Guide To College Accreditation

On this page
Back to top

Accreditation is an extensive process that requires a school to meet complex standards set by independent agencies. It is a designation earned by institutions that voluntarily participate in an evaluation process to demonstrate that they meet predefined quality standards, thereby ensuring that the program or institution offers students a practical, high-quality education. This article is an in-depth guide to college accreditation that every student should read before applying for any college degree.

Guide To College Accreditation

What Does Accredited

What does accredited mean? Accreditation, meaning ‘the act of granting credit or recognition’, is a way to monitor and maintain the quality of an organization, product, or service. Usually used in the education context, it simply means that the institution in question maintains suitable and expected quality and delivery standards. Accreditation is especially important in education as it can determine if a student will be able to continue their studies at the next level. It is a status or approval that allows students to earn credit for courses taken at certain institutions that can easily be transferred to another institution or program. Furthermore, employers always prefer to hire candidates who have graduated from a school that has been appropriately recognized and accredited by an authorized accrediting agency.

Accreditation agencies do not have any administrative duties but instead, serve in an advisory capacity. They do this by holding institutions accountable for upholding accreditation standards established by the agency – standards which are frequently designed to achieve some or all of the following goals:

Maintaining Sound Educational Quality Throughout Institutions Of Education;
Promoting And Fostering Sound Educational Practice;
Assuring The Public Of The Integrity Of Education Provided By Institutions Of Education;
Enhancing The Mobility And Career Opportunities For Individual Students.

Unaccredited institutions are those that have not had their academic quality reviewed by any recognized agency.

Why Is Accreditation

Accreditation is important for several reasons, not least because it can determine whether a student will be able to continue their studies at the next level. In many U.S states, students who graduate from unaccredited institutions are not eligible for state financial assistance programs and cannot transfer their credits to other institutions. This can be a serious obstacle to educational advancement and severely limits employment opportunities.

Accreditation also helps students choose an appropriate school by ensuring that the institution is qualified and provides the classes and programs of study they need. Perhaps more important is that, in many locations, this is the only way to ensure that an institution’s credits are likely to be accepted by other institutions. Without accreditation, students may have difficulty completing a degree program or obtaining certification for a particular field.

For students, this means that credits from accredited schools transfer to other schools and universities more easily than those from unaccredited institutions. This is especially important when it comes to applying for federal student aid. To apply for federal student aid, one needs to know whether the school is regionally accredited or not. The eligibility for federal student aid will be limited if the school one plans to attend or is attending does not have regional accreditation.

With college accreditation in place, graduate students can receive financial assistance from Pell Grants and Stafford Loans programs. It is also noteworthy that graduate degrees cannot be completed at unaccredited institutions. Students who plan to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level should only enroll in programs at regionally accredited institutions. This is true whether they seek master’s degrees, clinical doctorate degrees, or doctoral degrees.

To sum up the importance of accreditation:

An institution’s accreditation can impact credit transfers from school to school. Credits or degrees from an institution are accepted for transfer by other colleges and universities in individual states.

Students enrolled in an accredited institution meet one of the eligibility criteria to seek federal financial aid funds.

Employers usually consider education qualifications that have been obtained only from accredited schools.

Students and employers can rest assured that accreditation confirms that an institution meets prescribed academic and quality standards.

Types Of

There are broadly two types of accreditations – Institutional Accreditation and Programmatic Accreditation, also known as Specialized Accreditation.

1. Institutional Accreditation

Institutional Accreditation is a sort of accreditation issued by regional authorities. It recognizes that an institution’s various components work together to achieve a common purpose. This type of accreditation is a voluntary process undertaken by a college or institution. The university requests that an accreditation agency evaluate its programs, faculty, and student success to see if they fulfill higher education standards. If the standards are met, the institution is accredited and reviewed regularly to ensure that the entire institution remains compliant. Within Institutional Accreditation, there are two sub-forms – National Accreditation and Regional Accreditation.

National Accreditation

Schools that focus on career or religious education typically receive national accreditation. Most nationally certified colleges are for-profit and offer vocational, career, or technical programs.

The role of national accrediting agencies is slightly varied. As the name implies, a National accrediting agency accredits colleges throughout the United States. They usually accredit for-profit vocational, technical, or career schools. While some organizations, like the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), specialize in institutional accreditation, others, like the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), provide both institutional and Programmatic Accreditation.

The transfer of credits earned is a major challenge for regional and national accrediting agencies. Nationally accredited schools frequently accept credits from other nationally certified colleges and regionally accredited schools. In most instances, regionally accredited colleges and universities will not accept credits from nationally accredited colleges and universities, and vice versa. Instead, schools will typically accept transfer credits from schools that share the same or similar accreditation because this demonstrates that their curriculums and standards are equivalent.

Regional Accreditation is a voluntary process by which institutions and universities demonstrate that their programs and degrees have met and continue to meet preset standards. Regional accrediting agencies cover various areas within the United States. While most of them cater to specific regions within the country, some of them serve overseas locations as well. They certify educational institutions at all levels – elementary, middle, high schools, colleges, and universities. Rather than technical or career-related schools, each of these bodies concentrates on certifying academically oriented, non-profit colleges. In all, six regional accrediting bodies accredit about 85% of all colleges in the U.S:

Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

covers and serves Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

covers and serves Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

covers and serves Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

covers and serves California, Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa.

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

covers and serves Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)

covers and serves Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

2. Programmatic Accreditation

Apart from the institute being accredited as a whole, individual programs within the institution may be accredited independently as well. This may be more crucial than institutional accreditation, depending on the career field one intends to enter. Psychology, education, medical specialty, engineering, and social work are just a few examples of disciplines where a student’s degree must be accredited independently of the university. Professional associations associated with that field of study undertake program-based accreditation, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) for Psychology or the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) for business. This certification ensures that the program of study satisfies the field’s standards for education and experience, ensuring that the student has the background necessary to succeed in their field.

Programmatic or Specialized Accreditation is also applied to programs that serve highly specialized populations, such as the armed forces or students with disabilities or specific learning disabilities, and is relatively common for certificate and license programs. This form of accreditation is usually provided by an industry association rather than an educational institution. For example, a national agency provides certification in the field of cosmetology. If someone holds this certificate, they are eligible to work as a beautician in many states. While the agency requires training and testing, it does not offer courses or programs of study.

Apart from these, there are several other accreditations, such as the CCNE accreditation, WASC accreditation (for schools), CACREP accreditation, etc., and ABET accredited programs, CARF accredited, CCNE accredited, NAEYC accredited, and more.

Regional Vs National

What exactly is the debate on Regional vs. National Accreditation? Simply put, regional accreditation differs from national accreditation. The key distinction is that credits obtained from regionally approved universities are more generally recognized and thus more readily transferred. Credits are earned in college in the same way that points are earned in a game. Students that gain enough points in a game advance to the next level. Earning different degrees is a way to level up in this game of college credits. Points from one game do not usually transfer to another, but credits do to other universities. Students attending online colleges should be aware of accreditation’s impact on their academic careers. Although national accreditation may sound more authoritative than regional accreditation, except in a few instances, regional accreditation is older, more popular, and more common than national accreditation. The majority of non-profit universities are regionally accredited rather than nationally accredited.

Regional AccreditationNational Accreditation
Evaluated by a regional agencyEvaluated by a national agency
Each of 6 agencies covers a specific regionNot based on region; serves the whole country
Compares against pre-defines standardsCompares against similar schools



Usually does not accept credits from nationally accredited institutions
Usually accepts credit from nationally and regionally accredited institutions

What Are The Advantages
Of Accreditation


While an education from regionally or nationally accredited schools may be required by some employers, such as the federal government, a programmatically approved degree may be required for students seeking work in professions such as education or psychology where certification and licensure are required.


To be eligible for federal financial aid, students must be enrolled in a regionally or nationally accredited college or university. If students must be eligible for federal financial aid, they must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As a result, regional or national certification is required for several state and private types of financial aid.


Regionally recognized graduate schools, for example, typically only accept students with degrees from regionally accredited programs when they apply to these programs for admission. The same holds for transferring students: only credits from other authorized colleges can be accepted by regionally accredited institutions. The rigor of their curriculum may be validated because both institutions have been assessed by a regulatory agency, allowing for seamless course credit transfer.

Who Accredits Colleges
And Universities?

Institutional accrediting agencies comprise national and regional accrediting agencies and specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies, generally organized as non-profit corporations, accredit universities, colleges, schools, and programs, depending on various factors. Each agency has its own guidelines and requirements for recognition, but they all cover academic programs against the same set of standards. Accreditation is overseen by institutions that share an interest in maintaining quality throughout educational institutions. For students, this means that credits from accredited schools transfer to other schools and universities more easily than those from unaccredited institutions. The process of regional school accreditation can take up to seven years, while the national accreditation process can take one or two years.

Accrediting agencies have boards composed entirely or predominantly of college and university presidents who represent the common interests of their institutions. Board members are elected by secret ballot and serve overlapping three-year terms. There is no paid staff, and all work, including technical reviews of schools and accrediting decisions, is done by volunteers who serve as peer reviewers.

The U.S. Department of Education does not provide college accreditation. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides a centralized process of accreditation for the recognition of educational quality by providing an independent evaluation of an institution or program against national standards.

Who Accredits Online

Most regionally accredited schools offer online programs and distance learning programs. Although accrediting agencies, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) may not specifically address online programs, it has now become a common practice for colleges to seek programmatic accreditation for online offerings as well. In general, however, if an online college accreditation is in place, it would be reasonably safe to assume that its on-campus and online programs are accredited. That said, certain programs, such as psychology, business, education, occupational therapy, etc., will have to be accredited by specialized accrediting agencies, even if the institution providing these programs is regionally or nationally accredited.

For schools that offer online programs that often come under the ambit of distance learning programs, students need to determine if the school is regionally accredited and if the program they are enrolling in is programmatically accredited (if necessary).

How To Find Out If A School
Is Accredited?

Many students ask, “how to find out if a school is accredited?”. Finding out whether a school or program is accredited or not is the foremost and crucial thing to do when enrolling in a program. The process of doing so is fairly simple. Students have a choice of several sources to check an institution’s or program’s accreditation status:

The College’s Website

Most accredited educational institutions will proudly and prominently display their accreditation status on the home page or other website pages. If a prospective student is looking for programmatic accreditation, the accreditation details will most likely be found on the program’s webpage.

The Accreditation Agency’s Website

Even if a school’s website purports to be certified, a shady school could lie about its accreditation status and post whatever they want on its website. Hence, students should also look at the accrediting agency’s website that has given the institution its accreditation and easily confirm its current accreditation status.

Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)

The Commission on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is an association of degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States that recognizes institutional and programmatic accrediting agencies. CHEA is the only national agency dedicated solely to accreditation, and quality assurance in higher education and is considered the “gold standard” for evaluating whether an institution or program meets national standards. It provides a list of nationally accredited schools on its website

U.S Department of Education

The U.S Department of Education maintains a database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs that have been reported directly by recognized accrediting agencies and state approval agencies. However, it is worth noting that the information available on this site is not audited, and therefore it cannot be guaranteed that it is accurate, current, or complete. Contacting the appropriate accrediting agency for the most accurate and current information is always advisable.

Important : Not all accrediting agencies need to be both the CHEA and U.S Department of Education approved. Accrediting agencies are recognized by
the Secretary of Education in each state.

Faqs About College

What Is Accreditation?

The purpose of accreditation is to verify that the education given by higher education institutions and/or programs is of acceptable quality. Accrediting agencies, which are regional or national private educational groups, create evaluation criteria and perform peer reviews to see if those requirements are met. Institutions and/or programs that request and meet an agency’s review requirements are subsequently “accredited” by that agency.

Why Does Accreditation Matter?

What Role Does Accreditation Play In A Distance Learning Context?

Does The U.S Department Of Education Specifically Recognize Or Accredit Online Colleges And Universities?

Can I Check For Accreditation With The U.S Department Of Education?

Can I Access Financial Aid And Transfer Credits If I Attend An Accredited College?

Can I Transfer Credits From One College To Another If They Have Different Accreditations?

Accredited Online Degrees And
Accredited Online Programs

Now that accreditation has been explained in detail, it is advisable to gain insight into online degrees and online programs. Here are some quick links to informative resources:

Additional Resources About Accredited
Colleges And Universities

While the CHEA is one of the best resources to refer to for more information on college accreditation, contacting or browsing the websites of accreditation agencies can help students make informed decisions when choosing a college or program.

“The following accrediting agencies are recognized by the Secretary as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit.” – U.S Department of Education

Accrediting Commission Of Career Schools And Colleges (ACCSE)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation of private, postsecondary, non-degree-granting institutions and degree-granting institutions in the United States, including those granting associate, baccalaureate, and master’s degrees, that are predominantly organized to educate students for occupational, trade, and technical careers, and including institutions that offer programs via distance education.

Michael McComis, Executive Director 2101 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 302 Arlington, Virginia 22201

Accrediting Council For Independent Colleges And Schools (ACICS)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation of private postsecondary institutions offering certificates or diplomas, and postsecondary institutions offering associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees in programs designed to educate students for professional, technical, or occupational careers, including those that offer those programs via distance education.

Michelle Edwards, President 1350 Eye Street, NW, Suite 560 Washington, DC 20005

Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation of postsecondary institutions in the United States that offer degree and/or non-degree programs primarily by the distance or correspondence education method up to and including the professional doctoral degree, including those institutions that are specifically certified by the agency as accredited for Title IV purposes.

Title IV Note: Only accredited institutions that are certified by the agency as accredited for Title IV purposes may use accreditation by this agency to establish eligibility of its degree and/or non-degree programs to participate in Title IV programs.

Leah K. Matthews, Executive Director 1101 17th Street NW, Suite 808 Washington, DC 20036 

Higher Learning Commission (HLC)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidate for Accreditation”) of degree-granting institutions of higher education in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, including the tribal institutions and the accreditation of programs offered via distance education and correspondence education within these institutions. This recognition extends to the Institutional Actions Council jointly with the Board of Trustees of the Commission for decisions on cases for continued accreditation or reaffirmation and continued candidacy, and to the Appeals Body jointly with the Board of Trustees of the Commission for decisions related to initial candidacy or accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, President 230 South LaSalle Street, Suite 7-500 Chicago, Illinois 60604-1413

Northwest Commission On Colleges And Universities (NWCCU)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidacy status”) of postsecondary degree-granting educational institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, and the accreditation of programs offered via distance education within these institutions.

Sonny Ramaswamy, President 8060 165th Avenue, NE, Suite 100 Redmond, Washington 98052

Middle States Commission On Higher Education (MSCHE)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidacy status”) of institutions of higher education in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and any other geographic areas in which the Commission elects to conduct accrediting activities within the United States including distance and correspondence education programs offered at those institutions.

Heather Perfetti, President 3624 Market Street Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

WASC Senior College And University Commission (WSCUC)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidate for Accreditation”) of senior colleges and universities in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, including distance education programs offered at those institutions.

Jamienne S. Studley, President 985 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 100 Alameda, California 94501

Southern Association Of Colleges And Schools, Commission On Colleges 


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidate for Accreditation”) of degree-granting institutions of higher education in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, including the accreditation of programs offered via distance and correspondence education within these institutions. The accreditation status and their recognition extend to the SACSCOC Board of Trustees and the Appeals Committee of the College Delegate Assembly on cases of initial candidacy or initial accreditation and for continued accreditation or candidacy.

Belle Wheelan, President 1866 Southern Lane Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097

New England Commission Of Higher Education (NECHE)


Scope of recognition: the accreditation and pre-accreditation (“Candidacy status”) of institutions of higher education in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont that award bachelor’s, master’s, and/or doctoral degrees and associate degree-granting institutions in those states that include degrees in liberal arts or general studies among their offerings, including the accreditation of programs offered via distance education within these institutions.

Lawrence Schall, President 3 Burlington Woods Drive, Suite 100 Burlington, Massachusetts 01803-4514