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Accreditation in the United States is a voluntary, nongovernmental process, in which an institution and its programs are evaluated against standards for measuring quality.
Accrediting Agencies Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education recognizes select accrediting agencies as reliable authorities regarding the quality of education or training offered by the institutions or programs they accredit. Accreditation by a recognized accrediting agency is part of the requirements for institutions to participate in federal student aid programs. The Secretary and the Department are not responsible for accrediting institutions of higher education. Accrediting agencies accredit institutions, colleges, universities, and programs.
Note: The U.S. Department of Education does not have the authority to accredit private or public elementary or secondary schools, and the Department does not recognize accrediting bodies for the accreditation of private or public elementary and secondary schools. However, the U.S. Department of Education does recognize accrediting bodies for the accreditation of institutions of higher (postsecondary) education. If an accrediting body which is recognized by the Department for higher education also accredits elementary and secondary schools, the Department's recognition applies only to the agency's accreditation of postsecondary institutions.
Important: Accrediting agencies may voluntarily seek recognition from the Secretary only if the schools and institutions the agency accredits need the Secretary's recognition in order to participate in some federal program, such as the federal student financial aid programs.
Accrediting agencies recognized by the Secretary meet certain criteria, the institutions accredited by those agencies meet standards that address the quality of an institution and its programs. An accrediting agency that meets the Department's criteria for recognition is determined to be a reliable authority in measuring the quality of education or training provided by the institutions it accredits in the United States and its territories. Agencies that meet these criteria are placed on the Department's List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies.
Unrecognized Accrediting Agencies
Unrecognized accrediting agencies have not had their accreditation standards reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education. There are a variety of reasons why an agency is unrecognized, some agencies may be working towards recognition with the Secretary and others may not meet the criteria for recognition.An unrecognized accrediting agency should be viewed with caution until its reputation can be determined. Although these accrediting agencies are unrecognized, it does not mean that they do not have high standards of quality. Likewise, because the Secretary does not recognize an accrediting agency does not mean that the institutions accredited by that agency do not provide a quality education.
Remember: Many employers in the United States only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Secretary of Education. The federal government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has been involved with keeping diploma mill degrees from the federal workplace. "OPM has provided ongoing guidance to federal departments and agencies... making it clear that so-called 'degrees' from diploma mills will not be accepted for purposes of qualifying for federal positions, for student loan repayment, and for purposes of paying for employees to obtain college degrees."
Any institution can claim to be accredited. It is important that you, as a consumer, do your homework. For more information about recognized and unrecognized accrediting agencies, as well fraud, waste, and abuse related to accreditation, take a look at the U.S. Network for Education Information.
Accredited institutions have agreed to have their institution and its programs reviewed to determine the quality of education and training being provided. If an institution is accredited by a recognized agency, its teachers, coursework, and facilities, equipment, and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education and get what they pay for. Attending an accredited institution is often a requirement for employment and can be helpful later on if you want to transfer academic credits to another institution.
Unaccredited institutions are not reviewed against a set of standards to determine the quality of their education and training. This does not necessarily mean that an unaccredited institution is of poor quality, but earning a degree from an unaccredited institution may create problems for students. Some employers, institutions, and licensing boards only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. With this in mind, it is recommended that students check with other institutions regarding the transfer of credit policy to determine if that institution would accept the degree and/or credits earned from any institution they plan to enroll in.
Remember: In some states, it can be illegal to use a degree from an institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, unless approved by the state licensing agency.