is based on the Higher Education Directory by Higher Education Publications, Inc.  This Carnegie information will tell you if a learning provider is accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S Department of Education (as of the 2000 Carnegie snapshot.)  The Carnegie will also tell you the level (Bachelors, Associates, Masters, Doctoral) of degree the institution is accredited to permit.  There are various reasons why Learning Providers may not be Carnegie classified.  These reasons being that they are not located in the U.S., were not accredited by a “recognized” accredit or prior to the 2000 classification, or if they offer continuing educational opportunities or professional training that fall outside the scope of the higher ed.  Remember, you should always be cautious of the growing number of diploma mills which do not meet any academic standards.

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Are “Brick and Mortar” institutions accredited differently than distance learning institutions?

The answer to this question is yes and no.    Both the national and regional accrediting agencies hold distance learning institutions to the same high standards as other institutions since they are responsible for all accreditation programs offered. 

They have also recognized that specific standards that are applied to “brick and mortar” institutions need to be modified for distance learning to guarantee that they continue to promote high quality education.  To engage in effective instruction at a distance, one of the fundamental standards looks at faculty support and whether they have the facilities, resources, and equipment to provide high quality education.  You can read more on the specifics of the new standards in the CHEA Monograph Series 2002, number 1.  

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“cut and dry” issue? Yes? No?

The answer is no.  First, you are not guaranteed a high quality education from an institution just because it is accredited.  It merely means that the educational offerings and infrastructure needed to get a high-quality education are present.  What you receive from these resources depends a lot on what you put in.

Second and even more important, if two institutions are accredited they may not allow you to transfer credit from one to the other.  There are also other factors such as your current and past degree programs, GPA, duration of the course, etc. that may also factor into your ability to transfer credits.

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Is not having accreditation always an awful thing?

No it is not an awful thing.  Just because your school is not accredited does not mean that the institution is illegal or inferior.  For instance, there are innovative non-traditional schools that for legitimate reasons, may not have sought accreditation.  There are also some types of institutions that offer only continuing education or professional training that may not be eligible to seek accreditation from the previously mentioned organizations. 

As a result of this, it is most likely that your educational plans will play a large role in how important accreditation is to you.  For example, if you are seeking an online MBA, then you will want to be in search of an accredited university or college.  If you are looking to learn something such as word processing, than an online “training institute” that may not be accredited would be fine.  So remember, when making decisions about which online program is best for you, consider your educational goals and learning needs as well as the institution’s accreditation status.

NOTE: Directoryofschools.com only lists accredited online schools that have been accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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