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Beginner’s Guide to US Accreditations

At BestCerts, we often get questions about accreditations:

  • What are accreditations?
  • Which type of accreditation is better?
  • Are online courses or degrees accredited?

So in this article, we try to make sense of the US accreditation system. First, we go over the different types of accreditation. Next, we cover how accreditations work online. Finally, we explain how to figure out if a program or institution is properly accredited.

Simply put, an accreditation is a seal of approval obtained through an external quality audit.

The accreditation process involves evaluating a program or institution against a specific set of criteria. For example, to gain or maintain accreditation, an institution should employ instructors with appropriate qualifications and offer sufficient support to its students.

Proper accreditation can facilitate recognition of your degree, access to financial aid, and even entry to some professions.

So before enrolling in an academic program at a higher education institution — be it online or on campus — you will want to make sure that both program and institution are properly accredited.

Institutional vs Programmatic Accreditations

Accreditations can be broken down into two types, according to their scope:

Accreditation Organizations

In the US, accreditations aren’t performed by the government but by private organizations such as NECHE and LCME. However, the US Department of Education (USDE) does maintain a list of recognized accreditors, to help students distinguish trustworthy accreditors from bogus ones.

In addition, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a US non-profit association of higher education institutions, also maintains a list of recognized accreditors.

After confirming that a program or institution is accredited, you should make sure that the accreditor is itself recognized by USDE, CHEA, or both. Conveniently, the CHEA website also mentions if an accreditor is recognized by the USDE. For example:

Regional vs National Accreditors

There are two types of accreditors: regional and national. And as their name implies, one of the differences between both is the scale at which they operate:

  • Regional accreditors operate in specific US regions. For example, NECHE is a regional accreditor that only serves a handful of northeastern US states.
  • National accreditors operate in the entire US territory. For example, LCME is a national accreditor that serves all US states.

Note that accreditors may also accredit international programs and institutions. For example, three UK universities are regionally accredited in the US, including the Open University (OU). I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the OU and went on to join a US master’s degree program. The fact the OU was regionally accredited in the US made the transition a breeze.

But the most significant difference between regional and national accreditors isn’t the scale at which they operate but the breadth and depth of their respective accreditation processes:

  Regional Accreditors National Accreditors
First Appeared
Accreditations Offered
  • Institutional
  • Programmatic
Target Institutions
  • Academic-oriented
  • Non-profit
  • Career-oriented
  • For-profit
Accreditation Process
  • Longer: 5 – 10 years
  • Costlier
  • More open-ended
  • Shorter: 2 – 5 years
  • Cheaper
  • More prescriptive

Comparing Accreditations

Based on their name alone, we could assume that a national accreditation would be preferable to a regional accreditation. But in reality, the opposite is true.

Advantages of Regional Accreditations

Because they’re older and more comprehensive, regional accreditations are considered the gold standard of US accreditations and the option of choice for most institutions, including the more prestigious ones. For instance, all Ivy League schools are regionally accredited.

But there are also very practical reasons to prefer regional accreditations:

  • Degree Recognition: Degrees from regionally accredited institutions are more widely recognized by employers and other academic institutions.
  • Academic Focus: Regional accreditations are tailored to assess academic-oriented institutions and thereby often denote higher academic standards.
  • Credit Transfer: Academic credit earned at a regionally accredited institution is more likely to be accepted by other institutions.
  • Financial Aid: Employer-provided tuition reimbursement is often limited to regionally accredited institutions, and so is government aid.

Advantages of National Accreditations

In some cases, national accreditations may offer a few advantages:

  • Affordability: National accreditations are typically cheaper to obtain and maintain, which can result in lower tuition fees.
  • Career Focus: National accreditations were developed to evaluate career-oriented institutions and thereby may carry special significance in some professional fields.

Importance of Programmatic Accreditations for Licensure

In many states, a programmatically accredited degree may be required to access certain regulated professions. For instance, in most US jurisdictions, only graduates from law schools accredited by the American Bar Association can sit the bar exam.

Choosing Accreditations

Given the considerable advantages of regional accreditations, we recommend to always select a regionally accredited institution when choosing a degree program.

The affordability and career-focus of national accreditations can seem attractive. But many community colleges also offer cheap, vocational, four-year degrees. And community colleges have the added benefit of being regionally accredited. So these are likely a better option.

Finally, in many states, a programmatic accreditation is needed to access some professions.

Fortunately, accreditations work the same way online as they do on campus. If an institution is accredited, be it regionally or nationally, that accreditation extends to its online programs. And programmatic accreditations can be delivered for both online and on-campus programs.

Note that this only applies to formal online academic programs — that is, programs that offer academic credit. For instance, the online degrees offered by Georgia Tech on edX are accredited, but the MOOCs are not.

If you’d like to discover more accredited online degrees, head to our article 35+ Legit Master’s Degrees You Can Now Earn Completely Online.

Beyond Accreditations

Proper accreditation is a good indicator but not an absolute guarantee of quality. Indeed, accreditations have their limits:

  • They capture the global features but not the finer details of a program or institution.
  • They involve periodic reviews, so a program’s quality may drop between audits.
  • They partly rely on institutions providing truthful information, but some may be dishonest.

So after checking accreditations, you should continue your research by looking for red flags.

Red Flags

Indicators that an institution may not be worth its salt include:

  • Risk of Accreditation Loss: A program or institution may be on the verge of losing its accreditation, which should be reflected on the accreditor’s webpage.
  • Uneven Student Support: Institutions should provide comparable levels of support to their online and on-campus students.
  • Aggressive Marketing: Some institutions spend more on marketing than they do on ensuring the quality of their offerings.
  • Unbalanced Faculty: If an institution offers the same program online and on campus, instructors in both programs should be equally qualified.
  • Too Easy, Too Short: Programs that are too easy or too short are unlikely to prepare you well for a job or further studies.
  • Different Diplomas: If an institution offers the same program online and on campus, both should lead to the exact same credential.
  • Poor Reputation: Whether deserved or not, institutions that suffer from a poor reputation are less likely to carry weight with employers.
  • Lack of Campus: Most successful online programs are offered by well-established institutions with long-standing traditional campuses.
  • Low Outcomes: Institutions must publish statistics on their programs’ performance and students’ achievements. Look for high retention and employment rates.

But you should also look for positive features. For instance, the best online degree programs are deeply integrated into the fabric of their institutions. In our previous article, Evolving the Online Degree, we go over some of characteristics to look for when choosing an online degree program.

Here are the steps you should take to verify if an institution or program is properly accredited.

1. Verify Institutional Accreditation

To verify institutional accreditation, search the following databases:

For instance, if you search for ‘Princeton’, you find that it’s institutionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).

2. Verify Institutional Accreditor Recognition & Type

To verify accreditor recognition and type, search the following databases:

For instance, if you search for ‘MSCHE’, you find that it’s recognized by both USDE and CHEA as a regional accreditor.

3. Verify Programmatic Accreditation (If Required)

To enter a regulated profession, you should research the profession’s licensure requirements in your state. These may include completing a program accredited by a specific organization.

For instance, in some states, to become a licensed professional engineer, you must first graduate from a program accredited by ABET.

4. Look for Red Flags

Finally, you should research the program or institution you’re interested in to see if any of the red flags described earlier in the article come up.