College Accreditation and Why You Should Give a Damn (Part 1)

One of the reasons I started writing this blog (in addition to ranting about poor sink design) was so I’d have a place to publish the things I can’t get away with at work. This is one of those things. It’s a professional soapbox of mine, and one I don’t often get to stand on. I do community outreach regarding financial literacy and preparing and paying for college, and this is something that comes up frequently but that I have to tread lightly around so as not to offend anyone.

So here’s a disclaimer before we get started. The thoughts contained in this post (and the entire blog, actually) are my personal opinion, and do not in any way reflect my professional affiliations, my employer’s opinions, or the stance of the organization for which I work. Now, on to the good stuff.


This word gets kicked around like crazy when people are trying to figure out what college to go to, and it’s a highly misunderstood creature. Asking about accreditation is like asking for THE recipe for chili. Everyone will tell you that their chili is THE chili, and you’ll get all different kinds of final products out of it. They will all be chili, but you’ll get a Texas chili, a Cincinnati chili, a chili verde, a mild turkey chili, and a chili so hot you can’t eat it without a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread.

Here is a definition (from Merriam Webster) to get us started on this accreditation business.

Accredit: to recognize (an educational institution) as maintaining standards that qualify the graduates for admission to higher or more specialized institutions or for professional practice.

Basically, the point is to have some kind of standards of comparison for higher education. If I had the capital, I could open the School of Smartypants tomorrow and claim to instruct people in the fine arts of silver polishing, candlestick making, and public speaking. But without accreditation, you as a consumer would have no baseline to judge whether or not I’m full of crap. And other schools would not know whether or not my instruction was any good, so they wouldn’t know if my school was comparable to theirs. And the federal government wouldn’t be sure whether or not students were wasting their time with me, so they wouldn’t let my students have federal aid like Pell grants, Stafford loans, or the like.

The US Department of Education publishes a list of recognized accreditation agencies. If the college you’re considering is accredited by an agency that is NOT on this list, I would be highly suspicious. In fact, I would run straight out the door before they got any more of my money or time.

Here is the first complication: accreditation is a completely voluntary process, and accreditation agencies are not uniformly regulated. And there are different kinds of these agencies. Institutional, national, regional, programmatic, those that accredit non-profit schools (like state colleges) and those that accredit for-profit schools (like career colleges), etc. Basically, for a college to claim that they have accreditation doesn’t mean a whole heckuvalot until you know what TYPE of accreditation they have.

Where this becomes really important is in transferability of credits. Let’s say you go to The Online College of Knowing Stuff (a for-profit college) and you complete a program for ultrasound technology. This program is accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Training Schools and Programs. You then want to go to the State University of Your State (accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities), and use those credits towards a bachelor of science degree in biology.

You’ve already run into your first major problem. Your earned credits from the Online College of Knowing Stuff were essentially measured by a different yardstick than the one that State University of Your State uses to judge its classes. Chances are good that your credits won’t transfer. In short, this means that the money and time you spent getting your certificate in ultrasound technology aren’t any good at the State University of Your State. That’s not to say that you can’t get a job with your certificate, just that you probably will have to re-take a lot of classes if you want to more further in your education.

COMING UP NEXT: College Accreditation and Why You Should Give a Damn (Part II).

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