Accreditation, More Important Than You Think

College graduates at graduation ceremony.

Many students find the term “accreditation” confusing. Most have heard of regional accreditation, the most commonly recognized term. But the confusion starts as soon as the terms “national or “programmatic” accreditation is mentioned. What is the difference between them? Which is best? Why should you care?

Accreditation means that a school’s curriculum has been reviewed by a Dept. of Education (ED) recognized organization, known as an accrediting body. Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. For example, a regionally accredited school in Oregon must meet specific criteria as determined by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). A nationally accredited school must meet the requirements to be accredited by a national organization like the Distance Education and Training Council, Accrediting Commission (DETC). Many schools are accredited by both regional and national organizations.

Determining which is best is very subjective; each ED recognized accrediting body has specific purpose and focus. As a rule regional accrediting organizations are focused on academic rigor and ensuring the curriculum is academically focused. National accreditation organizations, while also concerned with rigor, may also focus on type of delivery and specific career field based curriculums.

It is important to note that most nationally accredited schools normally recognize degrees and courses taken at either regionally or nationally accredited schools. However, it does not usually work the other way; most regionally accredited schools do not recognize coursework taken at nationally accredited schools.

The biggest concern should be on which type of accreditation best helps you achieve your long-term goals. For example, if you want to eventually go onto post-graduate studies it may be best to select a school which has been regionally accredited as it will likely be more widely accepted.

For students who want to focus on careers like paralegal, physical therapy, or health care it is important to understand that there is an additional level of accreditation know as specialized or programmatic accreditation.

Programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution (Law School, Business School, etc…). The accredited school or program may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline (or career field). Most of the specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional accrediting bodies.

In addition, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are freestanding in their operations.

So why should you care? No student wants to be told that they have to take the same classes again to meet admissions or degree program requirements.  Worse yet, how would you feel if you were to complete a career focused degree program and later discover your hard work does not qualify you to sit for the exam or board to get your license or certification. Unfortunately this happens far too often.

Be sure to ask any prospective school about their accreditation, especially programmatic accreditation. Then play it safe, verify what you are told, visit the Department of Education website to confirm the accreditation has been recognized by the ED.

Ensuring the accreditation meets your goals can help you avoid re-work, lost time, wasted money and huge disappointment.

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