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How To Know if a University is Accredited (New in the Glossary of Confusing Words)

  • Jessica Stahl

dictionary and thesaurus
dictionary and thesaurus
Today we have a very important addition to the Glossary of Confusing Words. If you're applying to study in the U.S., you need to understand what it means for a college or university to be accredited, and how to know for sure that the schools you're looking at have valid accreditation.

Accreditation (or Accredited)

The general definition of accredited is: to be officially authorized or approved. The term is most commonly used in connection with educational institutions.

As in other countries, accreditation in the U.S. is a stamp that a college or university meets basic standards. Unlike other countries, the U.S. federal government does not accredit schools. Instead, accreditation is handled by a wide range of other organizations.

However, the U.S. Department of Education does recognize organizations it considers to be valid accrediting agencies. Another group, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), also recognizes accrediting agencies.

So, an accredited school is generally considered to be a school accredited through a group that is recognized by the Department of Education, CHEA, or both.

So, how do you know if the school you’re looking into is properly accredited?

1) They’re a well-known college or university, are listed in a respected ranking like the U.S. News and World Report ranking of best colleges, or were recommended to you by EducationUSA

You don’t have to worry about these schools. Most major colleges and universities in the U.S. are properly accredited, and EducationUSA only works with students who are applying to accredited schools.

The issue of valid accreditation comes up mainly with professional or vocational schools, schools with a significant online component, and for-profit universities. CHEA has a list of questions you should ask about a school to help determine if you need to look further into its accreditation status.

2) They have a .edu web address

As of a few years ago, .edu addresses are only provided to colleges and institutions that are accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (you might remember the infamous Tri Valley University ... their website was trivalleyuniversity.org).

The .edu address is not a 100% guarantee, as any institution that launched a website before these requirements went into effect might still be using an old .edu address. But the website address is definitely an easy indicator you can look at.

3) They are accredited by one of the 6 regional accrediting agencies (and their various subdivisions) OR by another accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA

Most standard, full-service colleges and universities will be accredited by one of 6 regional accrediting agencies. All of these regional accreditors are recognized by both the Department of Education and CHEA. They are:

Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

There are also a number of national accrediting agencies, and specialized accrediting agencies will often accredit specific programs within universities, professional or vocational schools, and other specialized institutions.

CHEA has a list of all recognized accrediting agencies as of May 2011, which includes all agencies recognized by CHEA, the Department of Education or both. And the Department of Education also has a list of the agencies it has approved.

Wikipedia also has a handy list of unrecognized accreditation organizations (that is, agencies that are not considered legitimate accreditation authorities). Since it’s Wikipedia, you should always double check against the official Department of Education or CHEA list. But if nothing else, the Wikipedia list shows how these fraudulent or invalid accrediting groups have names that sound just as legitimate as real accreditors.

Both CHEA and the Department of Education also have searchable databases of accredited colleges and universities.

FYI: A school that is approved by SEVP to enroll international students is not necessarily accredited. Accreditation is not a requirement for a school to issue you an I-20, nor must you be attending an accredited school in order to receive a student visa (although it probably helps).

Thanks for all your word submissions so far! Coming soon: a Glossary post on word pairs, and some more slang. Don't forget to check the Glossary of Confusing Words to see more confusing words you may encounter as you apply to study in the U.S. And keep the submissions coming by suggesting a word in the comments or by using the form below.

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