What is the Purpose of Accreditation? 

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Updated: March 21, 2024, Reading time: 11 minutes

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A degree in college is probably one of the biggest investments anybody will ever make. A college accreditation will provide the guarantee that your money and time are going to a reputable school that offers top-notch, quality education.

Purpose of Accreditation - fact
College Cliffs is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

The Importance of Accreditation

With so many programmatic and institutional accrediting agencies actively operating in the US today, incoming college students might get overwhelmed with the choices on what accreditation their preferred institution should have. Understanding everything about accreditation, from its process to the many types, can help prospective students and families make more informed and better college choices. 

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A college accreditation is a rigorous peer review process that sets and maintains educational standards for colleges and universities. Schools bearing this seal of approval ensure the students that the program and school provide solid educational value.

In an accreditation review, an independent nongovernmental agency duly recognized by the US Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education (CHEA). During the accreditation process, accrediting agencies consider several questions, including:

The Benefits of Accreditation

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An accreditation process offers many powerful benefits and advantages for students, colleges, and universities. Here are some of them. 

Finding a Reputable Institution

Having an accreditation allows schools to provide their validity to prospective students. As a learner, you can feel confident that duly accredited schools not only provide solid educational quality but also meet recognized rigorous standards. 

Paying For College

Students enrolled at an accredited college have instant access to different education funding sources. Only those attending accredited schools are qualified for federal student loans and federal and state grants. Workplaces that offer employee tuition assistance also require their scholars to be enrolled at an accredited school.

Landing A Job

In most cases, employers prefer to hire job applicants that come from accredited schools. Just as a college accreditation signifies that the school provides a rigorous and relevant quality education, this also signals employers the same message. 

Transferring Credits

Universities and colleges only accept transfer credentials from accredited schools. Students who apply to programs with specialized accreditation are allowed to transfer their credits from other programs, provided that the same programmatic accreditor approves it. 

Earning Professional Credentials 

Most of the career-advancing certifications require candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree with programmatic and institutional accreditation. Furthermore, certain professionals, like nurses, accountants, and public school teachers, need to earn an accredited degree to qualify for state licensure. 

National vs. Regional Accreditation

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Historically, ED and CHEA divided institutional accreditation agencies into two: national and regional. Regional accreditation agencies typically operate in specific areas and serve academically oriented schools, and this type of accreditation upholds more rigorous academic standards. National accreditors, on the other hand, assess schools all across the country and focus strongly on religious or vocational institutions.

In 2020, the US Department of Education imposed a regulation that significantly changed this type of framework. The regulations suspended regional distinctions, meaning any university or college can apply for approval from any institutional accrediting agency, no matter where the location is. 

In this mandate, all institutional accrediting agencies are now “national” since they are no longer confined to evaluating schools in their home regions only. While the “regional” accreditation is now more of a legal distinction, this term still plays a relevant role in the accreditation process. 

Things to Consider

How do Colleges Earn Their Accreditation? 

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The whole accreditation process is very exacting and lengthy. During the initial self-study stage, the school will review the accrediting agency’s standards and create a written report that evaluates how the school performs relative to these standards.

An independent volunteer panel, composed of college stakeholders like administrators and faculty members, follows next. They assess whether the self-evaluation is accurate and whether the school meets the accreditation criteria. During this stage, a site visit is typically essential. 

Finally, based on the panel’s findings and the school’s self-study, the accreditation agency will decide to grant, deny, or defer accreditation. Once the school earns an accreditation, it is expected to adhere continuously to the standards set by the accrediting agency. They are also expected to submit regular reports and undergo regular restatement of their accreditation status. 

For schools that fail to meet the accreditation requirements, they can earn a “candidacy” pre-accreditation status after they go through peer review and self-study. During this period, the school is expected to undergo periodic reviews and submit annual reports for a set period, usually five years. 

Who Decides Which Schools Are Accredited? 

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The US Department of Education does top-level accreditation. They use a rigorous process in assessing national and regional accreditors. These accreditation agencies then evaluate colleges and universities for legitimacy and quality. Each school should be accredited once every five years. While the USDE keeps an official record of all accredited schools, it does not perform accreditation checks, nor does it award credentials to individual schools. 

Aside from the USDE, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also accredits accrediting agencies. Their site is also a perfect resource for verifying the legitimacy of schools. 

Can a School Lose Its Accreditation? 

Can a school lose its accreditation

Any school can fail its accreditation application if the review process finds the school doesn’t meet the criteria of the accrediting agency. However, the school can still reapply after they address and fix their issues and ensure that they meet the needed requirements. Accreditation agencies can also put an application on “deferred” status to allow schools more time to adhere to accreditation standards. 

After a school earns an accreditation, it must religiously prove its compliance with the standards set by the accrediting agency. This can be done by disclosing substantial changes and submitting periodic reports. If they fail to live up to the standards of the accrediting agency, the school is at risk of losing its accreditation over time. 

Once an accrediting agency finds out that a school is no longer compliant, it releases a sanction, giving the school some time—ideally two years—to help solve the problem. If the school still fails to address its issues after the set time, the agency can withdraw the school’s accreditation or lengthen the sanction period to give the school more time to improve. 

A school can also lose its accreditation if its accreditor loses ED or CHEA recognition, as happened in 2022 when the US Department of Education reversed its accreditation approval of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. 

Is There an Accreditation for Online Colleges? 

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Once a school earns its accreditation, the status will apply to both its on-campus offerings and online programs. The whole accreditation process needs an institution to show that it has adequate support resources, relevant curricular content, positive student outcomes across all the program offerings, and qualified instructors, both remote and face-to-face. 

One of the most recognized accreditations, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, concentrates on distance-learning schools. Still, accredited online colleges do not necessarily need online-specific credentials. Instead, they apply to any institutional accrediting agency. 

What is the Financial Model of College Accreditors?

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Accreditors can earn revenue from the schools they oversee. Colleges and universities pay annual dues to their accreditors based on their expenditures and student enrollment. Schools will also pay fees to accrediting agencies for doing reviews. 

The funds that accrediting agencies college from the schools they oversee make up a huge portion of the revenues. For example, roughly 70% of the annual revenues gathered by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities are coming from the colleges it accredits. Critics strongly suggested that the financial dependence of these accreditors on the schools they are accrediting is a possible conflict of interest, which is why accreditors will definitely have a financial interest in granting accreditation to as many institutions as possible. 

How Often Do College Accreditors Withdraw or Deny Accreditation? 

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Accreditation agencies can make many decisions in terms of accreditation, including denial, termination, approvals, or approvals with warnings or conditions, sanctions or probation. But, the majority of colleges and universities that undergo an accreditation process generally receive approval regardless of their student outcomes. 

What is the Role of the US Department of Education in Overseeing Accreditors? 

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According to the Higher Education Act (HEA), it is the role of the US Department of Education to ‘recognize’ accrediting agencies. ED has no authority to manage accrediting agencies directly. For example, the ED cannot impose specific standards for student outcomes that agencies must use. Rather, they can only deny, approve, renew, suspend, limit, or terminate an accrediting agency’s recognition status. 

The education department is responsible for both reevaluating accreditors who have been granted recognition and evaluating new applicants for recognition. Identified accreditors are to apply for continued accreditation recognition at least once every five years.  

Does the Law Require College Accreditation? 

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An accreditation process is not required by law. In fact, it is only a voluntary process and not a mandatory requirement. Universities may apply for accreditation, whether they are public or private, non-profit or for-profit institutions. However, some schools may choose not to. 

With that, college accreditation is required by the federal government for a program, university, or college for all students to become eligible for loans, federal grants, and other federal funds. Conversely, accreditation is a prerequisite for state governments so they can make state funds available. This also allows students to undergo state licensure exams in some professional programs. 

How Important is Accreditation to Future Employers? 

How important is accreditation to future employers

Employers always find ways to remain effective in their employees’ hiring and training process. In some cases, this standard to help optimize efficiency always leads to hiring restrictions—for example, students who earned their program from accredited universities have more edge than those who come from non-accredited schools.

With this type of mindset of an employer, it becomes easier for them to find more skilled and prepared candidates by choosing those that have the best education from a highly-respected university. 

Are There Differences Between an On-Campus and Online Accreditation?

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Both employers and students understand that online schools provide the same level of quality education as brick-and-mortar schools. But how about accreditation? Do schools offering online programs have easier standards to follow, knowing they have no in-class students? No. 

Online schools undergo the exam same testing and evaluation process to receive their accreditation as traditional on-campus universities. This will ensure students that the quality of education they receive will remain top-notch regardless of where and when they prefer to take classes. 

How do You Know if a College or University is Accredited? 

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After you have a general idea of the importance of a college accreditation, what they are for, and why they matter, you may be questioning, “How will I check if a college is accredited or not?”

The best way to check a school’s accreditation status is to start with the university’s website. Accredited schools generally list their status publicly to allow students to check that they meet the standards.

However, it’s also wise to use the online tool of the US Department of Education and look up schools on your own. Through the tool, you can find out more about institutional accreditations and individual program accreditations, so you will have all the information you need before you select your educational path. 

What Will Happen if Your School Loses Its Accreditation?

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If you have already earned your college degree, the legitimacy of the degree will firmly hold, regardless of whether your school eventually loses accreditation down the line. However, if you are presently enrolled in a school that has lost its accreditation recently, here’s what will happen:

When a school loses accreditation, it is also unlikely for you to receive any tuition reimbursement. At this point, your only option is to transfer to another accredited institution. 

Additional Information: