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Regional Accreditation vs National Accreditation for Online Colleges

College credit for work experience can earn you an online life experience degree

Question:

Help! Choosing an online college is an overwhelming task. I have a list of more than 20 possible colleges. I’m favoring one that is nationally accredited by the Distance Education & Training Council (DETC). Will my degree be accepted by employers? My career counselor told me national accreditation (like DETC) is not as good as attending a regionally accredited online college. Which is better: regional accreditation vs. national accreditation? And does it really make any difference?
—Michael in Atlanta, Ga.

Answer:

The truth? One type of online university accreditation is not necessarily “better” than another if you take “better” to mean “better academically.” However, there are real benefits to attending a regionally accredited online college versus a nationally accredited college.

Institutional Accreditation: What Is It?

Both regional and national accreditation are ways of confirming that a whole institution–like a university, college, community college, or trade school—is offering quality education to its students. This is a quality assurance system that schools voluntarily engage in to have an outside organization investigate their programs and policies to ensure that students will receive valuable and useful education.

Accreditation helps members of the public avoid scams like diploma mills or subpar instructional programs. If a school you are considering is not institutionally accredited, that is a serious red flag.

The older, more established, and more respected type of institutional accreditation is regional accreditation. Public and nonprofit private schools are almost all regionally accredited, while trade, career, and for-profit schools are usually nationally accredited. It might sound like national accreditation would be more prestigious, but actually, the opposite is true. The standards for national accreditation are less rigorous than regional accreditation, and national accreditation is considerably less useful when transferring schools.

We are talking here about institutional accreditation, which all institutions of higher education should have. Certain degree programs also need programmatic accreditation specific to their content. An example of programmatic accreditation would be nursing programs that would be approved by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). There are many different programmatic accreditation organizations for various different fields of study and professions, including veterinary programs, legal education, arts education, and specific occupational categories. Programmatic accreditation would be in addition to institutional accreditation, and not all fields of study require programmatic accreditation.

Regional Accreditation

When people ask if you have attended an “accredited university” in the United States, they commonly mean a regionally accredited university. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85 percent of all colleges in the United States are regionally accredited.

Not all online schools are regionally accredited—though the vast majority are.

Pros:

  • The gold standard of college accreditation; highest prestige
  • Most widely recognized type of college accreditation
  • Credits and degrees widely accepted in transfer
  • Eligible for all corporate tuition reimbursement plans
  • Usually provide instructor-led courses

Cons:

  • Often more expensive than nationally accredited colleges
  • Often require more liberal arts coursework
  • May offer less career-oriented programs
  • Often enforce more competitive admission standards

National Accreditation

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the US Department of Education (DOE) also recognizes a number of “national accreditation agencies.” These agencies are called “national agencies” because they aren’t organized by and limited to regional geographic areas. For the purposes of determining whether a school is accredited by a recognized national agency, you can consider agencies that are approved by either or both the DOE and the CHEA.

These national agencies have historically focused on approving career, vocational and trade schools. Because of the specialized focus, the requirements to earn a certificate or degree from a nationally accredited school are not as standardized as a regionally accredited school. Nationally accredited schools are reviewed every 3-5 years to ensure that they still meet the requirements.

The three most popular “national” college accreditation agencies recognized by CHEA are:

  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS)
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)

Other national accreditation agencies include:

  • Council on Occupational Education (COE)
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission (TRACS)
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  • Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
  • Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
  • Association of Theological Schools (ATS)
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)

CONSUMER ALERT: The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) had its recognition to issue national accreditation withdrawn by the Department of Education in 2016. The courts have ordered that ACICS be temporarily reinstated pending the outcome of a review. Students who are considering an ACICS-accredited school should check with the school about their plans for accreditation.

National Accreditation – Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Often less expensive than regionally accredited counterparts
  • May require less liberal arts coursework
  • May offer more practical, career-oriented majors
  • May employ more relaxed admission standards

Cons:

  • Credits not widely accepted in transfer if you later attend a regionally accredited college
  • Coursework and degrees may not be widely accepted for professions that require licensing after degree attainment, which might affect those in licensed careers such as teaching, accounting, engineering and healthcare
  • Sometimes excluded from corporate tuition plans
  • Sometimes provide self-study courses without instructor-led course sessions

Why Should You Care About Your School’s Accreditation?

Accreditation might be the last thing on your mind when you are looking for a school that will be affordable, fit your schedule, and offer the subjects that you want to study. But it is actually a very important factor in choosing a program that will set you up well for goals for the future.

If you choose a nationally accredited school now, but in five years decide that you want to pursue further education, your credits are less likely to transfer than if you had chosen a regionally accredited school. You may end up having to repeat courses.

On the other hand, if you have done your homework and know that the career you want to pursue most readily employs people who have graduated from a specific type of career or technical college, then a regionally accredited 4-year liberal arts degree would just be overkill. The nationally accredited vocational program is the right choice to qualify you to work in that trade.

The upshot is that there is a big difference between the two types of accreditation, and it will absolutely affect your future career and education, and therefore, the trajectory of your life. As long as you understand the pros and cons, and make sure that the school you choose is accredited by an approved organization, then you are on the right track.

Cost can be an important deciding factor. If “better” means more affordable, then nationally accredited online universities are often the winners.

According to GetEducated.com’s Online MBA Rankings, the average cost of a regionally accredited online MBA is $25,869. On the other hand, the average cost for a nationally accredited online MBA is only $12,700.

That’s a savings of about $8,000.

In addition, Get Educated’s surveys of online universities indicate that regionally accredited colleges often employ stricter admissions requirements, including higher entrance GPAs. They also are more likely to require standardized admission exams, such as the SAT, GRE or GMAT.

Although nationally accredited schools are cheaper on average, if you later change your plans and want to transfer to a different school or program, you will have far fewer choices that will allow you to transfer credits you have already earned. If you end up repeating classes, you will actually pay more in the long run. If you are fairly sure you will not want to get another degree later, then a nationally accredited school can offer you a great cost savings.

Don’t entirely discount regionally accredited schools if your budget is tight. There are many very affordable programs, especially from community colleges, public universities, and through distance education that can give you an education that is more accepted by schools you may want to transfer into or by employers looking for qualified job applicants.

CONSUMER ALERT: The most common complaint GetEducated.com receives from students who attend nationally accredited online universities is that their degrees do not meet with wide acceptance later when they return to advance their education or attempt to attend graduate school.

Financial Aid & Accreditation

Federal financial aid such as grants and federally-backed student loans are only available if you go to an institution accredited by an organization recognized by the US Department of Education. But both nationally and regionally accredited schools qualify. This is one area where there is essentially no difference in the availability of financial aid.

Each school may also offer students some type of discount, grant, or scholarship, so as you are considering the affordability of programs, remember that many schools, especially public and private non-profit colleges and universities, can offer very good financial aid packages to students who need assistance. Don’t discount a more expensive school you like until you speak find out about possible financial aid. It is often at least worth it to put in an application for financial aid, which starts by filling out a FAFSA, and then see what other resources may help you pay for your education.

CONSUMER ALERT: Rising costs of education have resulted in many students taking out very high dollar amounts in student loans. It can be difficult to repay loans after completing a program, but especially if you don’t complete the degree or program you have started. If you do take out student loans as part of your financial plan to attend school, consider the type of loan carefully.

In 2001, a 23-year-old woman, Latesha Gonzalez, enrolled with Crown College in Tacoma, Wash. At the time, Crown College was accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT).

Gonzalez was assured when she enrolled with Crown that a local, regionally accredited school, Gonzaga University, would accept Crown courses as the equivalent of its own.

But when Gonzalez later attempted to transfer her coursework from Crown to Gonzaga, she was told by Gonzaga that it would not recognize credits earned from ACCSCT-accredited colleges.

Gonzalez sued Crown in 2004, as did a number of other disgruntled students. She eventually won the suit.

CONSUMER NOTE: The ACCSCT changed its name to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) in October 2009.

Transferring Credits Between Schools with Different Accreditation

One of the biggest differences between national and regional accreditation is in how easily student credits transfer. According to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 38% of students will transfer to another school at some point within six years of beginning post-secondary education. It is important to consider whether or not the credits will transfer.

Regionally accredited schools will often only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools. With the majority of institutions of higher education (85%) having regional accreditation, it is likely that if you transfer to another school later for more education, it will be a regionally accredited institution. If you have credits from a nationally accredited school, it is almost certain that they will not transfer.

However, if the first school you go to has regional accreditation, it is likely that some or all of your credits would transfer to either a regionally or nationally accredited program. If you are transferring from one nationally accredited program to another, you credits would also likely transfer.

Here is a quick guide to transferring credits. These credits are likely to transfer:

  • Regionally Accredited to Regionally Accredited
  • Regionally Accredited to Nationally Accredited
  • Nationally Accredited to Nationally Accredited

These credits almost never will transfer:

  • Nationally Accredited to Regionally Accredited

Not all classes will transfer, no matter where they are from. Each institution can decide whether or not to accept credits from similar classes. A student’s grade in the course may not be high enough or the course might be too different from the required course at their institution. You can’t count on every credit transferring in all situations.

Let’s say that you decide for now to get an associate’s degree from a nationally accredited school. Three years later, you decide you want to continue your education to get a bachelor’s degree at your local public university. The likelihood that any of your credits will transfer is very low. You may have to start at the beginning of the program, taking you longer and costing you more to complete your bachelor’s degree than if you could have transferred at least some of your credits. That would be a waste of money. It is hard to predict the future, but do consider the odds that you may want to continue your education later when you decide which type of school to enroll in now.

The average number of credits lost when transferring schools was 13, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. For students who transfer from a for-profit school, which is also more likely to be nationally rather than regionally ac credited, the credits lost ranged from 17-25. Making sure as much of your current education will count towards future degrees is something to consider, and it may play a factor in your school choice.

Nationally accredited online colleges score “better” on some criteria—affordability and ease of admission, most notably. If you are looking at a more technical or vocational subject of study, then a nationally accredited school may have the best programs for you.

Regionally accredited colleges score “better” on other dimensions, such as academic reputation, transfer of credit, and the widest possible acceptance by other universities. Regionally accredited programs all qualify for corporate tuition reimbursement, while nationally accredited schooling may not always have tuition benefits from employers.

Your education may have more cache and offer more flexibility for future academic attainment if you choose a regionally accredited program. But in a world where education almost always increase salaries, vocational education can also be a very smart move.

Decide which accreditation factor(s) matter most to you then choose your online degree program accordingly. All of the degrees in GetEducated’s database hold regional accreditation. Search the database here:

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