College is an investment in your future, and it’s an expensive undertaking. Like any big purchase, it’s wise to ensure you’re getting a high-quality product or service before you buy. That’s what accrediting agencies do. Technically, these groups are agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as authorities on determining the quality of a college or university’s programs. They are private entities, can be regional or national in scope, and can use whatever standards they wish in order to measure quality of education at a school. Accreditation can be given to a single degree program or to an entire school.
Why Does Accreditation Matter?
Accreditation is extremely important, especially if you are considering an undergraduate degree in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor or dentist that didn’t have the right training, or drive across a bridge designed by an engineer who hasn’t learned physics or structural mechanics. Accreditation affects other degree programs, too, including agricultural sciences and even the liberal arts. You wouldn’t buy food from a farmer who didn’t know how to conduct a soil test, and you wouldn’t study philosophy with a professor who didn’t have a full understanding of world history. The stamp of approval from an accreditation agency lets you know you’ll get a well-rounded, thorough education in the field of your choice.
Accreditation is also important to employers, especially when you’re seeking an entry-level job after graduation. Imagine you’re an employer, considering two evenly-matched candidates for a job. Both are smart, motivated, enthusiastic and personable. One went to an accredited school, the other didn’t. Which candidate are you going to pick?
How Do Colleges and Universities Earn Accreditation?
Accreditation agencies develop sets of criteria for judging the quality of a school. Then they conduct a peer evaluation to determine whether or not the criteria are being met. Schools seek out accreditation on a voluntary basis, and usually spend months preparing for application and review. Once the review is complete, most colleges and universities will publish the fact that they’re accredited and feature it prominently in recruiting materials.
Are Some Agencies Better Than Others?
Since accreditation agencies are private, they can determine their own set of standards for judging a school’s programs. Naturally, those standards vary from agency to agency and some of those standards are definitely higher than others. The Department of Education is required to publish a list of accreditation agencies recognized by the government, and though these agencies aren’t required to pursue that recognition, the most prestigious accrediting agencies are linked to the most prestigious programs and academic institutions. It’s also worth mentioning that accreditation can be given to a single degree program or to an entire school.
What Are the Most Recognized Accreditation Agencies?
Some of the most easily recognized and most specialized accreditation agencies on the Department of Education (DOE) list have instantly familiar names. The American Bar Association, the American Dental Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges are only a few such agencies. Others are less well-known to the general public but are highly respected in certain professions, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, among many, many others.
What About Online Universities and Colleges?
As the popularity of distance learning grows by leaps and bounds, online universities have sprung up to meet the demand. Accreditation is just as important to these schools as it is to their brick-and-mortar counterparts, and perhaps more so. Part of the reason for this is that almost anything can be bought or sold on the internet, and that’s always a risk of fraud for the buyer. The DOE has responded by publishing a list of distance education accreditation agencies, which is easy to find on internet search engines. Additionally, many established accreditation agencies now include accreditation for distance learning “annexes” of brick-and-mortar institutions in the application process.
Are There Fake Accrediting Agencies?
There are many fly-by-night accrediting agencies out there, many of them online. Keep in mind that the DOE does not recognize international accreditation agencies, only regional and national agencies in the United States. Beware of schools that tout accreditation from agencies that are not on the DOE list, and don’t be fooled by official-sounding names. It’s worth the few minutes it takes to check it out!
If you want an undergraduate degree, and whether you plan to attend online or on campus, choosing a college or university will determine your educational and financial course for the next four years. It’s a substantial investment of time and money, so keep accreditation high on your list of requirements. As with most things in life, it is best to check the facts before making your choice!