Most colleges claim to be accredited by state, regional, or national governing bodies. But what do those ratings mean, and who stands behind them? And what is the difference between regional versus national accreditation? Let’s take a closer look.
What is college accreditation?
The U.S. Department of Education says it best: “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.”
Why does college accreditation matter?
Think of it as an insurance policy that protects the value of your education. There is not much point in investing a lot of money in a school that is not accredited by appropriate agencies. Example: If you received training in medical coding from an unaccredited school, that credential isn’t worth much when you apply for jobs.
What’s the difference between regional vs. national accreditation?
This gets a bit complicated. The U.S. Department of Education says: “The U.S. Department of Education does not have the authority to accredit private or public elementary or secondary schools, and the Department does not recognize accrediting bodies for the accreditation of private or public elementary and secondary schools. However, the U.S. Department of Education does recognize accrediting bodies for the accreditation of institutions of higher (postsecondary) education.”
Translation: The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t accredit schools directly. It does, however, recognize organizations that provideto individual schools. And it gets even more complicated, because there are lots of different USDE-approved accrediting agencies. Some are regional, while others accredit specific types of schools. Here’s a partial list.
Accreditation bodies with nationwide reach . . .
Regional college accrediting bodies (partial list) . . .
Regional accreditation is considered the highest level or gold standard of college accreditation. It's the most widely used and recognized level of college accreditation.
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (DE, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Higher Learning Commission, (AZ, AR, CO, IN, IA, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, NM, ND, OH, OK, SD, WV, WI, WY)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (AL, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, WA)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (AL, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, VA)
How do I find out if an institution is accredited by appropriate agencies?
Colleges and universities list their regional and national accreditation status on their websites. If you have any doubts, contact the accrediting agencies listed above, others that are listed on the college’s website, or your state’s department of education.
Are online institutions subject to the same accreditation standards as other institutions?
Not necessarily – and here the issue of accreditation becomes somewhat complicated. For example, let’s look at StraighterLine, a provider of high-quality, low cost general education courses which can count for credit towards your degree and save you money.
StraighterLine itself is not a college. Only colleges and universities are accredited. Students take individual online courses through StraighterLine and then transfer them directly into the accredited college where they plan on earning their degree. All of the nearly 100 schools in StraighterLine's network are regionally accredited colleges.
All StraighterLine courses have received ACE CREDIT recommendations. Over 2,000 accredited colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommended courses for transfer into their degree programs.
Before enrolling in online courses, be sure to ask about the procedures that you must follow if you want to transfer credits to other institutions.
Are certification and college accreditation the same thing?
No. College accreditation pertains to the school. Certification means that you have passed an exam or met other requirements that certify you to practice a trade or profession. Certification is often overseen by state or regional agencies. Example: To become a licensed massage therapist in Missouri, you have to meet the requirements of the Missouri State Board of Therapeutic Massage.
Do colleges ever lose their accreditation?
Yes, they do. If that happens to your school, it can spell bad news for your work and career. That’s why it pays to check with all applicable accrediting agencies to verify the status of any school you are considering.