Accreditation Guide For Online Colleges and Universities

Accreditation is a quality assurance process that sets and evaluates standards in educational services and operations. In most countries, accreditation for higher education is granted by government agencies, such as the Department of Education, but in the United States, private non-profit groups conduct accreditation procedures. These groups are peer-reviewed, which means that evaluations are exclusively conducted by faculty and staff who work in higher education. These peer-operated groups are certified by the Council for Higher Education Administration (CHEA), a non-governmental organization made up of roughly 3,000 academic institutions, which grants certification to approximately 60 accreditation organizations.

An Overview of Regional and National Accreditation

The U.S. Secretary of Education is required to publish a list of legitimate accreditation organizations operating at both the national and regional levels. Regional accreditation is divided among six geographically determined associations (New England, Middle States, Southern, North Central, Western, and Northwestern) throughout the United States. Regional accreditation applies to the entire educational institution, rather than specific programs, and is predominantly awarded to non-profit, academically-oriented schools. National accreditation does not take geographic location into account, and sometimes applies worldwide. National accreditation organizations usually assess vocational, career-oriented, or trade schools, many of which specialize in a specific field. The majority of institutions accredited nationally are for-profit and private schools.

Many critics of national accreditation claim the standards are much lower than those of regional accreditation organizations. For this reason, vocational or trade schools are often not as reputable as regionally accredited colleges and universities; additionally, many regionally accredited universities do not accept transfer credits from nationally accredited schools.

Schools often seek national accreditation because it is more financially accessible. The regional accreditation process is extremely expensive: application and candidacy cost at least $10,000 apiece. That means school officials will spend more than $20,000 before the regional accreditors even assess their campus in-person—and these visits can also be phenomenally expensive. Finally, annual dues are high; prices are determined by adding a base fee to the school’s income and annual expenditures.

Earning national accreditation, on the other hand, is much less expensive — generally a quarter of the total cost of regional accreditation.

Considering the huge price gap, it is not always in a vocational or career-oriented school’s best interests to pursue regional accreditation. For this reason, it is somewhat unreasonable to peg all nationally accredited schools as fake or less prestigious as their regionally accredited counterparts. Rather, the choice between national and regional accreditation usually signifies a difference in priorities.

Type of accreditation notwithstanding, the process of submitting an application, being considered for candidacy, and receiving a campus assessment from the accreditation committee must be incrementally repeated. There is always a chance that a school can lose its accreditation, though that is a rare occurrence. If current or prospective students are concerned about their school’s status, then they are encouraged to check with the regional or national agency that is responsible for that institution’s status. If the school loses accreditation while the student is currently enrolled, then he or she may lose financial aid or be unable to transfer credits to another college or university.

Beware Diploma Mills Offering False Degrees

It is more common for schools to falsely claim accreditation or fake their credentials than to lose their official national or regional accreditation. Many unaccredited schools will claim accreditation from phony organizations or flout legal authorization in order to grant fake degrees. Colleges and universities can legally grant degrees and certificates without receiving accreditation from an official agency, and this is a major red flag for students who are exploring potential schools. The Maine Department of Education provides an exhaustive list of unaccredited educational institutions that grant degrees and certificates of questionable value.

There is also the risk of educational institutes receiving accreditation from agencies not recognized by CHEA; in many cases, these bogus accreditation organizations are created by the very schools that cite them. These schools are referred to as “diploma mills.” Citing accreditation makes valueless degrees appear more desirable to degree-seekers. Fraudulent accreditation entities are often cited along with reputable national accreditation organizations and the six regional accreditation organizations to increase the marketability of phony degrees. Any accreditation organizations that sound suspicious should be researched. This article from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers discusses some of the most commonly cited fraudulent accreditation organizations. Keep in mind, however, that the only comprehensive list of national and regional accreditation organizations can be found in CHEA’s directory.

Online university programs require more background research than their ‘brick-and-mortar’ counterparts. One important point to keep in mind is that web-based programs do not provide the comfort of in-person, direct communication. Online services should go out of their way to offer assistance and ensure you will receive all of the information and support you need without being pushy or demanding. Looking for the right attitude in admissions personnel and recruiters is a crucial step when researching online options. U.S. News & World Report is a valuable resource for prospective e-learners.

Schools that operate exclusively or partially online are accredited through the state in which they operate. Since the accreditation process is the same for all applicants, web-based degree programs from regionally accredited schools and brick-and-mortar programs receive equal levels of recognition. The official website for the U.S. Department of Education allows users to check the accreditation status of their online university using a comprehensive database. If you expect to start with an online program and eventually transfer credits to brick-and-mortar university, then nationally accredited programs may be a risky choice. As a rule, regionally accredited schools, online or otherwise, are the best choice for students hoping to transfer credits to another institution.

Learn About Regional Accreditation Agencies

Regional accreditation is a peer-reviewed process conducted by one of six geographically determined accreditation bodies located throughout the United States. Between 1885 and 1923, each of the six regional accreditation organizations formed organically as the need arose for more accountability among degree-granting institutions. Today, regionally accredited schools adhere to high standards for faculty credentials, admissions requirements, and research facilities. In some states, regional accreditation determines the right to use the words ‘university’ or ‘college’ in the title of the school. Each of the six regional accreditation bodies utilize different processes for granting and maintaining accreditation.

The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Higher Education (MSCHA) currently accredits 529 colleges and universities throughout Washington D.C., Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. MSCHA accreditation is granted after a candidacy period that may last up to five years, during which the school is evaluated through self-study reports and on-site interviews. Self-study is an initiative taken by the school and led by a steering committee that prepares a comprehensive report for MSCHA evaluators. These evaluators are professionals who are usually from the region and have extensive experience in institutions similar to the one under review; in most cases, they participate on a voluntary basis. After accreditation is granted, the self-study is continually conducted every 10 years.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accredits more than 300 colleges and universities through its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. NEASC operates throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. In order to be considered for accreditation by NEASC, an institution must match the organization’s requirements of affiliation. The institution must also face stringent evaluation procedures during the candidacy period, and prepare reports similar to MSCHA’s self-study reports. Candidate institutions are required to qualify for accreditation within five years of receiving candidacy status. NEASC conducts comprehensive evaluations on the institutions it accredits every 10 years. Additionally, NEASC also requires institutions to prepare a report within five years of initial accreditation that outlines past activities and forecasts expectations leading up to the next comprehensive evaluation.

The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), through its Higher Learning Commission, accredits more than 1,000 colleges and universities throughout Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In order to receive NCA accreditation, institutions begin a candidacy process lasting up to nine years. During the fourth year of this process, the NCA visits the campus to determine whether it has matched affiliation eligibility requirements and meets all the criteria for accreditation. If the institution has not met these expectations, candidacy is extended and the process is repeated the following year. Due to the length of the candidacy stage, each qualifying institute receives on-site evaluations from the NCA to ensure it is making reasonable progress.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) accredits 163 colleges and universities throughout Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. Institutions interested in affiliation with NWCCU must submit an extensive application detailing their adherence to NWCCU’s eligibility requirements. After accepting the initial application, interested institutions must prepare a self-study report in order to gain candidacy. Once this is granted, NWCCU requires yearly reports and administers bi-annual on-site evaluations. Accreditation eligibility is determined by analyzing the institution’s records between two self-study reports conducted three and seven years after eligibility for NWCCU accreditation, and can only be granted after thorough consultation with the NWCCU President. After receiving initial accreditation, institutions must prepare for a third-year self-study, followed by a fifth-year on-campus visit from the NWCCU. After these initial third- and fifth-year accreditation retention requirements, review occurs every 10 years and is complemented by self-study reports every five years.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredits more than 700 colleges and universities through its Commission on Colleges (COC). Its areas of operations include Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Institutions interested in accreditation through COC must send representatives to attend an application workshop in order to prepare their institution for the process of evaluation, candidacy, and COC campus visits. After the workshop, institutions must take preparation time before applying (anywhere from several months to a year), and then submit an application for membership. If approved, the COC will send a candidacy committee to visit the institution’s campus(es), which will collect data and present its findings to the accreditation board. After accepting the institution for candidacy, the board designates an accreditation committee to visit the qualifying institution within two years to determine accreditation eligibility. If the committee does not grant the institution accreditation within four years, then the institution must re-apply for candidacy. Initial accreditation is awarded for five years before re-accreditation is conducted.

Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accredits over 150 colleges and universities throughout the states of California and Hawaii, as well as the US territories of Guam, American Samoa, and Northern Marianas Islands. WASC Accreditation occurs in three stages: Eligibility, Candidacy, and Initial Accreditation. Before applying for eligibility, the interested institution must provide a notification describing the intent to apply. The application is submitted through an applicant portal. A conference call with a representative from the applicant institute follows. If approved, the institution is granted eligibility for a four-year period, during which they are able to apply for candidacy. After applying for candidacy, WASC conducts on-site evaluations to determine whether an institution meets accreditation requirements. Candidacy status lasts for four years, with periodic campus evaluations and annual reports, culminating in a self-study evaluated to determine eligibility for initial accreditation. Initial accreditation lasts for seven years before review for continued WASC Affiliation.

Understand the National Accreditation Process

National accreditation bodies, like regional accrediting organizations, recognize colleges and universities that grant associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, as well as certificates. Unlike regional accreditation organizations, which are criticized for analyzing academic input rather than fiscal and employment output, national accreditation bodies strive to accredit career-oriented colleges and vocational schools. Another major difference is that national accreditation bodies vary in specialty, and often accredit specific programs rather than entire institutions. The more reputable national accrediting bodies, however, recognize the entire institution. The number of national accreditors is also much higher. The national accreditation bodies covered below accredit by institution, and are among the most reputable.

The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) accredits roughly 800 institutions across the United States. It determines accreditation not only by evaluating what it calls the “infrastructure” supporting the programs, but also by measuring the outcomes of graduates. In order to apply for accreditation with ACCSC, a school must fulfill several requirements. If these are met, then the on-site director of the school must attend an ACCSC workshop, where they will learn how to submit the application for initial accreditation. After review and approval, the school will submit a second application; this is followed by two official campus visits by ACCSC personnel to assess progress the school has made since the initial application was submitted. Once approval has been granted following the second visit, the institution receives accreditation. Schools accredited by ACCSC are required to submit annual reports to retain their official status.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools(ACICS) accredits more than 900 schools throughout the United States and several foreign countries. Its requirements for accreditation are dedication to education, financial security, legal approval for licensing, two years of successful operation, and at least seven graduates in three years. The accreditation process lasts nine to 18 months, and there is no candidacy period. First, the interested institution must complete a self-assessment checklist and register data such as demographics, enrollment, employment, and the official mission statement to an online portal. ACICS then analyzes the data provided; if minimum requirements for accreditation are met, then the ACICS invites the institution to purchase and submit an application for initial accreditation. Following two evaluative campus visits, a report is submitted to the ACICS Intermediate Review Council ACICS, which is made up of 15 commissioners. If the report is approved, then the school is granted initial accreditation. Accreditation is maintained through annual institutional and financial reports.

The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accredits more than 100 institutions throughout 21 U.S. States and seven countries. DETC started as the National Home Study Council, which accredited correspondence programs for trade expertise. It was founded to ensure quality in non-campus-based educational programs and to protect students from fraud. Institutions interested in accreditation from DETC must first obtain the organization’s official handbook, review the application requirements, and designate a school employee to complete the online accreditation course that enables him or her to become a compliance officer; this title remains in place throughout the year-long accreditation process. The officer then submits a Self-Evaluation Report (SER) outlining the institution’s mission statement, successes, student outcomes, and challenges. This step usually takes between two and nine months to complete. Afterward, the institution submits the SER with the application for accreditation. DETC officials then determine whether or not the institution is prepared for an on-site visit, which consists of an assessment of course materials, student surveys, and business practice observation. An on-site examiner committee, which prepares a report and submits it to an elected committee chairperson, is appointed. After the chairperson and the institution exchange letters concerning the SER, the visitation report, and the institution’s progress, accreditation is granted. Most parts of this process are repeated every five years.

The Council on Occupational Education (COE) originally began as a regional accreditation organization for the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools. In 1995, the organization became national and began specializing in accrediting schools that offer certificate and associate degree programs. Today, the COE accredits roughly 400 career-oriented educational institutions throughout the United States. In order to earn accreditation, institutions must send a letter informing the COE of its intent and submit the application. A two-day campus visit is then conducted, during which the COE evaluates the institution for candidate status and provides applicants with the information they need to prepare for self-study. After the visit, the COE approves the institution for candidate status. During candidacy, the institution and COE exchange letters pertaining to campus visitation reports and the institution’s self-study. A satisfactory correspondence results in accreditation. The re-accreditation process recurs at most schools every six years.

The Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Commission on Accreditation accredits more than 100 biblical schools and institutes throughout the United States and Canada. To become accredited by ABHE, an institution must undergo a three-part process: application, candidacy, and accreditation. Applicant status is granted to institutions that meet minimum requirements for accreditation eligibility, and demonstrate the potential to achieve candidacy within four years. Candidacy status is awarded to institutions that submit annual reports logging their progress toward accreditation. During the fourth year of candidacy, the school submits a self-study to the ABHE candidacy committee prior to the campus visit. During the accreditation stage, the institution undergoes evaluations by ABHE committees ensuring that academic rigor, evangelism, and a clear, faith-based mission are all being upheld. These evaluations are repeated every 10 years after initial accreditation.

The Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) accredits more than 220 training institutes and career colleges throughout the United States. The process of accreditation begins with an online registration, followed by a letter of intent to apply (which acknowledges that an institution meets the minimum requirements for eligibility). The school must then send representatives to an ACCET accreditation workshop designed to teach staff and faculty how to prepare the Analytic Self-Evaluation Report (ASER). An examination team is then deployed to the institution in question, and prepare a report intended to complement the ASER. After review from an ACCET accreditation commission, accreditation is granted to the institution for a maximum of five years before the institution must submit an application for re-accreditation.