A college degree can open new doors, increase your earning potential, and show employers that you’re deeply committed to learning and growing. The primary benefit of a college degree doesn’t come from the piece of paper, though; the value lies in what you learn in school. Accredited colleges meet certain basic standards that ensure you’ll get a quality education, increase the odds that your classes will transfer, and may command more respect from employers. This means that any program you enroll in will be reputable and teach you the skills you need to be successful both in and out of the workplace.
Here’s what you need to know about the college accreditation process.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a comprehensive process whereby an independent evaluator assesses a school. This process uses established criteria to measure quality, then compares what a school offers to these requirements. Initial accreditation may take several years. Thereafter, a school must maintain this status by meeting certain standards.
Unlike some other countries, the U.S. government does not regulate or accredit colleges and universities. Instead, it relies on independent private agencies to investigate institutions of higher learning. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of approved accrediting bodies. These agencies must submit to a rigorous investigation process that includes details about its:
- Operational policies
- Accreditation processes and standards
- On-site evaluation policies
- Decision-making policies
- Training and educational materials for evaluators
- Financial auditing process
- Institutional bylaws and governing agreements
- Complaint process
Why should universities be accredited?
Without accreditation, virtually any organization can call itself a college or university. The college accreditation process ensures that a school meets certain minimum standards, thereby protecting students’ investment and increasing the odds that they get a good education that prepares them for the workforce.
Students who enroll in unaccredited universities face many hurdles. They include:
- Trouble paying for school. The U.S. Department of Education will not approve loans for unaccredited colleges.
- Lower return on investment. An unaccredited school may not offer a quality education. Employers who know this may be unwilling to hire graduates. This presents a serious problem to students who must pay for their degree out of pocket rather than with loans or grants.
- Higher dropout rate. Unaccredited schools often do very little to retain their students. Students may leave because they feel unsupported or because they do not find their courses useful. One recent analysis found that 90 percent of enrollees in unaccredited law schools leave school.
- Limited career preparation. A college degree is more than just a piece of paper. It shows that a person has completed a rigorous program and gained the necessary skills to succeed in specific careers. When employers know that a college is unaccredited, they may not hire its graduates. Even when graduates are able to get a job, they may be poorly prepared.
- Challenges transferring to another school. In most cases, a school must be regionally accredited for coursework to transfer. Without this accreditation, the school to which a student transfers has no way of knowing whether a student’s prior academic work meets certain basic standards.
- Licensure difficulties. Students who pursue professional licenses may have trouble getting licensed if their degree is from an unaccredited college.
- Difficulty applying or being accepted to graduate or professional school. Graduate, law, and medical schools are unlikely to accept a degree from an unaccredited college. This means that pursuing an education at the wrong school could thwart long-term educational ambitions.
Regional vs. national accreditation: what’s the difference?
A wide range of accrediting bodies investigate colleges and universities, as well as specific programs of study within a school. Although any accreditation suggests that a school has met some minimum standards, regional and national accolades are distinct.
Regional accreditation is an older and more widely respected process. Students who attend schools with this designation face fewer barriers to success. Their classes are also much more likely to transfer to another school.
National accreditation, by contrast, is a newer process usually reserved for trade schools and certification programs. A school with a regional accreditation may offer some programs that are also nationally accredited, especially if the school provides vocational education.
Overall, 85 percent of colleges and universities are regionally accredited, while just 15 percent have a national accreditation.
Though neither is inherently better than the other, students attending traditional four-year colleges should ensure their school is at least regionally accredited. It is also helpful to learn as much as possible about the accrediting body and the accreditation process itself, especially if the school is a newer one.
What types of accreditation can universities qualify for?
Dozens of organizations offer accreditation. However, six bodies play the most prominent role in the process, including:
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- The Higher Learning Commission
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- The Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Schools become eligible for accreditation with a specific body based on their location. For example, The Higher Learning Commission accredits Midwestern schools, including SNU.
While a school may hold several accreditations, the most important one comes from these regional accrediting bodies. Students whose schools are not accredited through one of these organizations may not get a quality education and may struggle to get loans and transfer credits.
What should students look for in an accredited college?
The most important thing students must know about accreditation is whether a school is regionally accredited. Those interested in learning more about the accreditation process should also ask:
- Does the school or program have any additional accreditations, and what are they?
- How long has the school been accredited?
- If the school has a national or lesser-known accreditation in addition to its regional accreditation, what is the accreditation process?
- Has the school ever lost accreditation?
A few other pieces of information can also help students assess institutional quality. They include:
- What percentage of students get financial aid?
- What percentage of students graduate?
- What does the school do to support struggling students?
- Who teaches classes, and what are their qualifications?
- Do other schools typically accept transfer credits from this school?
How does accreditation affect a student’s education?
Accreditation affects every aspect of a student’s college experience. It verifies that the school offers quality coursework taught by skilled instructors who hold students to reasonable standards. Choosing a regionally accredited school means that:
- An independent accrediting body has investigated the school and its programs and has found that students get a quality education.
- The instructors at the school are well-qualified to teach.
- The school has established consistent and fair procedures and policies to provide excellent education.
- Employers are likely to hire applicants who graduate from this school.
- Other schools respect this school and will probably accept all or most of a student’s transfer credits.
- A student will be eligible for student loans and other forms of financial assistance.
- The school is compliant with laws that prevent discrimination and other forms of abuse.
- The student will graduate with a specific body of knowledge. The course offerings at an unaccredited school may be inconsistent and vary greatly in quality.
The effects of accreditation after graduation
College accreditation doesn’t just affect students as they pursue a degree. It can have far-reaching implications that extend well beyond graduation. Students who graduate from unaccredited schools may spend thousands of dollars on a degree that offers little value. They may not be well-qualified to enter the working world.
SNU is zealously committed to its students. We offer a top-notch education while treating enrollees as whole people. We aim to help you uncover new passions, cultivate new skills, and leave school prepared for a fulfilling life that enriches the world around you. We are regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. We welcome questions about our standards and programs because we believe every entrant deserves the best possible academic preparation. Contact us to learn more about our unique and diverse learning options.