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What accreditation says about a US university's standards

If you attend an institution that is not accredited, there’s no guarantee that the education you get will meet basic standards or be recognized by other institutions and future employers
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   16-09-2016
Image by Dale Leschnitzer, used under CC BY 2.0 licence

Everyone who dreams of studying in the United States has heard of Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT. Of course, not everyone gets accepted into these schools. Most of us are far more likely to end up attending universities that are not as famous, but which still provide an excellent education, thanks to their accomplished faculty – including many who are rock stars in their field – excellent library and lab facilities, and opportunities for research, funding, and relevant practical experience.

There are more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions in the US. Obviously, that includes many names you’ve never heard of. It’s safe to bet that not a single one has ever claimed to be mediocre or fraudulent, and sure enough, most of them are good schools. But there are some that could end up ruining your life.

It’s a great strength of US higher education that its institutions enjoy freedom from control and interference. But this also means the character and quality of colleges and programs varies widely. Although there is no central authority to regulate and supervise colleges and universities, the US government’s Department of Education recognizes the accreditation of institutions. Accreditation means that institutions and programs are assessed through a system of non-governmental peer evaluation to ensure basic standards.
 

How does accreditation help students?
If you study at an accredited institution, you are assured of a quality education. However, accreditation does not automatically mean that academic credits earned at one university are transferrable to another – each university has its own standards and criteria. Accreditation only means that it meets or exceeds basic standards as defined by the accrediting authority. So if you want to transfer to a different school, check whether it will accept the credits you earned at your previous institution. Accreditation is also no guarantee of a job after you graduate. That just depends on the job market. When you are deciding where to apply for higher studies, choose schools based on how well they are likely to help you achieve your educational goals.
 

Who does the accrediting, and how?
The US Department of Education recognizes specific authorities as reliable authorities on the quality of education. These authorities are based on region, broad academic area, and specialized fields. The department periodically reviews these agencies in order to renew recognition. A complete official list of nationally recognized accrediting authorities can be found here.

Accreditors establish standards in collaboration with educational institutions and programs. Any institution that is being accredited first prepares an in-depth self-evaluation of its own performance against those standards. Then a team of peers selected by the accreditor reviews the institution to determine independently whether it meets the standards. If it is found to be satisfactory, it receives accreditation or preaccreditation status, and is listed as such in an official publication. The status can affect the institution’s ability to award federal student aid.

Accreditors monitor each institution or program throughout the period of accreditation, to verify that standards don’t drop, and they periodically re-evaluate it to extend or change its status.

Accreditation may be institutional or specialized. Institutional accreditation is applicable to an entire university or college, and is granted by regional and national accreditors. Specialized or programmatic accreditation is granted to particular programs, departments, or schools within a university. Usually, specialized accreditors review such units within a university that is accredited by a regional or national accreditor, but they may also accredit professional schools or vocational institutions.

Accreditation helps promote continuous improvement of universities and colleges, and benefits students and their future employers.



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