Learn how to evaluate colleges based on accreditation, and why it's important.
In the decision of choosing which college is right for you, the options abound. Many students find themselves choosing between community college, a technical college, or a four-year institution. Although all these institutions can provide a solid education, be aware that not all colleges are created equal. In fact, accreditation is one of the main elements that differentiate between colleges’ level of scholarly quality.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is an important distinction in the realm of colleges and universities. According to the US Department of Education, the purpose of accreditation is to certify that the education given by institutions meet national standards of quality. Therefore, if a college you are considering has national accreditation, then this demonstrates that the institution has met the standards of quality set forth by the US Department of Education.
Fundamentally, accreditation ensures that you are obtaining a quality education – and for your future employers and graduate programs to recognize your education. If the college does not have accreditation, you may want to think twice about enrolling.
Why accreditation is important
When you are choosing a college, accreditation is important for many factors – including the financial aid you can obtain and even the job you will get upon graduating. Subsequently, accreditation is an element of your college decision that cannot be taken lightly. If the institution you attend is not accredited, then you are subject to several disadvantages:
- Lack of government financial aid: Contingent upon schools participating in federal Title IV or state financial aid funding is their accreditation. If the institution does not receive accreditation from a nationally recognized accredited agency, then you cannot qualify for any government-sponsored financial aid. Considering that government financial aid and student assistance programs play a large role in funding tuition, you automatically lose a significant portion of financial assistance by choosing a non-accredited institution.
- Disqualification from employer tuition assistance: The majority of employers who offer tuition assistance will not be able to reimburse your tuition costs from an institution that does not have accreditation.
- Inability to transfer credits: If you transfer to another school, then credits from a non-accredited college will not transfer appropriately. Course credits only transfer from institutions that are nationally accredited.
- Lack of prerequisites for graduate school: If you want to explore attending graduate school, it is important to obtain your education from an undergraduate institution that is accredited. Without accreditation, your classes, credits, and even degree will not be considered as a fulfilled prerequisite for most graduate programs.
- Disadvantages for employment: Many employers will review your education background, especially if you are first starting out in your professional career. Obtaining an education from a non-accredited institution, instead of an accredited college, may not put your application in the best light. With the growing competition in the job marketplace, you want to ensure that your candidacy will be strong during the hiring process – and a non-accredited degree may not help you achieve that goal.
How to check for accreditation
Although the US Department of Education and US Secretary of Education do not formally provide accreditation, they recognize national accrediting agencies to ensure that the education quality is up to par. A list of the nationally recognized accrediting agencies can be found from the US Department of Education. You can also check the list provided by the national governing organization, Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). For Canadian accreditation, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is the governing body, and a list of accredited colleges can be found with their organization.
Keep in mind that some colleges and institutions will proclaim that they are “accredited,” but they may not have accreditation by recognized agencies. Therefore, double-check the accreditation agency against the list provided by the US Department of Education, or you can visit the websites of the major accreditation agencies listed below.
For ease of reference, there are essentially six major accreditation agencies that are the most authoritative, as recognized by the CHEA and the US Department of Education. These agencies accredit the entire institution, while specialized agencies may accredit niche programs or specialties. If your institution is accredited by any of these six agencies, you will be attending a college that authoritatively offers you the full benefits and privileges of the highest standards of education:
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges – This agency accredits education institutions in Hawaii, California, and Guam.
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools – This organization offers accreditation for colleges in New York, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools – This accreditation agency manages Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Washington, and Utah.
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges – This organization accredits institutions in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – For institutions in Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia, this organization manages the accreditation.
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges – Educational institutions in Idaho, Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, and Utah are accredited by this agency.
If you are interested in attending an institution that is not accredited, or has “accreditation” from an agency not on the Department of Education or CHEA list, then you should carefully evaluate your decision. Often, if an institution is new, they have not met the time guidelines and requirements needed to obtain accreditation consideration. If this is the case, then you want to ensure that the quality of the institution’s education can be accountable in other means, perhaps through their reputation in the professional world, or their ability to place graduates in appropriate jobs.
The value of choosing wisely
The decision of attending college is exciting, but it is not a choice to be taken lightly. The good news is that most community colleges, specifically the public ones funded by your state, are indeed accredited. Therefore, if you choose to attend an accredited community college, your credits can be transferred to other institutions, including four-year colleges and graduate programs. You also enjoy the full benefits of accreditation, such as public financial aid and the security of obtaining a high-quality education.
Remember, an investment in your education is an investment in your future – and you want to ensure that your education will pay off significantly for your long-term future.
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