Find out how accreditation is used to validate providers and their courses.

How can you tell if the class or course you’re going to take will be any good? Just as people can get credentials from learning (a degree or certification), learning providers can use accreditation to validate their offerings. To find out more, MonsterLearning spoke with Judith Watkins, vice president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and Patrick LaMalva, executive director of the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board to get a clear idea of what accreditation means for you, the student.

The Definition

Educational accreditation is the evaluation of an educational institution or program by an independent body of professionals. In the US, colleges and universities are diverse and self-regulated. Accreditation helps ensure that regardless of the institution or department’s mission, the academic offerings meet standards set by the accrediting body.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Accrediting bodies are recognized by other organizations, like CHEA, which reviews the accrediting organizations. The US Department of Education also recognizes certain accrediting bodies. This may seem complicated, but it ensures that a fly-by-night operation doesn’t slap a bogus stamp of approval on a college, university or program.

There are two types of accrediting organizations. One reviews the institution itself, and the other evaluates specialized courses and professional programs within an institution. Many organizations that accredit specialized and professional programs will not review offerings from unaccredited institutions. CHEA maintains a directory of organizations it recognizes.

Here’s a good example of institutional and program-specific accreditation in action: As an institution, The University of Vermont (UVM) has earned accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Programs offered through the UVM’s Business School has further earned accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB). If UVM added a new program to its business school tomorrow and the school wanted it to be accredited, that program would have to go through the AACSB’s accreditation process.

How Can Accreditation Help You?

• When you want assurance that your institution or program conforms to industry standards. Through review and peer review, an accredited institution has committed to practices and content inclusion deemed effective by a wide body of professionals.

• When the worth of your degree is evaluated. Employers may view an unaccredited institution’s degree with some suspicion.

• When you’re applying for further study. Transfer applications from unaccredited schools or programs may not be recognized or valued as highly by the target school. Graduate schools may not recognize a degree from a previously attended unaccredited institution or program.

• When your profession demands a license. Some professions, such as engineering or internal medicine, require practitioners to be licensed. Sometimes licensing requires education earned from an accredited institution or program. This can vary by state; research licensing requirements in your state before entering a program of study.

• When you’re getting educational reimbursement from your company. Many companies that offer tuition reimbursement restrict the benefit to accredited institutions or programs. Check with your HR department before enrolling.

What About All Those Unaccredited Courses?

Submitting a course for review by an accrediting organization is voluntary. Most institutions that offer degrees are accredited. Many programs offered by accredited institutions are not accredited. It’s up to you to find out if lack of accreditation is due to lack of submission, failure to earn accreditation or another reason.

Keep in mind many distance learning courses are offered within accredited institutions and are also part of accredited programs. Accreditation does not depend on using a particular “course delivery” method.

Depending on your needs, accreditation may be important to you while earning a degree. Of course, there are many other kinds of learning opportunities besides colleges and universities, such as in-house training, commercial education centers and mentoring. If unaccredited types of learning fit your needs and interests, you may want to do some pre-application inspection to gauge quality, and you might need to show some evidence to potential employers. However, accredited degree or not, the proof of what you know is in your performance.

Accreditation Checklist

Check Web sites, course catalogs and the admissions office to learn about an institution’s accreditation. Do the same for programs in which you’re interested.
Be sure the accrediting body is recognized by the CHEA and/or the US Department of Education.
Visit accrediting organizations’ Web sites. They usually list their standards for accreditation.
Consider what you want to do with your degree. If you want to be able to apply for more formal education later, check to see if subsequent programs demand a particular accreditation.
If you’re planning to be licensed in your profession, be sure to check on what kind of accreditation may be required.
If you’re getting reimbursed through work, check with the HR department to learn about any restrictions based on the accreditation status of the institution and programs you want to attend.