As long as there have been universities, there have been people willing to pose as a university to scam students out of money. That’s why accreditation agencies were invented—to help students distinguish between real schools and scams, and keep universities honest in the process. With the increasing number of “diploma mills” online, accreditation is more important now than it ever has been. But what exactly does it mean to be accredited, and who decides who gets it? This guide should help you learn everything you need to know about finding an accredited school, or starting one yourself.
What is accreditation?
When a school is “accredited,” that means that it has been approved by a government-sanctioned agency. There are many accreditation agencies in the United States, and all of them are self-governed organizations designed to keep schools in line and academic standards high. Most of these agencies answer to higher agencies, with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) acting as top-dog at the federal level. When a school wants to award degrees, all of their programs have to first undergo scrutiny from the CHEA or one of its subsidiaries to prove that it meets the necessary standards of academic rigor. The U.S. Department of Education then tracks approved schools in its education database.
Accreditation might seem like an unnecessary step—you’re getting the education either way, right?—but it’s actually a very important part of our educational system. Without these agencies to enforce educational standards, schools could award degrees for little or no work, and students who earn real credentials would have nothing to show for it over someone who just bought a diploma. Accreditation is the only thing standing in the way of organizations that care more about making money than the quality of education in America.
As mentioned before, CHEA is at the top of the heap when it comes to accreditation agencies, but it has many underlings who do the dirty work from state to state or community to community. Immediately below CHEA are the regional accreditation agencies:
- The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Higher Education
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutes of Higher Education
- The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Higher Learning Commission
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities
These agencies are each responsible for a portion of the United States’ college system. There are also accreditation agencies focused on specific types of schools, like the Association for Biblical Higher Education Accreditation Commission, which focuses on faith-based schools. There is also an international accreditation organization, called the ISO International Accreditation Agency. They operate outside local governments to monitor international schools and universities.
How can I get my school accredited?
If you’re founding an educational institution, accreditation is going to be the biggest item on your shopping list. To become accredited, you need to find out which of the CHEA’s daughter agencies applies to your school’s jurisdiction, and undergo inspection from that agency. But be careful—just like there are scam universities, there are also scam accreditation agencies. Take a look at this list of fraudulent agencies to make sure you know who the scammers are.