Want to find out if the colleges and universities in which you are interested are regionally accredited? Looking to see if a program has the specialized accreditation you need, and if the agencies that have accredited the school and program are legitimate? Of course, you can ask the school or program, but it's often wiser to check elsewhere.
As you begin researching the accreditation status of the schools on your college search list, there are a couple of places to look. First, check with the regional accrediting agency that covers the state in which the school is located. Then check to see if there are specialized accrediting agencies that assess the particular program in which you are interested.
Unaccredited colleges and universities
Seeking accreditation is a voluntary process, and some legitimate schools are either too new to qualify or choose not to pursue it. So what can you do to make sure a school is legitimate if it is not accredited?
First, you can call the state agency with jurisdiction over higher education in the state in which the school is located. The agency can at least tell you whether the school has a legitimate charter, and it may be able to tell you if any complaints have been lodged or legal action taken.
You can also look at college information or college guides, or contact the school and ask whether the school plans to seek accreditation. If the school tells you that it has applied, double-check its status with the agency it names.
Finally, you can consult with people in your field about the school's reputation and the value of its degree.
Remember, in some fields, a degree from an unaccredited school or program will bar you from professional licensure and practice, so accreditation is a factor you should account for during your college search.
Since accreditation is awarded by private organizations, any group can hang out a shingle and call itself an accrediting agency. Diploma mills, for example, have been known to create their own accrediting agency and then proclaim themselves "accredited." Therefore, you can't always trust the college info a school provides about itself.
To find out if an agency is legitimate, consult the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private agency that accredits the accreditation agencies (www.chea.org). You can also check with the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Their Web site features a complete list of institutional and specialized accrediting agencies recognized by the federal government.
You can also find out whether accreditation by a particular agency makes the school eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. To view a list of USDE-approved agencies, visit www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html.
Accreditation and distance learning
Many students are including online programs in their college search, and in the U.S., controversy has arisen over the accreditation of online programs within traditional universities and the accreditation of virtual universities. On the one hand, many feel that online degree programs should be evaluated using the same criteria as other degree programs. Others think that new standards are needed to properly evaluate distance education.
Although this issue has not yet been settled, the six regional accrediting agencies have proposed uniform guidelines for evaluating distance education.
The impetus for this move is the fact that many distance education programs cross regional borders; the agencies want to ensure that similar standards are adopted across the country. Among the proposed criteria are faculty control of course content, technical and program support for both faculty members and students, and evaluation and assessment methods for measuring student learning. However, until these or other guidelines are accepted, distance education programs will continue to be evaluated using the same criteria as on-campus programs.
Colleges and universities in Canada
In Canada, as in the U.S., there is no centralized accrediting agency. Instead, the provincial governments evaluate the quality of university programs in each province, with a few nationwide agencies evaluating professional programs.
To check on Canadian colleges and universities, you can contact the appropriate provincial department of education. To get general information about accreditation in Canada, visit the Web site of the Council of Ministers of Education at www.cmec.ca. The site also includes contact information and links to the provincial departments of education.