Understanding Accreditation

Many people know that accreditation is a major issue in evaluating colleges, but they are not sure precisely what it means.

The United States government has passed many laws that regulate higher education, including programs such as student aid and research grants. These laws are administered by the Department of Education. However, the federal government does not accredit colleges or universities. It has chosen instead to leave that task to a group of private organizations known as accrediting associations.

An accrediting association is a group of colleges who have banded together to set standards of quality for themselves. They require member schools to go through regular evaluations to guarantee that they are maintaining acceptable levels of quality. In effect, they provide quality control so that the government will not need to set up its own inspection system.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is an organization that coordinates the activities of more than sixty different accrediting associations. They serve as an accrediting association for accrediting associations, and the government normally recognizes their members as legitimate.

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The accrediting associations in CHEA fall into two main groupings:

  1. Regional Associations—There are six regional accrediting associations, covering all fifty states. Although they are theoretically and legally on the same level as other types of accrediting associations, their size and influence sometimes give them a higher level of prestige. The regional associations include all kinds of colleges and universities, and their accreditation applies to the entire institution, not just individual programs.
  2. National or Professional/Specialized Associations—The majority of accrediting associations specialize in a certain type of college or certain programs within a college. For example, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges deals exclusively with schools of that type. And the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology examines engineering programs at colleges and universities that also have overall accreditation from one of the other associations.

All accrediting associations in CHEA, whether regional or national, are recognized by the Department of Education, and their member schools should be recognized as accredited. You may encounter some situations, however, in which a state regulation or a school policy recognizes only regional accreditation.

Regional accreditation is most likely to be a necessity in the areas of education or in professions that are regulated by the government. On the other hand, it is seldom needed for careers in Christian ministry. You should always investigate your chosen career field, to determine whether accreditation is an issue.

Some colleges are unaccredited or belong to accrediting associations that are not members of CHEA. These colleges should be evaluated individually on the merits of the particular school. Some schools are legitimate but choose not to participate in government or accreditation programs for practical reasons or reasons of conscience. Other schools are simply diploma mills that provide little or no educational value. Before you sign up for courses from an unaccredited school, be sure to make a careful investigation. Find out whether the course work is rigorous enough to provide the level of mastery that you will need for the future. Consult people in your chosen field to find out if you are dealing with an institution that is respected for its integrity and excellence.

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