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Choosing Where to Attend College? What You Should Know About Accreditation

Aug 18, 2007
Trying to decide where to go to school? If so, make sure you consider whether or not the school is properly accredited. Accreditation helps to ensure that schools are of high quality and that their degrees will be accepted by potential employers. Listed below are some frequently asked questions pertaining to accreditation and accreditation agencies.

What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a process whereby an independent agency evaluates an institution or academic program in terms of its faculty, curriculum, administration, and student services. Institutions or programs that meet the agency's standards are "accredited."

There are two types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation is carried out by regional and national accrediting agencies and applies to entire institutions, two-year and four-year schools as well as public and private. Programmatic accreditation focuses on specific programs and is directed by professional accrediting bodies, which ensure that students receive an education that will grant them entry into their respective fields or disciplines.

How does a school become accredited?
Accreditation is an intensive process that involves faculty, staff, and even students at a given institution. Typically, the process includes an extensive self-study as to how well an institution meets the agency's standards; it may also include extended visits by a team of peer-reviewers, who report their findings to a board or commission, which in turn make the final decision on accreditation. Finally, it is important to note that accreditation is an ongoing process, which means that in order for an institution to remain accredited it must provide annual reports to the granting agency and participate in regular re-accreditation.

Is accreditation mandatory?
No. Accreditation is voluntary, but most schools want to become accredited because accredited because it improves their reputation and prestige.

What are the benefits of accreditation?
Basically, accreditation means that a given institution meets a set standard of educational quality. For students, this means that a degree from an accredited institution will be accepted by other schools and by potential employers. Accreditation is also important for transferring credit from one school to another, and it can be a factor for gaining access to federally-funded financial aid. Furthermore, accreditation is also crucial for international students because proper accreditation allows schools the authority to issue the necessary documents for international students to enter the country on a student visa.

Who does the accreditation?
Accreditation is carried out by private, non-governmental organizations. Each agency sets its own standards and establishes its own policies and procedures for accreditation.

Are all accrediting agencies equal?
No. The most reliable and well-respected agencies are those authorized by the U.S. Department of Education, which ensures that agencies and their criteria are legitimate. However, some agencies do not operate under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Education, and many schools claim accreditation through these agencies. Be advised that schools accredited through unrecognized or fraudulent agencies cannot guarantee that their degrees will be universally accepted.

What is accreditation fraud?
Accreditation fraud is when faux or dubious agencies - often called accreditation mills - award accreditation to undeserving schools. These schools - known as degree mills or diploma mills - then grant degrees to undeserving students, usually in exchange for money and often without requiring students to show proof of substantive coursework or testing. Degree mills have been around for a long time but have recently become more rampant due to the advent of the internet.

How do I find out if a school is legitimate?
The fact is that degree mills and legitimate schools are often difficult to distinguish. Degree mills use names that sound like real schools, like Columbia State University, a former degree mill that deliberately tried to confuse itself with Columbia University, a prestigious Ivy League school. Then there was the City University of Los Angeles or CULA, another degree mill which was easily confused with UCLA, the University of California at Los Angeles. Degree mills even fashion their websites to look like those of legitimate schools.

One way to tell if a school is legitimate is to examine a particular degree in terms of its cost and the time it takes to complete. If the cost is unusually low or the time for completion is unusually short, you are probably dealing with a degree mill. Remember that if sounds too good to be true - it probably is.

Another way to find out if a school is legitimate is make sure it's accredited by an agency authorized by the U.S. Department of Education. The easiest way to do this is to check the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Go to the website and enter the school's name. The database will tell you if the school is accredited and by whom.

What should I do if a school is unaccredited?
Some schools, whether by choice or because they are unable to meet the necessary criteria, remain unaccredited. (Note that being unaccredited does not necessarily mean the school is a degree mill.) Students should not simply dismiss unaccredited programs out of hand - after all, unaccredited programs are cheaper and still provide students with occupational skills - however, students should be aware of the differences and be advised that these differences might become significant factors for potential employers.
About the Author
Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor in writing and composition for nearly six years. When he's not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice for students seeking to attend accredited colleges and universities and seeking to earn accredited online degrees.
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