With the way the American education system is structured, it's possible to end up at a less-than-desirable school if you don't know what to look for during your college search. One of the best ways to ensure that you are applying to a school that will give you a good education is by exploring whether or not it is accredited. Accreditation is a form of endorsement that college and universities use to let potential students know that their program offers a valid education that is officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
How colleges and universities get accredited
Earning an accreditation in the United States is a voluntary, nongovernmental process. Schools request to be evaluated and/or have their programs evaluated by an independent accrediting agency. The agency sets its own standards that the school must meet in order to earn their accreditation, and since accrediting agencies vary in their quality standards, some are considered more prestigious than others. Which one a school pursues depends on what standard of quality the school hopes to achieve and to maintain.
Schools usually familiarize themselves with the agency's standards well ahead of time and spend several months preparing for their accreditation review. If they pass the review and earn accreditation, it is an endorsement of their school as a legitimate institution of higher education that meets an acceptable level of quality. Some schools may include their accreditation status in the college information they present to students.
Understanding accreditation agencies
Accrediting agencies are private educational associations. The standards they set and which types of colleges and universities they accredit are entirely up to them, thus there are agencies that are specific to certain fields of study, such as engineering or medical schools. An agency may accredit vocational programs such as cooking schools, or they may accredit the overall quality of large universities. Some schools can carry multiple accreditations which cover some or all of their programs.
Considering accreditation in your college search is important because when a school is accredited it not only means that its legitimacy and quality have been tested, but also that it likely has a better reputation among graduate schools and employers than unaccredited schools.
Recognized vs. unrecognized accrediting agencies
Accrediting agencies fall into two categories: recognized and unrecognized. Recognition comes from the U.S. Department of Education and is considered to be the best measure for determining if a school is worth your effort, time, and money. There are hundreds of recognized colleges and universities, so you have plenty to choose from. There are also hundreds of schools whose accreditation is not officially recognized, and it's an important distinction to understand.
Recognized accrediting agencies
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) does not accredit institutions; rather, it determines which accrediting agencies receive recognition by the Department. This means that the standards of the accrediting agencies are up to par to the standards of the DOE. Many agencies voluntarily seek recognition from the Secretary of Education, but they aren't required to do so. The DOE limits its official recognition to accrediting agencies that endorse schools that need the recognition to participate in federal programs, such as the Federal Student Financial Aid Program.
Accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education can have a regional or national scope: regional agencies accredit degree-granting institutions within six geographic regions of the United States, and national agencies accredit institutions or programs all across the United States. The DOE maintains a list of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies online, so you can check out if your potential school's accrediting agency is officially sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Another potential source to use when checking accreditation status is the college information presented in college guides. If a school is accredited, then it is often a fact that it wants potential students to know about.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private, nongovernmental agency, also recognizes accrediting organizations, including some of the same accrediting agencies that the Department of Education recognizes. To be eligible for CHEA recognition, accrediting organizations must demonstrate that their mission and goals are consistent with those of CHEA and that a majority of the institutions and programs accredited by the organization award degrees. CHEA also maintains an online list of Participating and Recognized Organizations.
Unrecognized accrediting agencies
Just as there are recognized accrediting agencies, there are unrecognized agencies. This simply means that their standards have not been reviewed by the Department of Education or by CHEA. There are a variety of reasons why an agency may be unrecognized. For example, the agency may be working toward recognition with the Department or CHEA, or it may not meet the criteria for recognition by either organization. Whatever the reason, it's important to keep this in mind when exploring college info.
You should view unrecognized accrediting agencies with caution until you can evaluate their reputation. An unrecognized agency doesn't necessarily have low standards of quality, but it is important to know that many U.S. employers only recognize degrees from institutions accredited by a recognized agency.