Accreditation FAQs: What You Need to Know

Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when selecting an academic program. It may not be the only criterion you use, but it is one piece of the puzzle to help you decide if a specific program and school is right for you.

What is accreditation?

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), accreditation means that a program or institution has gone through a rigorous review and evaluation process by experts in the field. It is essentially a stamp of approval by an organization that reviews and evaluates the quality of an institution or program. In theory, accreditation suggests (some would say assures) that the quality of teaching, student achievement, curricula, academic support and other criteria meet certain standards of excellence and quality (however, some believe passing a licensure exam is a more meaningful way to measure quality).

How many types of accreditation exist?

There are two different types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic / specialized. Institutional accreditation refers to the status conferred upon the entire school or university. Programmatic or specialized accreditation refers to the status conferred upon a program, department, school within a university, or certificate program, as examples.

An institution may be accredited but a particular program within that institution may not be. Some students may enroll in a specific program based on the accreditation status of the institution without realizing that the program is not accredited by the appropriate specialized accrediting organization. It is important that you make this determination.

Some health professions require that you attend an accredited institution before you are eligible to take a licensure exam. Find out if your particular profession has this requirement before you enroll. Ask the program officials whether the program you’re considering is accredited, and, if so, by which organization. Finally, go directly to that accrediting organization’s website to verify that the program you’re considering is listed as being accredited. It is strongly recommended that individuals obtain this information directly from the source rather than through a third-party website.

Who accredits programs and institutions?

Different types of organizations (or bodies) grant accreditation. These accreditors fall into two primary categories: institutional (e.g., regional, national faith-related, or national career-related), and programmatic/specialized. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides a list of recognized accrediting organizations that are recognized by the

U.S. Department of Education (USDE), CHEA or both. According to CHEA, recognition assures that the academic program is committed to excellence.

It is important to understand that neither USDE nor CHEA accredits higher education institutions and programs. Rather, they have specific criteria in place to recognize the accrediting organizations that are responsible for accrediting the institutions and programs. The USDE’s role in recognizing accrediting organizations, for example, is limited to those organizations that provide to the institutions or programs, a link to federal funding and other links. Some accrediting organizations are recognized by the USDE, and even if they’re qualified, choose not to additionally pursue recognition by CHEA. Other accrediting organizations are eligible for CHEA recognition but not USDE recognition.

There is a debate within the higher education community about the reliability of accrediting agencies and how quality is measured. Accreditation from USDE is often linked with eligibility for federal funding. One could argue, then, that accreditation is not truly “voluntary” because institutions want and need federal funding. Higher education institutions must be accredited by an agency recognized by the USDE in order to be eligible to accept federal funds which can then be awarded to their students through various federal financial aid programs such as Pell Grants.

What does the process of accreditation involve?

The accreditation process is complex. According to a May 2007 study commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation on Health Professions Accreditation and Diversity, a team of experts visits, interviews, and observes the program or institution to determine if the standards of accreditation are being met.

Each accrediting organization establishes its own standards, based on input from their communities of interest. In some cases, an internal and external review is conducted by experts in the field. The team may include peers who are faculty, administrators, practitioners and/or members of the public.

The accreditation process varies depending on the specific program and profession. For example, the institution typically is required to undertake a self-assessment that results in preparation of a self-study document that presents evidence of compliance with the established accreditation standards.

Are there measures of quality for non-accredited schools and programs?

First, determine if the institution is in the process of applying for accreditation by a national or regional accrediting organization that has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Depending on the profession, there may be multiple stages of accreditation: Pre-candidate or Pre-approval status, Candidate or New Applicant status, and Full accreditation. A school may also receive a qualifying status, which means there is a plan in place to obtain accreditation. Obtaining pre-candidate and candidate status is not a guarantee of full accreditation. However, the school is positioned and committed to going through a rigorous process to obtain accreditation. Schools with pre-accreditation status may be a viable option.

Next, if the profession you’re considering requires licensure or certification, find out if you will be eligible to sit for the appropriate examination(s) upon completion of the program. In some cases, the institution and program may have been certified or reviewed for quality by another organization. You might consider contacting the licensing/certifying organization directly for more information.

Can graduates from a non-accredited school obtain a license?

It depends. Each state and profession establishes specific criteria for licensure. If the school you are considering is not accredited, ask if their graduates have obtained licensure and where they are employed. Also, inquire with the state licensing agency to find out if specialized or programmatic accreditation is required for your specific profession.

Will my non-accredited program courses transfer to another school?

If you think you may want to transfer to another school in the future, move to another state, or obtain an associate or baccalaureate degree after taking courses, enrolling in a non-accredited school may present barriers for you later. Each school has different requirements for transfer credits.

Will I be able to practice in another state if the program or school I’m enrolled in is not accredited?

State licensing requirements vary widely from state to state. Call accredited institutions in your local area to find out if they will accept transfer credits from the school you plan to attend. Find out if your academic program is approved by the state licensing board. Graduating from an accredited institution and/or program increases the options for transferring credits and options for eligibility of state licensure.

How important is accreditation to employers?

In addition to quality standards, accreditation may have implications for employment and training. Some federal or state agencies require graduation from an accredited school. In certain professions, available internship and practicum opportunities are limited to students who attend an accredited program.

What about proprietary schools?

Proprietary schools are for-profit colleges and universities that are owned and operated by owners or investors and they play a large role in training the health care workforce. Before you sign up, enroll, or pay for your education, do your homework. All proprietary schools are not the same.

If you can, compare the cost of obtaining the certification or degree with your potential earnings as a graduate of that institution. If you plan to take out student loans to help pay for school, make sure you will be able to pay them back with the salary you expect to be able to earn once employed. Ask about graduation rates and if the school will help you find a job. As in the nonprofit community, while some for-profit schools are successful in obtaining accreditation from recognized accrediting organizations, others are not. These are questions any smart consumer would ask of any institution he/she is considering.

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