Accreditation is carried out through non-governmental organizations created in whole or in part by the higher education community. In several fields, especially the health professions, graduation from an accredited program may be required to be eligible for a license to practice in a particular state.
All accrediting organizations create and use specific standards both to ensure that institutions and programs meet threshold expectations of quality and that they improve over time. These standards address key areas such as faculty, student support services, finance and facilities, curricula, and student learning outcomes.
Accrediting organizations use common practices, including a self-review by the institution or program against the standards, an on-site visit by an evaluation team of peer experts and a subsequent review and decision by the accrediting body about accredited status. This review is repeated every three to 10 years if the institution or program is to sustain its accreditation.
Yes, accreditation matters for any college or university whether it’s online, on campus or a hybrid of both. In fact, accreditation for online colleges and online programs is just as important as it is for campus-based colleges and programs. The same expectations for quality are applied, even if the models of delivery are different. (This goes for for-profit and nonprofit educational institutions too.)
Accreditation is important, according to the Higher Learning Commission (hlccommission.org), an accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, because it ensures that a student’s education is recognized as high quality across the board, whether that’s by an employer, with a licensing board or at another university.
When a school decides to pursue accreditation, it may contact an accreditation agency as part of a voluntary but binding system. The independent auditors (or agents) work together to review whether the higher learning institution has met the agency’s standards for accreditation.
Not all accreditors are created equal, so it’s important to do your homework here, too. Some accrediting agencies apply more scrutiny than others, and each accrediting agency’s process is nuanced in terms of criteria and requirements.
In fact, according to the educational services company Peterson’s, "Since accrediting agencies vary in their quality standards, some are considered more prestigious than others. Which one a school pursues depends on what standard of quality the school hopes to achieve and to maintain."
Many accreditors implement:
- A regular cycle of extensive self-evaluation
- A comprehensive evaluation (evidence-based) by members of peer institutions or programs
- Ongoing reporting
- A focus on continuous quality improvement
It’s important that a school be accredited by an agency that is itself credible. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes certain accreditors, including the Higher Learning Commission (HLC; hlccommission.org), which accredits various campus-based and online schools, including University of Phoenix. Another good resource is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which recognizes reputable institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.