What Is Accreditation? Guide to Accreditation and Alternatives

Written by Coursera • Updated on Aug 20, 2021

Learn what the accreditation status of a college, university, or program means to you before you apply.

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If you’re applying for community college, university, or even college-level coursework, you’re likely faced with many choices. Not all schools and programs offer the same level of quality. Checking that a college is accredited is one way to verify that it meets certain minimum quality assurance standards. Accreditation can look different in different countries—the standards used and the processes that a college or university must follow may vary. 

In the United States, the Department of Education doesn’t certify or accredit colleges and universities directly. Instead, the Department recognizes several independent accreditation agencies to take on this role. In this article, you’ll learn more about what accreditation is, how US schools get accredited, how to verify accreditation, and why it should matter to you as you make decisions about your own learning journey. 

Noun: accreditation

“Official certification that a school or course has met standards set by external regulators” [1]

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Why choose an accredited program?

In the United States, accreditors serve as quality enforcers, ensuring that colleges and programs meet certain standards when it comes to coursework, faculty, facilities, resources, and student services. Choosing an accredited school or program can have other implications as well. Let’s take a look at some of the ways accreditation may impact your education.

  • Financial aid: To be eligible for US federal financial aid, you’ll need to attend a college or university accredited by a recognized accrediting organization. The US Department of Education and the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee and review accrediting agencies.

  • Credit transfer: Accreditation does not guarantee that college credits will transfer between institutions. But many institutions with accreditation from the same agency have agreements in place to make transferring credits easier. If you plan to take classes at a community college before transferring to a four-year university, this could impact your ability to transfer those credits. Acceptance of credits is always at the sole discretion of the receiving institution, regardless of accreditation status.

  • Certifications and exams: Some state licensing exams require that graduates come from schools or degree programs with accreditation from recognized accreditors in order to qualify to sit for the exam or be granted the certification.

  • Jobs: When you’re applying for a job, recruiters and hiring managers may want to verify that you received your degree from an school that is accredited by a recognized accreditor rather than an unaccredited school or  company that offers degrees for money, with little academic work involved (also known as diploma mills). Diploma mills will sometimes claim to be accredited, and will even create their own accrediting organizations, which are not recognized. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintains a national database of reputable "recognized" (by respective governments or industries) accreditors and institutions. This is the link to the various global directories that they provide. 

Tip: When researching colleges, don’t just check for accreditation status. Verify that the accreditation comes from an agency recognized by the Department of Education.

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Types of accreditation

Unlike some other countries, where the government is directly responsible for the accreditation of  schools, many different agencies are involved in the US. Schools might be accredited by a regional or national agency. The institution itself could be accredited, or individual programs could be accredited, or both. 

As you make decisions about your own education, it can be helpful to have a general understanding of the different types of accreditation, what they mean to you, and how to check to confirm that the listed accreditor is appropriately recognized.

Regional vs. national

The national accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education can accredit colleges and universities across the United States, including online colleges that enroll students from many different parts of the country.

The regional accrediting agencies typically accredit institutions and programs within their own regional domain, though some are starting to accredit nationally. You can find the latest full list of recognized accrediting organizations in the CHEA directory.

Did you know?

About 85 percent of US colleges and universities have regional accreditation. The other 15 percent have national accreditation. 

All eight Ivy League schools are regionally accredited, as well as each of the top 25 schools in the US News & World Report 2021 Best National University Rankings. Most non-profit traditional campus-based colleges and universities have this type of accreditation.

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Programmatic accreditation

Some specific career fields have their own accrediting agencies, known as programmatic accreditors. These agencies accredit specific programs and freestanding schools for professions like law, medicine, education, and engineering. 

For example, the National Architectural Accrediting Board accredits all professional degrees in architecture in the US. The American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation is responsible for accrediting both predoctoral and advanced dental education programs.

Credit Recommendation

The American Council on Education® (ACE) offers another option known as Credit Recommendation, which connects workplace learning with colleges and universities by helping adults gain access to academic credit for formal courses and examinations taken outside traditional degree programs.

Learners who successfully complete training that has an ACE Credit Recommendation can join the ACE Credit Registry and Transcript Service and request an official transcript [2]. While ACE Credit Recommendation  is not accreditation, it is an evaluation of formal education courses and programs for college-level credit, which can be a signal of quality similar to accreditation.

When you take an ACE Credit Recommended course or program outside of a traditional degree program, you can earn college credit. For example, The Google IT Support Professional Certificate program recently secured a credit recommendation from the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Credit Recommendation.

Learners can earn a recommendation of 12 college credits for completing the program--the equivalent of four college courses at the associate degree-level. This aims to help open up additional pathways to learners who are interested in higher education, and prepare them for entry-level jobs.

How are schools accredited?

Institutions and programs have to go through a series of steps before they become accredited. The accreditation process can vary depending on the accrediting agency, but often involves:

  • Presenting a written summary of performance measured against the standards of the accrediting organization

  • Undergoing peer review by faculty and administrators who are members of the accrediting organization

  • Bringing in members of the accrediting body (both academics and non-academics) for a site visit

  • Completing periodic external review, which typically includes a revised summary of performance and another site visit

How do you know if a college, university, or program is accredited?

When you invest time, money, and effort in your education, you want to be sure you’re investing wisely. The best way to ensure that the school or program you’re interested in is accredited by a reputable agency is to search the US Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Each program or institution in this list has been accredited by a regional, national, or programmatic agency recognized by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Article sources

1. Oxford Languages. "accreditation, https://www.google.com/search?q=definition+accreditation." Accessed August 20, 2021.

2. American Council on Education. "About Learning Evaluations, https://www.acenet.edu/Programs-Services/Pages/Credit-Transcripts/About-Learning-Evaluation.aspx." Accessed August 20, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Aug 20, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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