Because U.S. colleges are unregulated by any central government agency, their quality varies widely. While there’s no standard set of criteria or protocol for college accreditation in the U.S., looking at the type of accreditation that a college has can help you determine what kind of education it offers.

U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t accredit colleges itself, but it recognizes certain accrediting agencies as authorities on evaluating colleges and programs. Agencies who want to be recognized by the Department of Education apply to the Accrediting Agency Evaluation Unit in the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Education. The DOE recognizes accrediting bodies only for higher education, not for K-12 education.

Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies

Each accrediting agency gets to establish its own standards for accrediting colleges. To gain DOE recognition, an agency must provide a written defense of its criteria for accreditation and show that it meets all DOE requirements for accrediting agencies. The DOE recognizes these agencies as authorities on institutional accreditation or specialized accreditation. It also keeps a public list of currently accredited colleges, programs and agencies called “The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.”

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation applies to an entire college, rather than to specific programs at that college. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, for instance, is authorized to accredit “senior colleges and universities” in California and Hawaii and on several Pacific islands. To determine whether to give a college institutional accreditation, agencies look at student achievement as measured by metrics like course completion and job placement rates, curriculum design, faculty credentials, facilities and technology, financial well-being, recruiting and admissions, grading standards and degrees offered.

Specialized Accreditation

Specialized, or programmatic, accreditation applies to only one program within a college. For example, a nursing program at a college must be accredited by a different agency than the one that accredits the whole school, because that institutional accreditation agency doesn’t have the authority or expertise to accredit nursing programs. California State University at Bakersfield is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, but its undergraduate and graduate nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing. The CCN looks at governance, resources, curriculum and teaching, and student and faculty outcomes specific to rigorous nursing programs.

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