If you attend an accredited school, you can rest assured that it maintains high academic standards. Several agencies have evaluated its core mission, admission standards, and faculty, among other aspects. If everything meets or exceeds expectations, the school receives accreditation. When you hold a degree from an accredited program, it is easier for you to find a job or continue your education. Nonaccredited schools have not undergone any evaluation, and their degrees are less accepted in society as a result. Sometimes, those degrees are not accepted at all.


What is accreditation?

Accreditation is a stamp of approval given to institutions that uphold high academic standards. An accredited school has submitted to a peer-review process and passed. It has been evaluated on its admissions standards, mission statement, ethics, faculty reputation, and academic rigor.

Who ensures that my school or program is accredited?

Accreditation agencies, also called accreditors or accrediting bodies, oversee the process. These private, nonprofit organizations are responsible for granting accreditation to schools that meet specific criteria outlined by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Who recognizes accrediting agencies?

Both the USDE and the CHEA recognize accrediting agencies. The USDE ensures that accreditation agencies adhere to federal laws and regulations. It maintains high standards to ensure that students are using federal financial aid dollars at legitimate, high-quality schools.

While the USDE is part of the government, the CHEA is a private organization, and its policies are determined by a board of directors. When recognizing accrediting agencies, the CHEA prioritizes academic quality. It prefers that its agencies accredit degree-granting institutions.

Is it important that my degree come from an accredited school?

If you want to pursue higher education in the future, it is important that you check the accreditation status of each of your prospective schools before you apply. Search for each school through the USDE and the CHEA databases.

Accreditation proves that an institution’s educational standards are rigorous. It ensures that students at a particular school have the credentials to pursue postgraduate study or enter the workforce after graduation. Unlike their peers at nonaccredited schools, students who graduate from accredited institutions are likely to have their degrees or certificates recognized by other schools and employers.

What are the different types of accreditation?

Colleges and universities can be accredited as a whole (institutional accreditation) as can specific departments within them (programmatic or specialized accreditation). When most people talk about accreditation at the undergraduate level, they are referring to the institutional kind. Students enrolled in career or graduate programs should see if their programs have more specialized accreditations.

What is institutional accreditation?

Institutional accreditation is a type of accreditation that applies to the entire school. It considers each program as a part of the whole, so it does not accredit departments individually. The idea is that all departments of an institutionally accredited school are maintaining overall standards, but there is no guarantee that each is contributing equally. Some programs may be stronger than others.

There are two types of institutional accreditation: regional and national. An accredited institution can be either regionally or nationally accredited, but not both. One type is not necessarily better than the other; they both follow CHEA and/or USDE standards. Once a school has either type of accreditation, its students may use federal financial aid such as loans, grants, and work-study. When they graduate, their degrees will be competitive and legitimate. While both types of accreditation are valid, there are some key differences between the two.

What is regional accreditation?

Regionally accredited schools strive to uphold strict academic standards. They are often considered more prestigious than nationally accredited schools. If you are considering transferring to a regionally accredited school, be aware that it may only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions.

Regional accreditation is the oldest accreditation system in the United States. It encompasses most nonprofit colleges and universities as well as some for-profit schools. There are also some regionally accredited online programs, known for their general education programs more than their career-driven ones. There are six regional accrediting agencies within the United States, detailed in the table below.

Accrediting Agency States Covered
Higher Learning Commission Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Middle States Commission on Higher Education Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges California, Hawaii (associate degree-granting institutions)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Senior College and University Commission California, Hawaii (bachelor’s degree-granting institutions and higher)


What is national accreditation?

National accrediting agencies often focus on career-based or online schools. Many for-profit institutions and vocational programs are nationally accredited. Unlike regional agencies, national agencies do not limit the scope of their work based on geography. They instead accredit institutions based on type (for example, faith-, program-, or career-based). Often, these institutions emphasize career training over liberal arts and general education. Their admissions policies may be less strict.

Students transferring to a nationally accredited school will likely be able to transfer their credits, regardless of whether they come from a nationally or regionally accredited institution. Credits are unlikely to transfer the other direction. Nationally accredited institutions may only offer certificate programs, not degrees.

Nationally accredited institutions are not always considered as prestigious as regionally accredited ones. When you apply to schools, consider how future employers or grad schools will regard your degree. Some renowned companies and schools will not recognize nationally accredited degrees. If you have a specific future employer or grad school in mind, call an HR representative or admissions counselor to ask if it values a specific type of institutional accreditation over the other. These professionals can speak to the policies of the company or institution.

What is programmatic accreditation?

Programmatic accreditation is the accreditation of a discipline, program, department, or school within a larger institution. This type of accreditation is particularly relevant to students who are pursuing careers in medicine, nursing, engineering, law, business, education, and pharmacy. Programmatic accrediting agencies recognize that not all types of schools are the same. A medical school should have different standards than a music therapy program, for example. In response, programmatic accrediting agencies rely on professionals in the field to set standards.

Attending an accredited institution is a great start, but it is important that students in career-oriented fields attend programs that have been programmatically accredited as well. This guarantees that the education and training received meets industry standards. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the programmatic accrediting agencies included on this list.

What is a nonaccredited school?

A nonaccredited school, as the name implies, does not have any accreditation. No accrediting agency has vouched for the legitimacy of their programs. It is recommended that you review information about the nonaccredited institutions on your list before you apply to them, if you apply at all. Some programs are new and do not yet have accreditation, but they should be undergoing a quality review process of some kind. Only apply to a nonaccredited school if you know where it stands in the accreditation process. Doing so will help you avoid problems during college and after graduation.

What are the drawbacks of attending a nonaccredited school?

If the college you choose to attend is not accredited, be aware:

  • You will not be eligible for any federal financial aid, such as grants, loans, or work-study.
  • In most states, you will not be eligible for state-based financial aid.
  • Future employers may be suspicious of your qualifications. They may pass over your application, instead favoring a candidate who earned a degree at an accredited institution.
  • If you intend to transfer schools in the future, your prospective school probably won’t accept any credits from a nonaccredited college. If you transfer to an accredited institution, you may have to retake all or some of the credits you passed at the nonaccredited school.

How do I know if my school is accredited or not?

Both the USDE and the CHEA maintain databases of schools accredited by recognized agencies. If your school does not appear on one of their lists, it is not accredited by either of these organizations.

Some new institutions may be currently seeking accreditation, which isn’t granted overnight. If you are interested in a school that is not currently accredited, ask an admissions officer where it stands in the accreditation process. This person should be able to give you the name of a legitimate accrediting agency that is working with the school. If not, the institution may be a “degree mill” or “diploma mill.”

What is a diploma mill?

Diploma mills disguise themselves as real schools, when instead they are fake and deceptive companies that provide customers with a credential in return for payment. They may have convincing names, but they are not schools. Sometimes they offer fake transcripts and references as part of the deal. Other diploma mills will try to justify their services by saying that they award academic credit for life experiences. People who pay diploma mills may never have to open a book, write an essay, or take a test to receive a “degree” or “certificate.” These credentials are not recognized by the workforce.

Diploma mills are never accredited. No recognized agency would ever issue accreditation to a school that outright sells diplomas or gives them out based on a person’s life experiences. Receiving a degree will never be immediate. It requires study, hard work, and time. If you shell out big bucks for a degree, make sure they go toward tuition, not a fake certificate.

How do I avoid diploma mills?

The best way to avoid applying to or attending a diploma mill is to check its accreditation upfront. Ensure that each school you are considering is legitimate by checking with the USDE or the CHEA. The following list offers additional advice.

  • Research a school’s accrediting agency. Some diploma mills will advertise themselves for what they are: Pay $2,000 and receive a fancy-looking piece of paper that says you’re a college graduate. Others will be sneakier. Their websites may claim that the school is accredited, but that may not be true. In the past few years, fake accrediting agencies called accreditation mills have begun to show up. They have names that sound real to fool students. You can find a complete list of real regional and national accrediting agencies here and an incomplete list of accreditation mills here.
  • Follow up with an institution’s reasonable excuses. If the institution you are considering is not accredited, be wary of its programs. There are a few honest reasons why a school has not received accreditation yet, but you will want to dig deeper before handing over a check or signing any paperwork. The accreditation process does take a significant amount of time, so check with your prospective school to find out if it is waiting for an accreditation decision. Double-check the name of the agency that it gives you. If the school is not accredited, take it off of your list.
  • Remember that degrees take time to earn. Watch out for schools that promise a degree in an unreasonable amount of time. A bachelor’s degree should take four years to complete. A school that promises a degree in half that time or less is likely a diploma mill.
  • Be suspicious of nontraditional payment methods. If the school you’re considering requires a lump sum in exchange for your degree, take a second look. Colleges charge per semester, trimester, or credit hour. Also, check the address where you have been asked to mail your paperwork and payment. Many colleges have a physical address, not a P.O. box. Never submit any money via wire transfer.
  • Do not pay for a program that sounds too good to be true. In short, if an institution seems too good to be true, it is. If you hope to receive a legitimate degree, you will have to work for it.

Page last updated: 04/2017