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Is College Regulated? How Accreditation Agencies Ensure a Quality Education

Earning a college degree can be as much of an investment as purchasing a car or even mortgaging a home, but what if that costly diploma doesn’t hold as much value as you had originally anticipated?

College accreditation is likely a consideration that hasn’t yet crossed your mind as a key factor of your college search, but it could make all the difference in proving the quality of your education to graduate schools and employers, as well as to other colleges if you decide to transfer. You should also be aware of the differences between for-profit and nonprofit colleges and how accreditation plays a role in ensuring they are serving a student’s best interests.


What is Accreditation, Anyway?


Accreditation is more than just a college or university’s seal of approval: it is the assurance that you are investing in a program taught by certified professionals. In order for a university to be accredited, it must adhere to the guidelines and requirements set by an accreditation agency.

The types of accreditation are broken down into two main categories: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation applies to an entire college or university and is conducted by either a regional or national accreditation agency. Programmatic accreditation applies to a specific program of study at a college or university, such as a school of business, and is conducted by an agency that is only concerned with a specific academic discipline, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Most programmatic accreditations are given to departments within schools that already have an institutional accreditation and should be viewed as an added assurance to the student.

Not all accreditations are created equally, so you should verify that the agency issuing the accreditation is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). These parties are responsible for validating the credibility of accreditation agencies and ensuring that schools aren’t just paying for accreditation from ‘accreditation mills’. The United States Department of Education (USDE) keeps a database of accredited institutions and programs accessible through its website, which includes all the major regional accreditation agencies listed in the table below.

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Regional accreditation is the most widely accepted and highest available form of accreditation, which is important in situations when you might want to transfer schools or apply to graduate programs. This type of accreditation will help to ensure that the credits you earn in college are easily transferable and recognized by other institutions or employers. Some schools with regional accreditation may have programs that are also accredited by programmatic, or specialized, accreditation agencies. Programmatic accreditations are an added assurance that a specific school within a university meets a unique set of standards that apply solely to that discipline and may help your resume stand out.

National accreditation, which is less common, is the second type of institutional accreditation, but some national accreditation agencies are recognized by the USDE. Schools that are nationally accredited tend to be for-profit institutions or schools that specialize in certain careers, such as criminal justice or faith-based professions. These schools might not see the value in paying for regional accreditation, and the savings are usually passed down to students in the form of lower tuition rates. If you find yourself interested in a school that holds only a national accreditation, verify that it is accredited by a USDE approved agency. Schools that haven’t been accredited by USDE approved accreditors may very well be operating honestly, but it would be wise to question why they lack the accreditation.

On the subject of tuition and finances, note that only institutions with USDE recognition can offer federal aid to students, which might be a deciding factor for most applicants. You can read more about the benefits of applying for federal aid on our blog.

The main point to consider regarding accreditation is how it affects you. Regional accreditation might weigh heavily on your opportunity to attend graduate school, where the quality of your undergraduate credits will almost surely be taken into consideration. If you plan on studying a trade or a less traditional discipline, such as a vocation that is accredited by a national accreditor, whether or not a school is regionally accredited might be of less concern to you. It’s important to keep accreditation considerations in the perspective of your life-goals and financial needs.


Nonprofit or For-Profit Colleges, What’s the Difference?


When most students think of college, they think of sprawling campuses packed with historic buildings and academic quads, fitness centers and residence halls, an exciting sports mascot, and plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. This vision describes the traditional experience provided by most nonprofit schools, those with rich histories that support the residential experience.

Nonprofit colleges are accredited by regional and national accreditation agencies, and because of their regional nature, they tend to be a great place for students to easily network and make valuable career connections. "Public and private nonprofits tend to be very focused in a particular community and have long histories in that community," says Kevin Kinser, professor and head of the education policy studies department at Pennsylvania State University. Regional accreditation also makes it easier for students to transfer their credits from one nonprofit institution to another, which could make the decision of choosing the right college less stressful.

You may have heard about for-profit schools in the news recently--not necessarily in a good way. This NPR article about the “continued collapse” of for-profit education does a good job of mentioning the most important changes happening in the field of for-profits and online education. Most notably, for-profit schools are have suffered from bad reputations stemming from predatory financial tactics and fierce market competition. Remember that for-profit schools are businesses and are prone to the same kinds of behaviors that exist with any business, such as acquisitions and false advertising. Unanticipated for-profit closures have even led students to fight for refunds, such as in the recent case against ITT Educational Services.

While nonprofit schools aren’t immune to the pressures of increasing enrollment numbers, one should consider that for-profit institutions are more financially incentivized. This conflict exists because for-profit institutions are governed by a board of directors who serve their shareholders and operate like any other business, while nonprofit colleges are governed by trustees who do not get a direct cut of the school’s revenue. In light of this important difference, for-profit schools tend to be more expensive than nonprofit institutions.

One of the main reasons for-profit schools are having trouble is the emergence of nonprofit schools competing in the online space, which had been traditionally occupied by for-profit colleges. Many nonprofit colleges now offer online courses as an extension of their regular course catalog, and these courses are usually taken by students who are currently attending that college as well as others who are looking for a program with more flexibility, such as people who are working full time or going back to college after a hiatus. Nonprofit online courses offer a better solution to students looking for easily available on-campus resources, and they’re regionally accredited.

For-profit colleges tend to have a higher acceptance rate; however, many now require applicants to complete readiness assessments to determine if they are prepared for college, as reported by Kathleen Ives, CEO of the Online Learning Consortium. These schools are more accomodating for students with busy schedules who are returning to college later in life or are pursuing a specific vocation. Some of the most popular vocational trades include beauty and cosmetology, dental hygiene, and various medical technicians. These vocations are usually accredited by institutions directly related to their field, such as the American Dental Association (ADA) or the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

If you are planning on following a non-traditional career path, then for-profit institutions might better fit your academic goals and help support your niche more than a nonprofit institution. It also helps that for-profit colleges tend to operate on a rolling admissions basis, so you may submit your application for consideration at any time.

The ideal student for a for-profit program is one who is self-motivated, goal oriented, and well organized. To some former students these schools have provided inadequate academic support than a traditional college program; though, according to Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer for the Online Learning Consortium, “many for-profits have started focusing more on student success in addition to attracting applicants.”

It is also important to consider how future employers may view a degree from a for-profit institution. While many will not hold it against you, especially if you completed your degree while working full-time, there are instances where it might be viewed less favorably than a degree from a nonprofit institution.




A college education should be viewed as a valuable tool to your future success. Whether you decide to follow a tried-and-true path at a nonprofit institution or venture out into something a little more unorthodox at a for-profit, you should always make sure to choose the program that will best help you achieve your academic goals, while earning a respected degree.

So before investing in such a great commitment, ensure that the institutions you apply to are accredited appropriately. Not only will you have the peace of mind that your degree will be worthwhile but you will also be receiving a quality education that is held to an agreeably high standard.

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