One of the very first steps any prospective online student should take before enrolling is to verify whether or not the school and the online degree is accredited. And most importantly, you need to ask: Is it accredited by a recognized and legitimate accrediting agency?

Simply put, accreditation is a process of ensuring that an academic institution and the degree programs they offer meet the strictest educational standards set by accrediting agencies. In the United States, online, on-campus, and blended degree programs are open for accreditation.

A concept started in America, accreditation is a voluntary action initiated by the institution to subject the school and its educational curriculum to rigorous evaluation. Colleges and universities go into the process voluntarily. It entails self-evaluation and independent appraisal of the overall quality of education by peers in the academia.

Because it is voluntary, successful accreditation offers a wealth of benefits. More than anything, being accredited validates the quality of education offered by the institution. It also demonstrates their commitment to pursue long-term growth and improvement in their teaching curricula.

Why is Accreditation Important?

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

A Ph.D. is the highest educational degree you can earn, it is crucial that you attend a reputable institution. To best way to ascertain the status of your school is through accreditation. The seal of accreditation is a recognition that the institution has pledged to maintain the standards of education for their students and graduates. It confers legitimacy as to the extent and capacity of the institution to participate in state and federal initiated programs, including financial aid programs that many graduate students rely on. An unaccredited graduate program does not qualify for federal and state funding because they operate without due recognition.

Aside from being qualified for federal or state financial grant, the primary purpose of the accreditation process is to improve the institution’s academic commitment through high-quality education and public accountability. Accreditation, in fact, is a continuing process of quality control that takes place every five to ten years. As provided by Education USA, below are the functions of accreditation.

Functions of Accreditation

  1. Verify that an institution or program meets established standards.
  2. Assist prospective students in identifying acceptable institutions.
  3. Assist institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits.
  4. Help to identify institutions and programs for the investment of public and private funds.
  5. Protect an institution against harmful internal and external pressure.
  6. Set goals for self-improvement of weaker programs and consciously raise educational standards.
  7. Involve the faculty and staff comprehensively in institutional evaluation and planning.
  8. Establish criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading courses offering such preparation.
  9. Provide one of several considerations used as a basis for determining eligibility for Federal assistance.

Knowing that you received your graduate diploma from a fully accredited institution is a sure way to jumpstart your career. Visit this link for a complete database of accredited postsecondary institution and programs in the United States.

Accrediting Agencies

Accrediting agencies, also called the accreditors, are independent organizations that set the standards of operation in educational institutions. These accreditors cover regional or national levels to develop evaluation criteria that encompass all degree programs, especially in distance learning institutions. The U.S. Department of Education has set the primary activities conducted by accrediting agencies in the process of accreditation.

Primary Accrediting Activities:

Standards: The accreditor, in collaboration with educational institutions, establishes standards.

Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation report measuring its performance against the standards established by the accreditor.

On-site evaluation: A team of peers selected by the accreditor reviews the institution or program on-site to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.

Decision and publication: Upon satisfying the set standards, the accreditor grants accreditation or pre-accreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or pre-accredited institutions or programs. The procedures note that “only public and private non-profit institutions qualify to award federal student aid based on pre-accreditation.

Monitoring: To verify that the institution or program continues to meet the accreditor’s standards, the accreditor monitors it throughout the period of accreditation.

Reevaluation: The accreditor periodically reevaluates each institution or program to determine continuation of its accredited or pre-accredited status.

The extent of the evaluation is revealed to the public by way of an announcement. When academic institutions meet the strict criteria imposed by accrediting agencies, they earn the “accredited status.”

For a list of Regional and National Institutional Accrediting Agencies, check here.

Role of the U.S. Department of Education

Accreditation is conducted by independent bodies. As such, the U.S. Department of Education does not function as an accrediting agency but is delegated a significant function. The Department is granted the power of oversight over the system of post-secondary accreditation. It reviews accrediting agencies and imposes sanctions upon these agencies when they fail to enforce the accreditation standards.

The Secretary of Education publishes a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies in the country. It is the Secretary who determines the reliable agencies to provide training and development programs for the institutions they accredit. However, the Secretary’s jurisdiction is limited within the United States.

Types of Accreditation

There are two basic types of educational accreditation: institutional or specialized. Institutional accreditation covers the entire institution which means that all its departments meet the standards set by the accrediting agencies. On the one hand, specialized or programmatic accreditation is limited. It applies to the evaluation of specific programs offered within an institution that are usually parts of a collegiate of postsecondary institution. The specialized type is based on per unit or credit or per curriculum evaluation.

Diploma Mills

Knowledge of the accreditation process equips students in assessing their school of choice. This is to avoid falling into the trap of attending schools that are profit-driven instead of quality-focused. These schools are also called Diploma Mills. Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 the term `diploma mill’ means an entity that —

(A) (i) offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training; and (ii) requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and

(B) lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education, or (ii) a Federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations.

Diploma mills, as the term suggests, hand out diplomas to any person who is able to pay. They operate without the recognition of the state or other reputable recognizing agencies. These diplomas they hand out are considered fraudulent and because they are not state-recognized, they are practically worthless.

Be on the lookout for red flags as these diploma mill schools fake accreditation as well.

For more information on Diploma Mills and how to avoid them, follow this link.

Remember, accreditation is the main factor to consider when choosing your prospective school. It pays to know the important information and the rationale behind the process. Education is an investment; invest in no less than the best. It is your professional career and your future that are at stake, after all.