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Does College Accreditation Matter?

As you explore and apply to colleges for the first time, you may notice that some schools are accredited and some are not. It's important to know the distinction if you've ever wondered, "Why does college accreditation matter?"

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When it's time for young students to prepare for the next step in their education by applying to colleges, they typically don't seek out the school's accreditation. This is because it's simply something they don't think to check, though, it is definitely one of the things to consider before starting college. Luckily for these students, this oversight usually doesn't come back to haunt them, as pretty much all public colleges and universities in the United States (your "state schools," etc.) are, as a rule, recognized by the appropriate accrediting bodies, but more on that process in a moment.

A small percentage of college-bound students, however, may inadvertently end up at a non-accredited school, which can spell trouble for their future for a variety of reasons. Does college accreditation matter? The short answer is yes, absolutely. But let's go into some details as to why accreditation is important and what, if any, exceptions there are.

What does it mean to be accredited?

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In simplest terms, if a college or university is accredited, then that means the school has undergone a voluntary peer review process to ensure that the school meets the educational quality standards set by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the United States Department of Education. There are a lot of moving parts in the accreditation process, but it's important to at least get a handle on the basics if you plan to pursue higher education.

First, you need to know that there are actually two types of accreditation that a college can have: national and regional. Many schools have both, as the accrediting bodies that handle these designations have different goals. Despite how it may sound, regional accreditation is actually more important for most students than national accreditation.

Regional accreditation, as the name suggests, is governed by a different body depending on where you are in the United States. There are six different regions determined primarily by geographical location. For example, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges serves, as you can probably guess, all of New England: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. These six regional accrediting bodies cover all 50 United States as well as the District of Columbia and US territories. Guam and American Samoa, for instance, are governed by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which also includes California and Hawaii. 

The six regional accreditation organizations are, themselves, monitored and recognized by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to ensure that the standards they set for their respective jurisdictions are in line with the overall standards of the nation. This rigorously monitored process is why regional accreditation is more important for your typical college student, as it ensures the credits the student earns can be transferred to other colleges and will be recognized by graduate programs the student applies to, should they choose to do so. In addition to this, professions that require a license to practice will generally not offer a license to someone without a degree from an accredited institution. These professions include everything from architecture and engineering to medicine and law.

The other main type of accreditation in the United States is national accreditation. In this case, "national" doesn't necessarily mean that the accreditation comes from the US government. National accreditation would actually be more appropriately called programmatic accreditation, as it is generally used by career-focused technical or vocational schools. This is useful if you are seeking specialized accreditation for a unique profession that isn't necessarily related to the traditional education you would receive at a standard four-year college. These include everything from building and industrial trades to aviation maintenance to dentistry.

Why should I care?

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All this educational jargon may cloud the importance of this information, leaving you to still wonder, "So...why exactly does college accreditation matter?" I'll share my own college experience as a real-world example of how regional and national accreditation can affect your education:

I got my bachelor's degree at the Jacobs School of Music, which is a nationally accredited school through the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). This specialized accreditation means that the music credits I received there can be recognized by and transferred to any other accredited music institutions and programs. If I went to a music school that wasn't accredited by NASM, it would have been much more difficult to transfer to a new music school or go on to graduate school in music.

As important as national accreditation was for my particular vocation, the NASM stamp of approval means little to a non-music school. Luckily for me, my music school was a part of Indiana University, which is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which serves 19 states in the midwest. That means my general education credits would have allowed me to transfer to a different college if I wanted to, and it means my bachelor's degree would also be recognized by any graduate program I applied to.

If you are interested in pursuing education for a specialized vocation, do yourself a favor and figure out what national accreditation agencies monitor schools in your desired trade. If you are more interested in a typical college degree and the potential of moving on to graduate programs, then finding a regionally accredited school should be your main priority. When applying to further your education though, always ask yourself, "Is your school accredited?"

What can happen when a school isn't accredited?

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If you're still wondering, "Why does college accreditation matter?" and you decide to ignore the advice in this article, you run a risk of ending up at a school that hasn't been reviewed by any accrediting institutions. This is especially risky with small, inexpensive colleges. Becoming accredited isn't cheap, so one of the ways these schools prey on unsuspecting students is by enticing them with lower costs and an online college experience (though, nowadays, there are also many legitimate online programs). The vast majority of unaccredited institutions offer subpar educations at best, and fraudulent degrees at worst. Some now-defunct unaccredited "colleges" have been uncovered as completely phony degree mills that essentially provide a student with a forged degree in exchange for a fee.

I should note that not all unaccredited schools are malicious or fraudulent. Some schools choose to remain unaccredited because they offer a non-traditional education that doesn't conform to the standards of regional or national accrediting agencies, even if it is a comprehensive and otherwise respectable education. Even if you determine that an unaccredited school will offer you the education you seek, there are still a number of hurdles to jump through. For one thing, federal financial aid is generally only available to students attending accredited colleges and universities. Furthermore, once you graduate from an unaccredited school, you run the risk of being rejected from any jobs or grad school programs you apply to, solely because you don't have a degree from an accredited college.

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