Accreditation in the United States

What is “accreditation”?

Accreditation is a process of external quality review created and used by higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities and [degree] programs for quality assurance and quality improvement.

— Judith Eaton, President of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation

Accreditation is an indicator that an institution has met a set of accepted standards of academic quality that are defined and recognized by other higher education institutions, and is the primary standard for quality assurance in U.S. higher education, and is used both here and internationally to determine the value of a college degree earned at a college or university in the United States.

For more information on accreditation, see The Council for Higher Education Accreditation website, which provides extensive resources, articles and videos about accreditation.

Who is Responsible for Accreditation?

The accreditation process is based on the premise [that] higher education institutions have primary responsibility for academic quality: They are the leaders and the primary sources of authority in academic matters.

— from Accreditation and Recognition in the United States published by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in September 2008

In the United States, accreditation of colleges is carried out by private, non-profit organizations. In other countries, accreditation may be a function of the national government, a regional oversight body, or standards used in another country (such as U.S. accreditation) may be used as a measure of quality.

How can I Find Out Which Accrediting Organizations are “Recognized”?

Click here for a complete list of legitimate accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

How can I Find Out if a School is Accredited?

There are two searchable databases on the Internet that provide reliable information about the accreditation of institutions and academic programs.

  • The US Department of Education
  • The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (Click “I agree” at the bottom of page)

Be aware that most schools will claim accreditation if they have it, but it’s still a good idea to verify that their accreditation is one that will be recognized by other schools, employers, licensing boards, and government agencies.

Is “Accreditation” Required?
  • Accreditation by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education is required for access to federal student aid funds and federal programs.
  • Both federal and state governments consider accreditation to be a reliable indicator of academic quality. However, all accrediting organizations are not considered equally reliable. The U.S. Department of Education “recognizes” accrediting organizations for the purpose of determining access to federal financial aid. Some states also “approve” or “recognize” specific accrediting organizations.
  • Most colleges and universities will only accept credits for transfer if the credits were earned at an institution with recognized accreditation. Some institutions will require a specific type of accreditation.
  • Degree mills are schools that offer degrees without the proper legal authority to do so. There are also “accreditation mills” which are organizations, usually operated by degree mills, that don’t have any recognition to make their accreditation valid. Accreditation is only useful if it is recognized.
Is an Unaccredited College a “Degree Mill”?

The term “degree mill” is most commonly used to denote unscrupulous vendors of fake diplomas. Very few unaccredited colleges are “degree mills” in this commonly-used sense of this term. However, the definition of degree mill is actually much larger and includes institutions that grant degrees based on sub-standard academic programs.

Even though an unaccredited college may provide students with the opportunity to learn and submit legitimate academic work, degrees from unaccredited colleges are generally viewed as sub-standard and are not widely accepted.

All colleges and universities must have state government approval to offer degrees. In Oregon, unaccredited colleges must have ODA authorization to offer degree programs or even courses for college credit. This authorization is based on an in-depth evaluation and determination that the school and its academic programs meet the Oregon standards required by law.

Is a degree from an unaccredited college in another state valid if the college has approval there?

A school may be “approved” or authorized to offer degrees in one state, but the degree may be considered invalid or substandard in another state.

In Oregon, anyone using a degree from an unaccredited college must use a disclaimer revealing that the degree is from an unaccredited college and is not approved for use in Oregon. Degrees from unaccredited colleges cannot be used for public or licensed employment and are less likely to be accepted by private employers. Use of a degree from an unaccredited college may result in enforcement action.

This is because state laws governing higher education oversight and approval vary markedly from state to state. For example:

  • Some states have high standards and thorough review an unaccredited school’s programs and operations before approval
  • Some states will only approve accredited schools, or only allow schools to operate without accreditation for a limited time.
  • Some states have lower standards or a different process for “approval” that doesn’t involve review, but is more of a registration process or a license to operate a business that provides education. In most cases, it’s good to know what “approval” actually means in that state.
  • Some states have good regulations in place, but those responsible for approval may have no enforcement capability and are not able to intervene when there is evidence of questionable academic quality.
What are the Different Types of Accreditation?
  1. Regional accreditors are the oldest and most widely accepted standard for accreditation. Regional organizations accredit public and private, mainly non-profit and degree-granting institutions.Regional accreditation is:
    • widely accepted as the standard quality indicator by other higher education institutions, employers, state and federal governments, and international partners.
    • used as the standard accreditation for many different purposes, including transfer of credits from one college to another, admission to graduate study, evaluation of the validity of an academic degree, employment and licensing.
  2. National faith-related organizations accredit religiously-affiliated and doctrinally-based institutions, mainly non-profit and degree-granting
  3. National career-related organizations accredit mainly for-profit, career-oriented institutions,
  4. Programmatic accrediting organizations accredit specific programs, professions, and free-standing schools, such as law, medicine, engineering, and health professional schools.
How does the Accreditation Process Work?
  • Accrediting organizations develop standards that must be met in order to be accredited.
  • Institutions and programs undertake self-studies based on standards.
  • Institutions and programs are subject to peer review, including site visits and team reports.
  • Accrediting organizations make a judgment based on standards through their decision-making commissions and award (or do not award) accredited status.
  • Institutions and programs undergo periodic review by accrediting organizations to maintain accredited status.
  • — from the Council on Higher Education Accreditation
More Facts about Accreditation:
  • The U.S. government itself does not accredit colleges, unlike common practice in many countries. Likewise, the federal government does not accredit or conduct academic evaluation of foreign colleges.
  • U.S. accrediting organizations evaluate colleges and universities in all 50 states, as well as in 97 other countries.
  • There are four types of accreditation, and many different accrediting organizations.
  • Government agencies are not part of the accreditation process, but may recognize or approve certain types of accreditation based on their assessment of the standards and performance of the accrediting agency, their member institutions, and/or the reason for the accreditation.
  • The U.S. Department of Education recognizes accrediting bodies for purposes of institutional financial aid eligibility and other areas in which the federal government has an interest.
  • It’s important to know what kind of accreditation is best for your own purposes as you plan for your future educational and professional goals.
  • Approval by a state government is not accreditation, except in the case of the New York Board of Regents, which is both a state agency and an accrediting body
  • The accreditation of schools is funded primarily through fees and annual dues