If you’re searching for the best school or academic program for you, you’ve probably heard that you should only consider accredited colleges or accredited online degrees. But it’s also important to understand that accreditation alone isn’t enough. The type of accreditation and who’s doing the accrediting matters.
What kind of accreditation should a college have is a critical question to ask for many reasons including transferability of credits, and, in some cases, admittance to graduate school or eligibility for certain industry certifications.
We talked with Dr. Joseph Hoey, associate provost of academic services at National University, about accredited colleges and why researching the type of accreditation matters when applying to schools.
What Type of College Accreditations Are Available?
In the United States you’ll find more than 60 higher education accrediting bodies. Among these Department of Education-approved organizations you’ll find three main types of accreditation:
Regional accreditors typically focus on academically oriented, state-owned or not-for-profit institutions (like National University). According to Hoey, regional accreditation is the “gold standard” when it comes to oversight of higher education. Online degree programs offered at these institutions are also usually included under their accreditation.
National accreditation generally covers niche institutions: for example, faith-based or single-discipline colleges (like an art school, for instance). According to Hoey, though, national accreditors “by and large focus on career and trade schools,” which are often for-profit institutions. Consequently, credits earned at nationally accredited colleges (or nationally accredited online degrees) may not transfer into a regionally accredited school.
Programmatic accreditation, as its name implies, is reserved for specific degree programs, such as engineering, accounting, education, nursing, and other regulated professions. Hoey says these accreditations are attractive, if not required, for many employers.
“[Programmatic accreditation] is a mark of quality for an institution,” he says. “It shows that students attended a school with a rigorous curriculum. To employers, this is a huge sign of the quality of preparation of students.”
What Kind of Accreditation Should a College Have to Ensure Transferability of Credits?
When comparing accredited colleges or accredited online degrees, you should also think about your long-term career goals. For example, you might wish to earn an associate degree and, later, move on to a bachelor’s degree at a different school. Or maybe you’re working toward your bachelor’s degree with the intention to eventually attend graduate school. Finally, perhaps you are likely to relocate at some point (for instance, if you or your spouse is in the military), but you want to start school now, knowing the move may also entail transferring schools.
In all of these scenarios, transferring credits most likely will come into play. As noted in the previous section, regionally accredited colleges typically only accept transfer credits from similar institutions. In other words, credits earned at a nationally accredited career or trade school may not be accepted at a traditional four-year college. Hoey says this often is because academic standards differ between the two. For this reason, he advises: “there is some risk involved for students” when choosing to attend a school with national accreditation. Simply put, ensuring transferability of credits can save you time and money.
What Kind of Accreditation Should a College Have for Specific Career Paths
Certain career fields — or positions within an industry — require specific skills and knowledge. Programmatic accrediting bodies ensure individual degree programs meet the most up-to-date standards and best practices of that discipline. For example, many top engineering firms or technology companies may look for graduates of ABET-accredited programs. (ABET stands for Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology.)
Here are a just a few examples of majors or career fields in which employers might require (or at least prefer) graduates from an accredited program:
- Actuarial Science
- Computer Science
- Occupational Therapy
- Physical Therapy
- Physician Assistant
- Public Health
Also, depending on your field of interest, you should also look into requirements for state or national board certification exams or even eligibility for membership in professional organizations; an accredited program may be beneficial or necessary for your career growth. Finally, program-based accreditations may also matter for graduate school eligibility.
You can view the full list of recognized programmatic accrediting bodies at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation website.
Prior to applying to a school — and definitely before showing up to your first class or beginning an online degree — make sure you know and understand that school’s accreditation. Remember: All accredited colleges are not the same. While regional accreditation likely opens you up to more opportunities, the answer to “what type of accreditation should a college have” really hinges on your personal needs and career goals.
National University has been accredited since 1977 by WASC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. National is also home to several accredited degree programs, including the ABET-accredited bachelor of science in computer science and a bachelor of science in nursing accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Learn more about all of our on-campus and online degree programs here.