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College Accreditation: Regional or National and Why It Matters

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Online education gives people who would not otherwise be able to attend normal classes the opportunity to earn degrees, and online colleges and universities are becoming more common than ever. Despite their growing popularity, online schools have a bit of a suspicious stigma attached to them, and “Is the school accredited?” is frequently asked about online colleges. That’s an important question, but accreditation is something you should be concerned with whether you plan on attending a physical campus or taking classes though an online university.

College Accreditation

Educational accreditation is a formal quality assurance process performed by an outside organization that determines if proper standards are met by a particular school or program. If these levels of quality have been met, then accreditation is granted by the outside organization. It can be thought of as a way to prove that your degree was earned from an institution which meets certain standards, or a way to recognize that you completed a program that provided you with a quality education.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Here you will find lists of regional and national accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit.”

In most countries, educational accreditation is done through a government organization. The United States is different, and college accreditation organizations are not linked to any government agencies.

Regional Accreditation vs. National Accreditation

When choosing a college or university, you will want to know which accreditation agency the school is accredited by. Regionally accredited schools are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions while nationally accredited schools are normally for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs.

Your best bet is to choose a school that is regionally accredited instead of one that is nationally accredited.

Why does this matter? Nationally accredited schools are often considered to have lower academic standards than regionally accredited schools, causing their degrees to be considered less impressive than degrees from regionally accredited schools. Employers may look down upon degrees from a nationally accredited school.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that most regionally accredited schools will not accept transfer credits from a nationally accredited school for that very reason. I personally ran into this situation a few years ago. I was debating between attending classes at a local nationally accredited school and returning to my previous university in order to take classes there. The first school was extremely pushy in encouraging me to sign up then and there. When I asked about accreditation, they assured me that they were nationally accredited. When I set up an appointment with an admissions counselor at the school where I earned my first degree, they explained that if I wound up attending the other school first, they would not accept any transfer credits because it was not a regionally accredited institution.

Regional Accreditation Agencies

In the United States, there are six regional accreditation agencies which accredit various regions.

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools: Educational institutions in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, as well as schools for American children in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges: Educational institutions in the six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Educational institutions in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
  • Northwest Association of Accredited Schools: primary and secondary schools and Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: postsecondary institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Educational institutions in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands.
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Educational institutions in Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.

If you decide to attend an online program that is a part of a regionally accredited school, most likely the online degree is still from the regionally accredited school. Be sure to check into this beforehand.

National Accreditation Agencies

Many for-profit institutions are nationally accredited by accreditation agencies that are owned by the same corporation which owns the school. If you think that you will ever want to transfer to another school, you may want to check with the other school to see if they will accept transfer credits from the nationally accredited school.

Some online college programs claim to be nationally accredited, as do some schools with physical campuses. If you opt to attend an educational institution which is accredited by a national accreditation agency, keep in mind that it may be part of an organization with low academic standards and little or no recognition from other educational organizations or potential employers. This is why regional accreditation remains the most widely accepted form of accreditation. Also realize that in most cases you cannot obtain federal student loans to attend a nationally accredited institution.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education; Wikipedia


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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