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College Accreditation – A Guide to Institutional Accreditation

Digital image of a graduate from an online institution with college accreditation.

College accreditation ensures that students working hard to get their degrees do not go unnoticed. These days, employers value an accredited degree over a degree from a non-accredited institution. But accreditation and the process school’s must go through to obtain it can be hard to understand.

What are the various types of accreditation? How can you tell if an online degree program or institution is accredited?

Are you ready to learn about accreditation and how to find accredited degrees? Read on to learn more!

A Look Into Accreditation

Accreditation is a method of assessing educational programs to see if they meet specific quality requirements. Institutions must receive accreditation renewal periodically to ensure that the quality standards of the educational instructional program are maintained. Educational accreditation in the United States is optional, decentralized, and conducted by several different organizations. Academic accreditation follows an independent quality review conducted by a group of academia or industry professionals.

Accreditation could well be necessary or authorized in other countries. Even outside the United States, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gives guidance on accreditation and quality management.

Accreditation may demonstrate that an educational institution conforms to particular quality standards or follows a voluntarily self-regulatory policy.

College Accreditation History

The population of colleges and universities began to explode in the late 1800s. The majority of them were established by:

  • The constitution of a legislature.
  • By a church’s administrators such as Wesleyan University or Jesuit colleges
  • Ultimately secular civic groups, including benefactors such as Vanderbilt University, Chicago University, or Emory University, help their neighborhoods.
  • In the situation of for-profit universities, by entrepreneurship.

One issue is that almost anyone may open a school and call it a university or college. It’s difficult to tell whether a school remains true to its declared objective or if it exploits tuition-paying pupils. That is what accrediting agencies are for: they assess members using a set of agreed-upon criteria. SNHU, for example, is certified by NECHE, the New England Commission of Higher Education, and includes 200+ other universities and schools.

Types of Accreditation

Whenever a school receives accreditation, it has already been assessed through one or perhaps more impartial accrediting agencies. These agencies should be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and go through a rigorous educational quality control process.

Facilities or educational programs must undergo a lengthy, in-depth accreditation procedure and pass multiple checks to tighten regulations against predefined standards and accreditation standards to be certified. This procedure can take a long time to finish.

Whenever a school has received accreditation, it must take the appropriate measures to keep standard guidelines high and preserve its accreditation status. These include periodic follow-up reviews to ensure the institution adheres to all norms and requirements.

Students must understand the value of obtaining a college credential from a recognized university. Getting a graduate degree from a university that does not acknowledge transfer credits from other regionally accredited universities is quite risky.

When applying for a new program, students must comply with specific standards. A student holding an academic degree from a nationally accredited university, for example, might not be allowed to transfer additional credits to only a regionally accredited college.

The two primary categories of college accreditation provided to schools across the United States include:

  1. Institutional (which entails National and Regional Accreditation)
  2. Specialized Accreditation (also known as Programmatic Accreditation)

Institutional Accreditation

This type of accreditation certifies that a higher education system meets quality requirements and follows proper practices. Institutional bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education carry out the accreditation process.

Any accrediting agency could be considered a certification or degree mill without such recognition. Certification/degree mills are organizations that grant accreditation to programs or organizations without the same rigor and high criteria as the recognized certifying bodies.

National Accreditation

As their name implies, national agencies provide accreditation to colleges throughout the United States, including professional, technological, for-profit, or career institutions. While some organizations, like the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, specialize in institutional accreditation, those around, like the American Academy for Liberal Education, provide both organizational and program accreditation.

Most nationally certified colleges are for-profit and offer vocational, professional, or tech programs. In addition, institutions that focus on the profession or religious education typically receive national accreditation.

Regional Accreditation

The most prominent form of accreditation is regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is the most commonly recognized, carried out by a regional body approved by the Department of Education. This sort of accreditation aims at traditional universities and colleges, among public and private institutions.

A regionally accredited university isn’t always non-profit or has stricter admission requirements. Still, it is more likely to be both. Both nationally and regionally accredited institutions recognize regionally approved credits. However, the meaning of regionally accredited might vary depending on an individual and their goals.

Programmatic Accreditation

Accreditation for a particular degree program is known as programmatic accreditation. Programmatic accreditation assures the community that an academic program has undergone a thorough assessment and meets high academic quality criteria. An educational program can only attain accreditation if it is in a regionally recognized institution. However, a specialized accrediting agency does not accredit every academic program. Only programs that grant pre-professional and advanced degrees, such as engineering, business, and mental health counseling, are often eligible.

The following are some of the most well known program accreditation organizations:

Why is College Accreditation Important to Colleges?

Accreditation is a collaborative process, and putting together an accreditation certificate can be time-consuming. Most accreditors suggest that colleges begin preparing their accreditation report two years before the deadline. Regardless of the time commitment and the optional nature of the system, many institutions opt to obtain and retain accreditation for two main reasons:

Although students can obtain Title IV financial help, an organization must first receive accreditation by an accrediting body that the U.S. Department of Education recognizes.

Many campuses would see catastrophic participation declines if they did not have access to government financial help. Furthermore, institutional accreditation is beneficial when students desire to migrate to another campus.

Students who attend non-accredited universities will find transferring their courses to another organization more challenging. Why? Because many institutions do not accept non-accredited credits.

7 Accrediting Bodies

Seven accrediting institutions accredit the majority of institutions in the United States. These include:

  1. (NEASC) The New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  2. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  3. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  4. The Higher Learning Commission (H.L.C.)
  5. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC, also known as “WASC Senior”)
  6. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  7. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)

Types of Accreditors

As discussed above, there are multiple kinds of accrediting bodies. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) accredits campuses and educational facilities for comparison purposes. In contrast, Specialized Accrediting bodies accredit particular types of institutions like schools of business, schools of nursing, or specific programs such as physiotherapy and social work.

The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the Department of Education recognizes these higher education accreditations. Each of these certification bodies must adhere to transparent requirements. Even the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredits more often than accreditation bodies for individuals.

An accreditor is any institution or organization, whether government agencies or government-chartered, that grants or denies accreditation to post-secondary educational facilities or programs following specific guidelines and requirements.

National Accreditors

National accreditation programs are the regulating authorities that determine the competence of any contributing certifying body within a country. They conduct audits through federal auditors, whether they are state-controlled or under contract with the government. The certifying bodies and auditors’ obligations are spelled out under rigorous standards, accomplished by evaluating strategies and processes and monitoring performance.

National accreditors operate nationally, comparing campuses with similar career goals or curricula.

Regional Accreditors

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the accrediting organizations included in this database. CHEA standards and procedures include:

  • Teaching standards
  • Advancement
  • Oversight preconceptions that CHEA has formed
  • Enrollment standards

Regional accreditors provide accreditation for universities within a specified geographical area of the United States.

Institutional Accreditation Requirements

Several of the academic accrediting bodies follow a set of established guidelines. Standards differ slightly at every agency. However, they are comparable enough that the Department of Education recognizes them all. So learners may be capable of transferring credits across institutions across regions. Students should contact the registrar or admissions office of the institution toward which they intend to enter for more information.

Different authorities may have more or less rigorous standards. For example, one institution may mandate 120 credits for one bachelor’s degree program. In contrast, others might suggest that requirement and request that any deviation is justified.

Ultimately, institutional accreditation examines whether a higher education institution is mission-driven and organized to accomplish that goal. For example, according to NECHE’s guidelines, an accredited institution or university:

  • Has properly delineated purposes that are appropriate for a higher education institution;
  • Has gathered and coordinated the resources required to fulfill its objectives;
  • Is it meeting its objectives; and
  • It has the power to achieve its goals indefinitely.

When evaluating this, NECHE analyses criteria in governance, administration, budgetary and infrastructural resources, academic program design, student services, staff support, relevant learning, and accountability.

Institutional accreditation does not consider other actions, including non-degree programs that do not use federal benefits resources. In contrast, a state university might run a highly regarded continuous education program for seniors or a summer program for high school students. However, accreditation will not be affected if the program does not grant credit or accept federal financial aid funds.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation evaluates academic accreditors, ensuring that questionable accrediting organizations will not provide support for diploma mills.

Accreditation Guidelines by Accrediting Body

Accreditation guidelines are available online for each organization:

  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Higher Learning Commission (H.L.C.)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  • (ACCJC) Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

Role of Institutional Accreditation in Today’s Educational Sector

When the U.S. Department of Education (D.O.E.) was developing financial assistance programs, it wanted to ensure students used their funds wisely and not at diploma mills. The D.O.E. delegated those reviews to academic accreditors since the United States lacks a national education department like so many other nations. With the passing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the seven academic accreditors have become more significant.

Students can only be eligible for federal student aid at accredited universities and schools. If a college loses its certification, it is no longer eligible to receive federal grants or loses a significant source of income.

This method of institutional accreditation has several unintended consequences:

  • Scholarships and bursaries usually are exclusively given to institutionally approved universities and colleges and scholars linked with them by state and local governments, trusts, and other sponsors.
  • A bachelor’s degree is a requirement from an institutionally approved college or university. It may be necessary for graduate and professional school programs.
  • A diploma from such an institutionally accredited school is frequently necessary for a professional license in disciplines such as teaching or nursing.

Institutional Accreditation Process

The majority of institutional accreditation consists of two primary phases:

  1. A self-study every ten years, and
  2. A five-year interim report. These timelines may differ depending on the agency.

Each level includes a thorough evaluation by institutional working groups of professors and other participants and field visits by independent evaluators, all of which follow the principles outlined above. A public discussion session usually takes place as well.

Finally, the institutional accreditor issues a letter either accepting or rejecting the institution’s identity and outlining the schedule and criteria for the following assessment. This letter should, in theory, suggest that no more examination is necessary during the next five years. The certifying agency may identify issues that require attention, especially at that time. An institution’s accreditation status is frequently available to the general public on its website’s consumers’ information department.

However, the agency may express concerns requiring extra follow-up or more frequent status reports. If the institution does not satisfy the requirements, they may place the accreditation on restricted or suspended status. They may even revoke its accreditation in exceptional situations. The issues may be numerous and intertwined, but the final straw, at least outwardly, is frequently the school’s financial soundness. The institution is unlikely to continue to exist within a few months to graduate any new pupils it accepts.

The public announcements of institutional accreditors frequently contain these indicators for analysis.

Institutional Accreditors Handle the Changing Higher Education Landscape

Another effect of accrediting is defining the limit of a college or university’s operations. The certification is for the declared scope of an organization’s mission and offers opportunities, breadth of programs, and instructional styles.

If student uses, societal needs, or financial circumstances change, a school needs to adapt or increase its scope. The more recent assessment builds on a university with more excellent bachelor’s degrees. Still, the institution later recognizes the need for more certification courses.

In situations like these, the university or college may wish to move beyond the limits of their accreditation. Let’s say they want to try something new by offering associate degrees, alternatively, by partnering with a state university to offer combined degrees. As a result, institutional accreditors have procedures to request “substantive adjustments.”

For the first time, they are granting postgraduate degrees credentials in addition to bachelor’s degrees, including:

  1. Offering assistance at satellite or off-campus locations.
  2. Collaborating with another university to give degrees jointly.
  3. Developing essentially online degree programs.

However, that last scenario is becoming increasingly typical as online learning becomes more popular. Southern New Hampshire University established and implemented an internet competency-based degree program known as College for America.

College for America does not use a specific course calendar based on the credit hours. That was a significant shift focused on converting measured capabilities into credit-hour equivalents. As a result, it has become the first degree of its kind to be authorized by an organization.

As a result, while the institutional certification system intends to foster reflection and performance improvement, it is also designed to assure stability. Therefore, recognized schools and universities can innovate to deliver high-quality programs that are federally funded and fulfill the demands of today’s students.

The Importance of Institutional Accreditation

The following aspects determine the importance of institutional accreditation:

  • Determines whether or not a facility meets or exceeds minimum quality standards.
  • Assists students in determining which colleges are appropriate for them to attend.
  • Assists institutions in assessing if transfer credits are acceptable.
  • Employers can use this information to judge the quality of study programs and whether or not a graduate is competent.
  • Graduates are eligible to take certification exams.
  • Employers can use this tool to see if their employees are eligible for tuition assistance schemes.
  • Incorporates staff, instructors, pupils, and retirees, including advisory boards in the development and review of the institution.
  • Establishes self-improvement objectives for the institution
  • Provides a foundation for calculating student financial aid eligibility. To qualify for federal scholarships or loans, students must attend an accredited college.

For state supervisory functions, accreditation also creates a self-alternative. State licensing agencies, university education commissioners, and other commercial post-secondary education bureaucracies permit universities to operate in their respective states.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) works with the authorities to ensure that only state-licensed institutions are eligible for accreditation. ACICS also maintains that states are up to date on accrediting operations that influence their schools. The essential benefit of institutional accreditation is that it helps maintain a set standard. However, this is not the only advantage. These agencies inquire about the impact of an organization’s accrediting procedure after its completion.

Benefits of Institutional Accreditation

Full institutional accreditation gives a framework for employees to examine how they currently meet their goals and determine how they may improve. The advantages are numerous: improved managing risk, more effective discussions, solid strategic plans, simplified work systems, etc. When an organization examines itself holistically, it may pinpoint the source of any issues and be better prepared to address them.

Students can find programs that match the educational requirements of their chosen careers. In addition, accreditation helps higher education institutions, their subsidiaries, and programs gain more credibility by allowing them to self-evaluate and improve their programs.

An institution’s accreditation is a well-recognized symbol of excellence and high-quality education. Students enrolling in an academic institution or program must ensure that their university satisfies all specified quality criteria. Students should ensure it provides top-notch academic content, fosters a student-centered educational environment, and ensures continual growth via best academic practices.

The self-study and site visit processes allow academics, unit workers, and institution administration to understand their programs better.

A university accreditation also serves as a sign of identity for employers. Accreditation allows them to see if a student meets specific learning objectives and isn’t merely buying a phony degree from a diploma mill. Government entities, corporations, and other organizations disregard degrees from unaccredited institutions.

Additional Benefits of Institutional Accreditation

Additional benefits of institutional accreditation include:

  • Offers public acknowledgment by colleagues, both within and outside of the institution
  • Encourages preparation, identifies opportunities for improvement and provides extensive data to help with resource decisions.
  • Acts as a significant player in recruiting talented professors and students.
  • Ensures that participants of these programs have received formal training that fulfills national criteria and is of high quality.
  • Improves trustworthiness of the organization
  • Aids in positioning curricula to fit the reorganization of the academic sector.
  • Assists the institution in becoming a leader in training families and community sciences professionals.
  • Impacts the number of state funds received by the unit or institution.
  • Improves the program.
  • Aids F.C.S. divisions in allocating resources to conversations with college administrators.
  • Plays a significant role in program retention talks.
  • Gives programs, students, and even professions a comparative benefit.

Final Thoughts on College Accreditation!

Attaining an online degree is a popular choice for traditional and nontraditional students because of its many academic and professional benefits.

However, choosing an online degree is not an easy endeavor and requires thorough research on several factors. Accreditation makes the top of the list of these factors. It is crucial to get to all you can before deciding, as it can significantly impact your future career.

Are you looking for an accredited online university or degree? Head over to GetEducated.com to learn more and make an informed decision about your academic future!

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Institutional Accreditation FAQ

Question: What happens when an accredited institution stops meeting accreditation standards?
Answer: An accredited institution that does not meet accreditation standards is placed on the public sanctions of “Probation” or “Warning” or dropped from its status as an accredited institution.

Question: Is Institutional and Programmatic accreditation different?
Answer: Yes, institutional accreditation refers to the overall quality of institutions and does not concern itself with the individual status of specific programs, methods of delivery, or sites. Programmatic accreditation targets unique programs and looks into their curriculum, course content, and delivery methods.

Question: How many regionally accrediting bodies are there?
Answer: There are seven regionally accrediting bodies in the United States:

  1. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  2. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  3. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  4. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  5. The Higher Learning Commission (H.L.C.)
  6. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  7. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)