Institutions of higher education undergo a process known as accreditation to ensure that their programs meet specified standards of quality. Accrediting agencies are private associations that create evaluation criteria and carry out peer assessments to determine whether an institution of higher education meets the agency's standards and can be accredited. The agencies are regional or national in scope and may also grant accreditation based on specialty areas of study like medicine or law.
Types of Accreditation
There are three types of accreditation bodies -- national, regional and specialty. When you check for accreditation, note that the school could be accredited by several agencies. If you are verifying the accreditation of a nursing program, look for accreditation by a specialty agency, whereas a regional or national agency would be appropriate when you are investigating liberal arts colleges.
The United States Department of Education's Postsecondary Education Office maintains a database of the national, regional and specialty accreditation agencies. You can conduct a search for accredited schools by using the name of the institution or the name of the accrediting agency. Using the name of the institution will permit you to see all of the accrediting agencies that have granted accreditation to the school; using of the name of the accrediting agency lets you know whether a particular agency has accredited the school.
Contacting the Institution
The database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education may not have the most recent accreditation data. By contacting the institution by telephone or email, you can ask directly whether the school is accredited or you can consult the official website of the school where accreditation information is usually also listed. Always verify any statements regarding accreditation made by the institution by contacting the accreditation agency directly.
If you receive information directly from the school concerning accreditation that does not agree with the database information, investigate further. For example, if the school states that it is accredited but that information is not in the database, contact the accrediting body directly to clarify the status of accreditation. When contacting the accrediting body, inquire about the results of the most recent accreditation as well as any areas or times when the body has withdrawn or denied accreditation.
Some organizations offer accreditation to institutions of higher learning. While the school may be "accredited" by such an organization, the organization may not be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or by the Council for Higher Education. The accreditation process of such organizations may be difficult to compare or verify.