If you are looking at attending a college or university, one of the most important things to research is the school's accreditation. Legitimately accredited U.S. schools (and yes, even online schools are accredited) are held to a high quality of educational standards, ensuring that you will receive a great education. Unaccredited schools, however, don't base their hiring or teaching practices on any standards except their own, so it can negatively affect your future.
Institutions can be accredited in three ways: National, Regional, and Programmatic. National and regional accreditation are institutional, meaning the entire educational institution is works together to ensure high-quality education, though departmental success can differ. Programmatic, or specialized, accreditation is an evaluation of a specific department, part of the school, or program. Programmatic accreditations are also a voluntary and recurrent evaluation process, though the accreditation is done by agencies that operate on their own.
Institutional accreditations is a voluntary and recurrent evaluation process by multiple agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and government regulated accrediting agencies. Check the list on the U.S. Department of Education website to be sure your school is accredited by a regulated agency.
No specific accreditation guarantees employment after graduation, transference of credits to other like-accredited institutions, or absolute future success. An institution that doesn't have any accreditation is not recommended to be attended by any student whatsoever.
Knowing the difference between accreditations
Typically, regionally accredited schools are nonprofit and offer students degrees, though a small percentage are for-profit and don't offer any specific degree. Accreditation is done through geographically located regional boards and commissions and oversee both public and private schools. For example, state colleges and universities should be regionally accredited by their respective regional agency, though they may also be nationally accredited to ensure their students are able to get the education they need. Generally, regional accreditation is the most valuable to employers, but not always.
Nationally accredited schools are typically vocational, career, and trade schools that don't offer a degree, but will sometimes offer certifications and employment skills. These schools will typically be less expensive to attend and offer less general coursework, e.g. in the liberal arts, though credits may be harder to transfer to other institutions, especially regionally accredited schools.
Programmatic, or specialized, accrediting agencies ensure that a specific department of the school is held to high-standards. These accreditations are usually offered on top of other accreditations, for example, a state school that is regionally and nationally accredited can also have their dental school both on campus and online accredited by the American Dental Association. These types of accreditation are important when going into a specialized professional field and are required by certain employers.
Why does accreditation matter?
Again, no specific accreditation is necessarily better than another, though it is important that you research a school's accreditation and where their accreditation is coming from. Sadly, some schools will offer accreditation that isn't legitimate or are done through low-quality evaluation.
If your state requires a licensure in order to be employed in your field of interest, they may require a certain type of accreditation. Be sure that the school you decide to attend has accreditation that is recognized by your state or professional industry. Accreditation is also vitally important when receiving a graduate degree. The worst thing to happen would be to realize after graduation that your schooling won't allow you to be employed.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when looking at a school's accreditation. You should always search potential employers to see what they require in terms of where you receive your education, especially if it is an industry that requires specific skills or a specialized accreditation.