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Over the last decade, more online education institutions have offered degrees in a wide range of disciplines. These programs attract students with appealing features, such as low tuition rates or fast-track timelines.
While plenty of these programs are legitimate, some aren't. It's important to investigate the program's accreditation before you enroll.
What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation means that a university, college, or academic program meets quality standards. The U.S. has no national, centralized authority that regulates learning institutions. Therefore, accrediting agencies began as a way to help learners figure out whether a college or university offers a quality educational experience.
Accreditation is awarded by one of the many private agencies that either the Department of Education (ED) or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has given authority.
There are two main types of accreditation: institutional and specialized/programmatic. Institutional accreditation applies to agencies that evaluate entire colleges or universities. Programmatic applies to a department or program within an institution.
The American Psychological Association (APA) runs the Commission on Accreditation, which accredits doctoral graduate degrees, doctoral-level internships, and postdoctoral programs in psychology.
Programs in related disciplines, such as social work and counseling, receive accreditation from different agencies. You can find the relevant accreditation agency to your area of study by visiting the ED and CHEA websites.
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Why Does Accreditation Matter?
Why does it matter if a school or program is accredited? Most employers prefer to see that your degree is from an accredited institution because it indicates you have received a quality education.
With jobs that require licensure, such as registered nurses and licensed clinical psychologists, employers usually only hire candidates with degrees from accredited institutions. This is because state licensing boards require applicants to have completed a program that has been accredited by an approved institution.
For example, to become a psychologist, you need to meet the requirements of your state's licensing board. This typically requires a doctoral degree in psychology from an APA-accredited program.
It would be disappointing to invest your money and time in completing a program that doesn't qualify you for the necessary license or certification to start your career. This is why it's important to find out the requirements to become licensed in your state and the designated accreditation agency before you enroll.
Regional Versus National Accreditation
In researching a school or program's accreditation, you may come across the terms "regional accreditation" and "national accreditation." In 2020, the ED removed the distinction between regional and national accreditation.
Regionally accredited schools were considered more prestigious because their accreditation standards were more strict. National accreditation was considered less rigorous, often associated with for-profit institutions. State licensing boards generally only let individuals who had graduated from regionally accredited institutions sit for licensing exams.
However, higher education institutions and state licensing bodies have been slow to update their requirements to reflect the ED's change. You may notice in your research that many still only accept individuals who attended regionally accredited programs.
If you plan to become a psychologist, counselor, social worker, or other type of mental healthcare professional that requires a license to practice, you must meet the requirements of your state's licensing board. If your state still requires a degree from a regionally accredited institution, this is crucial to know before beginning an academic program.
How to Make Sure a School or Program Is Accredited
Most colleges or universities display accreditation status on their websites. However, degree mills, sometimes known as diploma mills, may use tricky wording or advertise accreditation by a fraudulent agency to deceive potential students.
Use the ED's search engine and/or the CHEA's search engine to find out:
- If the institution or program is accredited by an ED- or CHEA-approved agency
- What kind of accreditation they hold
Check your state licensing board's website to see what kind of accreditation is currently required (regional or national) and make sure it lines up with the accreditation your university or program possesses.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it illegal for colleges and universities to be unaccredited?
In some countries, unaccredited institutions can't legally call themselves colleges or universities. But in the U.S., these terms are not legally protected on a national level. An unaccredited institution can use the words "university" or "college" in their name.
Are for-profit colleges accredited?
Many for-profit schools have some kind of accreditation, but this doesn't mean that state licensing boards, master's programs, or doctoral programs will accept a degree from a for-profit college.
How do I know if my school has the correct type of accreditation?
To become a psychologist, counselor, or licensed clinical social worker, you need to get licensure. To determine the type of accreditation that your state's licensing body requires for this, visit your state's website and find the page that specifies their licensing requirements.
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