Guide to Graduate School Accreditation

College Accreditation Guide for Graduate Students

Choosing a graduate school has become increasingly complex due to the many factors students must consider when vetting potential programs. Not only should students look for a school with rigorous curriculum and engaged faculty members, but they should seek out an institution that has been properly accredited as well. This last part of the equation confuses many, mainly because few students understand accreditation and just how important it is.

Simply put, accreditation is the process that institutions of higher education undergo to confirm they meet high-quality educational standards. This process takes place through accrediting bodies, which are private, nongovernmental agencies that have been created for this sole purpose. Accreditation is so important that even accrediting agencies are subject to scrutiny and reviewed for quality by institutions such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE).

The purpose of accreditation is to increase the quality of education offered at the college level. Schools that have been properly accredited must participate in a stringent screening process that ensures all quality standards are being met or exceeded.

The Benefits of Attending an Accredited School

When a school has been accredited by the appropriate national or regional agency, students and employers are able to trust the quality of the education received. This is especially important for students who hope to use their degree to further their careers or simply get their foot in the door upon graduating. Benefits that come with attending an accredited school can last a lifetime, and they may include the following:

More Financial Aid Opportunities

Did you know that federal grants and loans are only available to students who attend institutions of higher education that have been properly accredited? Students who want access to as many aid opportunities as possible would be wise to seek out accredited schools that won't disqualify them from receiving federal financial incentives. This is especially important at a graduate level since many students are trying to keep the overall costs of their education under control. Having access to federal financial aid can be a huge assistance to a student's finances depending on their income, occupation and other factors.

Third-Party Evaluation

Since accredited schools must undergo a stringent accreditation process, students can rest assured knowing they received the highest quality education possible. Third-party vetting is also crucial for students who may not have the experience or time to research schools and degree programs on their own. Graduate school accreditation is especially important since advanced degrees are meant to propel one's career forward.

High-Quality Standards

Since accreditation is an ongoing process, schools who take their pledge seriously must continually push for the highest quality standards. Most accrediting agencies require schools to reapply and improve over time to keep their accredited status, and this ensures that qualified schools never stop trying to improve their educational offerings and standards.

Easier Credit Transfers

Since students frequently switch schools for a variety of reasons, it's important to choose an institution that makes it easy for college credits to transfer. Even graduate-level students switch institutions frequently due to a number of circumstances that may be out of their control. Since some universities only accept academic credits and degrees from institutions that have been regionally or nationally accredited, choosing an accredited school from the get-go is a must.

Employer Recognition

Applying for a first job can be scary, but having a degree or credential from an accredited school is one way to have the upper hand. Accreditation shows potential employers that any education received was of the highest quality available, and this can help improve one's job prospects.

Ability to Sit for Certification Exams

Certain careers, including those in healthcare and technical industries, may require workers to become certified in their respective fields. However, many professions will not let students sit for a certification exam unless they earned their degree from an accredited school or program. Whether one needs to be certified to work in their field or not, this is just another reason accreditation is such an important component of one's college experience.

How Do Graduate Schools Become Accredited?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation can be achieved in a number of ways depending on the school and program. For example, some schools must be accredited regionally, while others are accredited on a national level. Some types of accrediting bodies focus on accrediting specialized disciplines and types of educational programs.

Regardless, the basic steps of graduate school accreditation are the same:

  1. Preparation and self-examination: As a school prepares for accreditation, they will begin the task of gathering materials that display their accomplishments. This may include a written report, along with accreditation paperwork required by the accrediting agency.
  2. Peer review: After an institution submits their formal accreditation paperwork, a group of peers from academia and administration will conduct an overview of the application in order to review the school's accomplishments. This peer review may also take place in person, as groups of peers visit the institution to see its processes and high-quality standards in action.
  3. Visit and examination: Upon completion of the peer review, accrediting agencies send a team of professionals to visit the school applying for accrediting status. During this visit, the team will conduct an in-depth review of the school's programs and offerings, taking special care to assess the quality of education on display.
  4. Decision time: Once an on-site visit is completed, the accrediting agency will regroup to discuss findings and reach a final decision. During this process, schools and programs are typically granted accredited status or denied with the understanding they can reapply when circumstances change or improve.
  5. Ongoing review: Graduate school accreditation is never final and is actually an ongoing affair. Depending on the accrediting agency involved, schools are often required to periodically resubmit their paperwork and begin the process over again. The ongoing nature of accreditation ensures that schools never become complacent and that they are constantly reviewed and held to the highest standards possible.

Different College Accreditation Types

Confused yet? You're not alone. The fact that there are so many different types of accreditation makes it difficult for students to know whether their school or program is properly accredited or not. The following explanations of each type of accreditation available should help clear things up.

Institutional — According to the U.S. Department of Education, institutional accreditation normally applies to "an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution's parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution's objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality." Simply put, a college or university with institutional accreditation holds the title across all of its programs.

Regional and National — Institutions can be accredited by both regional and national accrediting agencies at the same time. Regional accreditation means that an institution has been evaluated by an accrediting agency in their part of the country (i.e., New England or the Midwest), while national accrediting agencies accesses quality on a national level.

Specialized — The U.S. Department of Education notes that specialized accreditation normally applies to "the evaluation of programs, departments, or schools which usually are parts of a total collegiate or other postsecondary institution." In most cases, this means that specialized accreditation covers a specific program or component of an institution's educational offerings, but not the entire school.

How to Check College Accreditation

Graduate school accreditation is crucial for students who want high-quality education that will help further their careers. Unfortunately, there are plenty of scams within higher education, including some false or predatory accrediting agencies and even schools. These dishonest institutions create fake accreditation standards that make it easy to trick students into overpaying for degrees that aren't genuine or held to the highest quality standards.

Students should go out of their way to recognize and avoid fake accrediting agencies. The first step involves checking in with the U.S. Department of Education to find out which accrediting agencies are listed on its website. On their site, students can browse regional and national institutional accrediting agencies, specialized accrediting agencies, and accrediting agencies recognized for Title IV purposes to become familiar with them. If an accrediting agency is not listed on the U.S. Department of Education website, it's a fraud.

In addition to false and misleading accrediting agencies, schools that offer cheap and easy degrees also abound. Institutions that fall into this category conduct shady practices that make it impossible for them to be accredited by a genuine, government-recognized accrediting agency. Common signs to look for in an institution include the following:

  • Shady institutions may advertise college degrees for purchase.
  • Diploma mills will let you earn a degree faster than another comparable degree program.
  • Some schools may offer degrees that are suspiciously cheap or dramatically overpriced.
  • Schools that aren't accredited may claim accredited status from a fraudulent accrediting agency not registered with the U.S. Department of Education.

At the end of the day, it's a student's responsibility to determine if their graduate school is properly accredited. The best way for students to accomplish this is to know what to watch out for and conduct some basic research on graduate school accreditation on their own. If in doubt, you can also ask your school about their accredited status, taking special care to ensure they — and your future program — are accredited by an agency backed by the U.S. government.


Accreditation: Universities and Higher Education, U.S. Department of Education, http://www.ed.gov/accreditation

Accreditation in the United States, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg5.html#NationallyRecognized

FAQs About Accreditation, U.S. Department of Labor, http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/FAQAccr.aspx

The Importance of Accreditation, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=4320

Transfer of Credit, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, http://www.acics.org/students/content.aspx?id=2084