One of the most difficult decisions for prospective college students is where to enroll. They want to choose the best institution for them – the one that will help them achieve their academic, personal and financial goals. However, some make mistakes. Attending a college that lacks the appropriate accreditation can have a devastating impact. However, a critical mindset coupled with a bit of investigation can help students make the right decision.

Colleges and University Characteristics

Prospective college students should understand and consider the characteristics that differentiate institutions, many of which are obvious. In addition to the degrees offered, other seldom overlooked criteria include location, cost, availability of financial aid, extracurricular activities and reputation. Size, student housing, and recreational facilities are other common considerations. And students planning to study science, engineering, or almost any career oriented program want to know about the facilities, particularly the laboratories and equipment.

college campus building

A characteristic that is becoming more and more prevalent is online versus classroom instruction. Most colleges and universities offer online courses, but there many institutions where the primary course delivered mechanism is over the Internet. Students can obtain a complete degree with little or no classroom instruction. Many people have heard of the big names in online instruction, institutions like the University of Phoenix and Argosy University. For more information, prospective online learners can go to a website such as eLearners.com, which identifies more than 200 accredited online colleges and universities. Another source is Best Online Colleges.com.

However, there are other important criteria that are all too frequently overlooked or ignored by prospective students. Examples include public versus private ownership and not-for-profit versus for-profit status. Arguably, the most important issue that is often overlooked or misunderstood is that of accreditation. In fact, many students have no idea what that even means.

What is College Accreditation?

Colleges and universities voluntarily seek accreditation from third-party organizations or accrediting bodies. These organizations establish criteria against which they judge the quality of schools. It is fair to say that most, if not all, colleges and universities have some type of accreditation. In each case, the accrediting body has established that the institution complies with established academic quality standards. Under the direction of the U.S. Secretary of Education, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) provides a considerable amount of information about post-secondary accreditation in the United States.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a resource for those who want to learn about specific institutions. The CHEA is reported to be “Largest institutional higher education membership organization in the United States, with approximately 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities.” The CHEA also identifies what are considered to be reputable accrediting bodies. The CHEA recognizes 85 organization, which can be divided into four categories:

REGIONAL ACCREDITING ORGANIZATIONS:

1) Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Middle States Commission on Higher Education; 2) New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education: 3) New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Technical and Career Institutions; 4) North Central Association of Colleges and Schools The Higher Learning Commission; 5) Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; 6) Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges; 7) Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges; and 8) Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities.

NATIONAL FAITH-RELATED ACCREDITING ORGANIZATIONS:

1) Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation; 2) Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission; 3) Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada; and 4) Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Accreditation Commission.

NATIONAL CAREER-RELATED ACCREDITING ORGANIZATIONS:

1) Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools; 2) Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology; 3) Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training; 4) Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools; 5) Council on Occupational Education; 6) Distance Education and Training Council Accrediting Commission; and 7) National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, Inc.

PROGRAMMATIC ACCREDITING ORGANIZATIONS:

CHEA lists 66 such organizations. A few examples from that list are ABET, Inc., American Bar Association Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, American Podiatric Medical Association Council on Podiatric Medical Education, Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, and National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

The prospective college student should critically evaluate a college’s accreditation before enrolling. In some cases more than one accreditation may be important. And, the importance of regional or national accreditation must not be overlooked.

Why are Regional and National Accreditation Important?

There are a number of advantages for students who attend regionally accredited colleges and universities. These institutions are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and thereby eligible for federal financial aid. This means that students attending these institutions may apply for federally funded student aid under Title IV of the 1964 Higher Education Act, which includes Pell Grants. The Federal Pell Grant Program is administered by the DOE and provides grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post baccalaureate students. As of October 26, 2010, the DOE recognized 5,400 participating post-secondary institutions.

Another benefit for students attending regionally accredited institutions is transferability. Credits from regionally accredited schools are usually accepted by other institutions. Credits of schools lacking regional accreditation often are not accepted.

This is not to say that other accreditations are not important. Many nationally accredited institutions are also approved to offer federal financial aid to their students. Programmatic accreditations are often critically important because they assure the quality of education received by those pursuing careers in fields like medicine, law and nursing. Graduation from a non-accredited institution may actually bar individuals from taking the certification or licensing examinations required to practice in some fields.

State agencies represent yet another category of importance. Fire fighting is a profession where coursework at a state accredited institution is usually required for professional advancement. Real estate sales agent must have studied at an accredited institution to become licensed in their states.

Determining if a College is Accredited

Accreditation information is available on the CHEA website, and the DOE maintains The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Information about specific institutions is normally available on its website and in promotional literature. However, there have been instances where students were misled by the college at which they enrolled. The results can be traumatic.

An article entitled As for-profit colleges rise, students question value, which appeared in the September 29, 2010, edition of USA Today, addressed the issue of accreditation misrepresentation. Author Mary Beth Marklein referred to a class-action lawsuit filed against Westwood College in California. Marklein wrote, “the college’s website said the school was a candidate for regional accreditation but failed ‘to disclose that it has been a candidate for two years and was passed over for accreditation during its first evaluation.’” Marklein reported the story of a pre-med student who tried to transfer courses she took at Everest College in Salt Lake City to the University of Utah. She had completed her associate’s degree with a 3.9 GPA and accumulated more than $30,000 in student-loan debt, but none of her coursework transferred. As the student put it, she felt duped. She said the Everest misled her when it suggested her credits would transfer and misrepresented what it would cost her.

How many colleges and universities do not have regional or national accreditation? Quite a few! The BrainTrack Universities, Colleges and Careers website provides a directory of more than 10,000 institutions worldwide. On December 8, 2010, BrainTrack reported that there were 7,000 colleges and universities in the United States serving more than 15 million students. In comparison to the 5,400 institutions approved by the DOE, that means that there are roughly 1,600 colleges and universities that may not be eligible for federal student aid and from which credits may not transfer.

A Lesson to be Learned by Prospective College Students

In addition to the common considerations for choosing a college, prospective students should look into accreditation. Without the appropriate state, career-related and/or programmatic accreditation students may not be able to practice certain professions. Furthermore, without federal accreditation or federally recognized national accreditation, students may not be eligible for federal student aid and their course work might not transfer to other institutions.

When researching accreditation, students should not rely solely on what an admissions representative says because some have been known to misrepresent their institution’s accreditation. Much has been written about this occurring at some for-profit colleges and universities. The best advice is to identify the institutional accreditation that are mandatory to students’ academic and professional goals. If paying for college or transferring courses is an issue, a regionally or nationally accredited institution may be a must.

Copyright Paul Hummel
Originally published December 8, 2010, on Suite101

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