The Importance of College AccreditationUpdated: January 23, 2021
Due to the GI Bill’s outstanding benefits, many veterans attend college after their military service. However, not all schools have the same accreditation status, which can diminish a degree’s value. As such, we’ll use this article to explain the importance of college accreditation when choosing a school.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:
- What is College Accreditation?
- Why College Accreditation Matters
- Regional versus National Accreditation
- Specialized Accreditation
- Making the Right College Choice
- Final Thoughts
What is College Accreditation?
According to the US Department of Education, college accreditation helps ensure “that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” When a school has been accredited, it has met the acceptable quality standards of an accrediting agency. As a result, the college reports that it has been accredited by that particular agency. On the other hand, a college that has not been accredited is known as an unaccredited college.
Accrediting agencies are neither part of a particular school nor the government. Rather, they are independent organizations that develop standards schools must meet in order to receive an accreditation. In general, these standards focus on a school’s curriculum, making sure it meets baseline levels of rigor and quality. Additionally, most agencies include some form of peer review, where other colleges play a role in deciding whether a particular school should receive an accreditation.
Regional and national accrediting agencies exist, and accreditation applies to both traditional and online schools.
Why College Accreditation Matters
Broadly speaking, college accreditation matters for two major reasons:
- What other schools think: In general, an accredited institution will not accept transfer credits from an unaccredited one. As a result, if you begin your studies at an unaccredited school then transfer to an accredited one, your credits won’t count. Similarly, many accredited bachelor’s degree programs won’t accept an associate degree from an unaccredited school. This means that you not only wasted your GI Bill benefits at the unaccredited school, you also wasted your time.
- What potential employers think: Many employers will also look down on degrees from unaccredited colleges. Simply put, most hiring managers will assume that you received a lower quality education at an unaccredited school. Similarly, many careers that require licenses also require that the underlying degree came from an accredited school. This accreditation means that the school met some standards. Without an accreditation, employers have no way to judge the quality of your college degree. This can leave you struggling to find a job post-graduation, as you possess a nearly worthless degree.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill has injected billions of dollars into higher education. While great for veterans, this money has also created an environment ripe for fraud and abuse – especially in online education.
Over the past couple decades, many unaccredited online institutions have sprung up, providing misleading (or outright fraudulent) marketing to convince veterans to enroll. These institutions want veterans’ GI Bill money, but they provide a low-quality education in return. These schools are really more like diploma mills, pumping out unaccredited degrees with no value.
Veterans need to understand this situation. They need to understand that A) college accreditation matters; B) unaccredited schools exist; and C) how to pick a school with an appropriate accreditation (and avoid ones without).
Regional Versus National Accreditation
As a rule, do not attend an unaccredited college. But, even within accredited institutions, some accreditations are better than others. Two broad categories of accreditation exist: regional and national.
Most people assume something national must be better than something regional. But, this isn’t the case with accreditations. Rather, colleges and employers typically respect regional accreditation more than national. To achieve regional accreditation, colleges need to meet far stricter standards than national accreditation. These higher standards translate directly into higher quality education at regionally accredited schools.
But, the federal government recognizes both regional and national accrediting agencies, so veterans should understand the differences:
- Regional accreditation: The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is the only nation-wide organization focused on college accreditation. Specifically, it reviews accrediting agencies to make sure they’re only accrediting high-quality schools. In this capacity, CHEA has only recognized seven regional accrediting agencies. As such, if a college has been accredited by one of the following agencies, it is a regionally accredited school:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- WASC Senior College and University Commission
- National accreditation: A large number of schools with national accreditation are also for-profit colleges. While for-profit status doesn’t guarantee a low-quality education, it should certainly raise some red flags for veterans. As stated above, the courses from these institutions generally don’t transfer into regionally accredited colleges, and employers hold for-profit degrees in lower esteem. When reviewing a school’s accreditation, if it’s from an agency not in the above list of regional ones, it’s likely a nationally accredited college.
In addition to regional and national, specialized accreditation also exists. This accreditation is also known as program-based, as it provides accreditation to a particular department or course at a school. These types of accreditation matter most to students seeking a professional license following graduation. For example, doctors, lawyers, and engineers all need to complete their coursework in programs recognized by the following accrediting agencies:
- Doctors: American Medical Association (AMA)
- Lawyers: American Bar Association
- Engineers: Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology
If interested in a career as some sort of licensed professional, you’ll need to confirm that your specific academic program has the appropriate accreditation.
Making the Right College Choice
For veterans, college represents a gateway to a civilian career. With only 36 months of GI Bill eligibility, you won’t want to waste any of this time pursuing an unaccredited degree. Rather, when it comes to choosing a college from an accreditation perspective, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this college accredited? If not, don’t go there! The value provided by an unaccredited degree won’t justify A) the time you spent getting it, and B) the GI Bill eligibility you used while enrolled.
- Is this college regionally or nationally accredited? A regionally accredited degree will typically provide more value than a nationally accredited one. But, there may be situations where attending a nationally accredited school makes sense. If you believe that a nationally accredited school meets the education requirements for a future career, do some due diligence first. Find out what other graduates are doing in their careers. Talk to veterans currently enrolled in the school. Bottom line, do your research. You assume more risk with a nationally accredited degree, so make sure you’ve confirmed that it will support your career goals prior to committing your time and GI Bill eligibility.
- Am I pursuing a professional license (e.g. doctor, lawyer, engineer, nurse)? If so, you’ll want to confirm that the relevant academic department in your school has been accredited by the respective professional accrediting agency.
Like colleges themselves, not all college accreditations are equal. As a veteran, you’ve worked hard to earn your GI Bill benefits. Don’t waste these benefits at an unaccredited college. Typically, attending a regionally accredited school will be the best option. If you choose to attend a nationally accredited school instead, make sure that it will truly support your career goals before enrolling.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.
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