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What's All the Fuss About College Accreditation?

If you have been researching schools lately, you've probably hear the buzzword "accreditation" floating around. Colleges and universities are usually quick to promote their accreditation status, but what does that mean exactly, and why should you take notice?

What is accreditation and why is it important?

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation defines accreditation in the U.S. as "a major way that students, families, government officials and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education."

Misty Bush, director of Institutional Compliance at Columbia College, agrees that accreditation acts as a stamp of approval. "It lets students know it's a legit school."

Not only does accreditation indicate quality, but the federal government requires institutions to have accreditation in order to provide federal, and sometimes state, grants and loans to its students.

Does accreditation differ between for-profit and nonprofit schools?

The answer is 'usually.'

Because of the difference in types of programs offered at for-profit and nonprofit schools, the types of accreditation available to them also differ. The three main types are national, regional and specialized accreditation.

"Typically, for-profit schools seek national accreditation whereas the majority of nonprofits seek regional accreditation because a large number of nonprofits are liberal arts institutions," Bush said. "National accreditation generally focuses more on vocational, career or, specifically, just distance learning. So if you're awarding more academic-based liberal arts degrees, you want to seek regional accreditation versus national accreditation."

Specialized or program-based accreditation is accreditation that is awarded to specific programs within an institution, such as its business program or nursing department, rather than to the institution as a whole. This type of accreditation is offered by professional associations, such as the American Bar Association, which accredits law programs, and the American Medical Association, which accredits medical programs.

Accreditation is not always mix-and-match friendly, however. Students sometimes run into trouble when they try to transfer credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school.

Things to consider when shopping for a school

  1. Transferability of credits. What are your long-term plans? Do you plan on getting some general education courses out of the way online before transferring to another school? Is a master's degree or other advanced degree in your future? When shopping for schools, look at the type of accreditation it has and the likelihood that credits earned there will transfer to another school.
  2. How are you going to pay? Remember, accreditation is required to receive federal and perhaps state financial aid. If you fill out a FAFSA to fund your education, keep accreditation in mind.
  3. Don't get scammed. Some schools will claim they are accredited when in fact they are not. Bush recommends visiting the Council for Higher Education Accreditation database to verify a school's accreditation, checking out U.S. News & World report - which publishes a report annually, and checking the school's website for accreditation status.

Columbia College, Higher Education, College Search

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