Why You Should Care About Accreditation

Elder college student in graduation outfit

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 are mentioned.

What is the difference between them? Which is best? Why should you care?

Simply put, your military education benefits can only be used to help pay the tuition and associated costs if the school meets accreditation requirements, and it is your way of knowing whether or not the degree or certification is real. But, having a deeper understanding of accreditation can help you make a wise choice about where to go to school.

A fuller understanding of accreditation will help you avoid wasting time and money.

Accreditation means that a school's curriculum and admission processes have been reviewed by what is known as an accrediting body or agency. Accrediting agencies, are private regional or national educational associations that develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to ensure schools meet their established standards. [These agencies must be officially recognized by the Department of Education.]

For example, a regionally accredited school in Oregon must meet the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities' (NWCCU) standards for academic rigor. 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 the best type of accreditation is very subjective; each ED recognized accrediting body has a specific purpose and focus. As a rule regional accrediting organizations are focused on academic rigor and ensuring the curriculum is academically focused and relevant. National accreditation organizations, while also concerned with rigor, may also focus on type of delivery and specific career field based curriculums to ensure they are current and relevant.

It is important to note that most nationally accredited schools accept 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 your goal is to someday go onto post-graduate studies it may be best to select a school which has been regionally accredited as it is 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 known as specialized or programmatic accreditation.

Programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of a larger college or university (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 programs within a college or university that has been accredited by one of the regional or national accrediting bodies.

In addition, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are not directly associated with a larger college or university.

The Senate has recently introduced a bill which will require schools to which offer these programs to ensure that they meet  all applicable State or professionally mandated licensing, certification, and programmatic or specialized accreditation requirements to fully qualify graduates to take licensing examinations or obtain credentials associated with the training provided in the program.

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, some students have found out after completing a career focused degree program that their hard work does not qualify them to sit for the professional exam or board to get their 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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