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GUEST EDITORIAL: Telling the Public What Colleges Already Know About Regional Accreditation

October 23rd, 2012 by mopns · No Comments

Rachel Higgins is an education writer who profiles regional accreditation agencies in the US. In the tutorial-style article that follows, Higgins provides blog readers with a one-stop resource for both understanding and exploring regional accreditation. Her advice dovetails with information that has been previously provided on Missouri Political News Service about the need for an informed public when it comes to matters of education and schooling.

By Rachel Higgins

Most people have heard the word “accredited” in conjunction with higher education, usually when it comes to judging a school’s quality. Accreditation is often the difference between a school that is considered “legitimate” and one that is more suspect in terms of overall learning and value of degree earned. Particularly when it comes to online schools, accreditation is very important. Having a general sense of what the word means is often not enough to sort the good choices from the poor ones, however, which can lead to a lot of frustration and wasted resources. Today perhaps more than ever before, truly understanding the roots and basis of accreditation is an essential part of choosing the right higher educational program.

In the United States, accreditation is done on a regional, or semi-local, level. The country is very large, and the number of schools cropping up each year would make national evaluations and ratings something of a bureaucratic disaster. Education officials have instead elected to break the nation up into six regions, assigning each an independent accreditation body. These are:

These six regions were determined in 1885, when the process of regional accreditation began. Each is allowed to hire its own staff and set its own guidelines, within some parameters: the goals of each are similar, namely, to ensure consistent and rigorous education at all colleges, whether four-year or two-year, within the regional boundary.

Accreditation is not something that comes automatically. Schools must apply through their regional commission or association, then submit to rigorous reviews covering such things as teacher quality, student learning, and program rigor. “Today’s standards go beyond inputs and processes – for example, ‘Do students have access to learning resources and are they using them?’ – to focus increasingly on outcomes: How well are students gaining skills of finding, evaluating, and using information?” The New England Association of Schools and Colleges says of the process as a whole. This typically requires a great deal of institutional assessment and data collection over a period of semesters and years.

Most associations and commissions conduct school reviews in several ways. Officials will review school records, including course catalogs and student transcripts, but will also sit in on lectures, planning sessions, and student labs, often without prior warning. Reviewers are interested in collecting data that shows an improvement in student learning and information retention from the time new freshmen matriculate all the way through to graduation. As such, their information gathering is often extensive, and always authoritative. The United States Department of Education recognizes each regional body as equal, and trusts published recommendations completely.

There are several ways in which regional accreditation really matters to today’s student. First, loans and federal grants are usually only available for use at regionally accredited schools. Tuition has been rising across the nation for several years, making it harder and harder for students to pay for their education without at least some form of financial assistance. Choosing an accredited school is one way to earn a leg up in the race to qualify for government funding, which usually carries more attractive terms and repayment conditions than loans from private entities.

Transferability is also important to many people. Schools that are accredited by any of the six regional bodies enjoy reciprocity, which means that credits earned are presumed to carry their full weight, no matter where they were earned. A student transferring from a college in Nebraska to one in New York, for instance, will be able to rest easy that her credits will be recognized provided both institutions are fully accredited. The same is true for transfers from junior and community colleges into more traditional four-year universities. When the schools are accredited, registrars are usually obligated to transfer all credits without question.

Perhaps most importantly, earning credits or a degree from an unaccredited school can also be harmful when it comes time to look for a job. Employers in many sectors will not treat credentials from unaccredited colleges as legitimate, which can be a big problem. This is often most profound when it comes to online schools. Learning over the Internet can be an attractive alternative to classroom lectures for many students, but accreditation matters—often a lot. Though e-learning options are growing, there are still many employers who consider it a sub-par form of education. Attending an accredited program can assuage these fears, while an unaccredited one all too often only confirms them.

“Students need to know what their desired degree will allow them to do,” Russ Heimrich of the California Department of Consumer Affairs told the U.C. Davis Aggie newsletter. The CDCA handles a large number of complaints each year from students who paid for an education only to find out later that their degree is not universally recognized.  “A mechanic’s certificate from an unaccredited school will enable you to become a mechanic, but some states won’t allow civil servants to be hired if they graduated from an unaccredited school. In California you can become a lawyer after graduating from an unaccredited school, but other states won’t recognize you,” he said. This can lead to financial trouble, particularly if loans were taken out, as well as professional embarrassment.

A number of online institutions have recently been involved in a scam known as “accreditation fraud,” in which they list on their website that they have been accredited by certain fictitious reviewing commissions. This can prove confusing to students who do not understand how accreditation works.

Using common sense is usually a good first step. “If a school is claiming to offer classes in dental hygiene that you only have to take online with no hands-on training, it’s a bit suspicious,” legal reference JD Supra said in an article about accreditation fraud. “If the school claims that there is a 100 percent chance that they can place you in a job, that’s suspicious, as well.”

Of course, actually doing some research before enrolling is usually the best way to ensure that a school really has the accreditation and status it claims it does. Each of the six regional accreditation bodies provides an online database of schools on its rolls, and most provide a toll-free number for inquiries, as well. The United States Department of Education is also an authoritative source, with a regularly updated list of accredited schools and institutions nationwide culled from the regional entities’ databases. Unless a school appears on these lists, the “accreditation” it claims to carry is likely not legitimate.

Understanding accreditation is an important part of pursuing higher education today. Though there are more options than ever before, there are also more ways to go astray. Knowing what to look for and where to go for help can be the difference between a degree that will take you places and one that will bring you down.

Related:

Thousands Lose Jobs After Obama Took Over Student Loan Industry

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