And what exactly does "accredited" mean?
Accreditation means that a college, university or school meets basic standards to teach and educate. Those standards are agreed upon by multiple educators. They are updated at least once a decade.
You might think that the U.S. government – specifically the U.S. Department of Education (DoED) -- ranks, approves, authorizes or accredits schools. But it does not. The federal government puts a layer between itself and educational institutions.
That way, the U.S. government does not show favoritism. It does not decide which schools meet standards and which do not: It leaves that to about six professional organizations, or accrediting agencies, to determine.
Those accrediting agencies conduct deep and lengthy reviews of each school. Some of those agencies cover regions of the U.S.; others operate nationwide. They develop the standards that schools must meet for a school to be accredited.
Those standards are numerous, and they include academics, intellectual skills, policies for admission and retention, quality of student learning, mastery of at least one disciplinary or interdisciplinary area, and much more, which you can read on Page 14 of this document.
In addition to the federal government saying who is an official accreditor, an organization called the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has the authority to approve accreditors. The council – CHEA – is made up of 3,000 colleges and universities that agree to work with 60 accrediting organizations.
Recently, one school shut its doors to its 40,000 students after it lost its accreditation. Those students will not finish their coursework or get a degree from the school. The accrediting agencies and the U.S. Department of Education spent years engaging with the school about a number of concerns, including student loans, tuition and quality.
If you are interested in applying to a school in the U.S., please search to ensure that the college or university is accredited. Avoid being fooled into a program that does not offer a certificate or degree that is officially recognized.
Here are ways to find out if a school is properly accredited.
Check official databases of accredited schools.
The U.S. Department of Education has a database that you can search for a school’s accreditation. It also has a list of the agencies it has approved that accredit schools.
CHEA has a database, too, that you can search for a school’s accreditation. And it has a list of all recognized accrediting agencies as of September 2016 that includes all agencies recognized by CHEA, the Department of Education or both.
Most standard, full-service colleges and universities will be accredited by one of six regional accrediting agencies. All of these regional accreditors are recognized by 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
They are well-known and ranked by a credible organization or news outlet.
Several publications or companies focus their business on ranking colleges and universities. And their rankings are generally very similar. They include U.S. News and World Report, Princeton Review, and Forbes magazine, among others.
They are recommended to you by EducationUSA. EducationUSA is a U.S. Department of State network of more than 400 centers that advise international students in more than 170 countries. EducationUSA is an official branch in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. EducationUSA only works with students who apply to accredited schools.
They have the suffix .edu at the end of their URL, or web address.
Typically, .edu addresses are provided to colleges and institutions that are accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. But the .edu address is not a 100 percent guarantee: Anyone who launched a website before these requirements might still be using an old .edu address. Look carefully at the website for the word “accreditation.”
There is a long list of unrecognized accreditation organizations with names very similar to authorized organizations. These are schools not considered legitimate accreditation authorities. Double check the official Department of Education or CHEA lists. Don’t worry if you are confused by the similarities. We are, too.
The issue of valid accreditation comes up mostly 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.
We are eager to hear your comments and thoughts, so please continue this conversation in the comments below this story. And post your comments and questions on our Facebook page.