What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is a voluntary process by which primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, and professional schools submit themselves to an comprehensive review process by an outside agency to ensure quality and institutional integrity. The most credible type of accreditation in the United States is called "regional" accreditation, which means that an institution is accredited by one of the six geographically dispersed associations approved by both the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. While there are a few quality Christian colleges and seminaries that don't seek regional accreditation for theological reasons, it remains the standard of quality within the United States.? Please note that this approach to accreditation is uniquely American as most universities outside of the United States operate under a government charter or approval.? Accordingly, when looking at international universities, this type of accreditation isn't applicable; you will want to ensure that the international university has the necessary charter or approval appropriate to that country. Furthermore, accreditation is of primary importance to higher education institutions and is much less of an issue when taking K-12 courses to supplement homeschooling.

Who are the Accrediting Agencies?

The six Department of Education and CHEA-approved regional agencies are:

There are also a number of specialized accredited agencies which are approved by both the Department of Education and CHEA. Some schools have both regional and specialized accreditation. If you select a school that only has specialized accreditation, be aware that your efforts may not be as accepted within academe. For better or worse, there are various levels of respect associated with the different accrediting agencies and the regional agencies are considered the standard. However, four relevant specialized agencies are:

The Institution Accreditation database sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education lists all recognized accreditation agencies as well as institutions accredited by a recognized agency.

What is the Best Type of Accreditation?

This is slightly more tricky than it may first appear. The simple answer is that regional accreditation is the most preferred form of accreditation -- it is the most recognized and accepted type of accreditation and would be considered the gold standard for accreditation. In fact, many colleges and universities only recognize regional accreditation when considering transfer credits and admissions.

In lieu of (or sometimes in addition to) regional accreditation, an organization might seek accreditation from one of the aforementioned national agencies. In that case, I would offer the following subjective ranking of accreditation status presuming that the institution only has one type of accreditation:

  1. Regional Accreditation (Undergraduate or Graduate)
  2. ABHE (Undergraduate) or ATS (Graduate)
  3. DETC (Undergraduate or Graduate)
  4. TRACS (Undergraduate or Graduate)
In other words, regional is the most preferable, followed by ABHE or ATS, then DETC, then TRACS. Note that there really are significant gaps in reputation between regional and ABHE/ATS and DETC, as well as between DETC and TRACS, and of course between TRACS and unaccredited institutions. Thus far, DETC is considered less impressive than regional or ABHE/ATS because it accredits exclusively distance programs and is perceived as less rigorious than other alternatives. Similarly, since TRACS only received CHEA recognition in 2001, it lacks the history and reputation of the alternatives and is thus less impressive than the alternatives. As distance learning becomes more mainstream, these impressions may change, but that's where they are currently.

Institutions sometimes seek accreditation from more than one agency, particularly if they cater to a certain niche. For example, most seminaries are both regionally and ATS accredited, and some ministry organizations are more interested in an ATS accredited seminary rather than merely a regionally accredited one. Similarly, when seeking out professional degrees in fields like law and psychology, it's important to look for professional accreditation (in this case, the American Bar Association and American Psychological Association respectively) in addition to regional accreditation.

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