What Is Accreditation? How Does It Work?

Updated February 3, 2023

Regional accreditation is a voluntary process that colleges, universities, and academic programs undergo to demonstrate their quality.

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What is Accreditation?

What is accreditation? Accreditation is a voluntary process that colleges, universities, and academic programs undergo to demonstrate their quality. Three main types of accreditation exist in the U.S.: regional, national, and programmatic.

Colleges and universities can hold regional or national accreditation. Trade schools and religious schools tend to receive national accreditation, while regional accreditation is much more prevalent among public and nonprofit colleges.

Programmatic accreditation recognizes specialized academic programs or departments in certain fields, including nursing, education, and business. Read on to learn about the accreditation process and why accreditation is important.

Who Gives Accreditation to Universities?

Government agencies and non-governmental organizations both participate in the accreditation process. Accreditation agencies provide accreditation to universities, colleges, and academic programs through a rigorous evaluation process. Accreditation demonstrates that an institution or program and its graduates hold credibility with the larger educational community.

The Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation monitor approved agencies that accredit colleges and universities. They make sure that the public can trust each accrediting agency.

Why Accreditation Matters

Students may not realize why accreditation matters when they choose a college or university to attend. Accreditation ensures academic quality. The choice to attend an accredited school can impact each student's ability to receive federal financial aid or transfer credit to a new school. Students should check to make sure their prospective school holds accreditation.

How Does Accreditation Affect Financial Aid?

College students can only receive federal loans and other types of financial aid if they attend a regionally or nationally accredited institution. Corporate tuition assistance programs and other loan and scholarship programs often include accreditation requirements as part of their application criteria.

How Does Accreditation Affect Transfer Credits?

Students who transfer schools often cannot transfer credit from a non-accredited institution. Regionally accredited institutions typically do not accept credit from nationally accredited colleges. Almost all schools accept credit from regionally accredited institutions. Academic programs or departments with specialized accreditation usually only accept transfer credit from programs with accreditation from the same specialized accrediting agency.

Checking Accreditation

Students should research accreditation status before they enroll in any postsecondary institution or program. Look for accreditation information on each school or program's main webpage. Students can also email or call the school or program. Most accredited schools and programs happily provide this type of assistance to students. If a school or program refuses to provide accreditation information, consider it a red flag.

After locating accreditation information for a school or program, make sure to check if it is listed on the registry of agencies approved by the ED. If a school holds accreditation from a non-approved agency, students cannot get financial aid or transfer credit in most cases. Students can search for accreditation records by typing a school or program name into the ED's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

Types Of Accreditation

Accreditation typically applies to educational institutions as a whole, but it can also apply on a programmatic basis. Institutions can hold either regional or national accreditation. Read on to learn more about the differences between national, regional, and specialized accreditation.

Institutional – National

What is national accreditation? National accreditation usually applies to schools that focus on a specific type of education. Some programs only exist at nationally accredited colleges. Most religious schools and some technical training and vocational institutions receive national accreditation. Some of the most well-known national accrediting organizations include the following:

  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • Association for Biblical Higher Education
  • Council on Occupational Education

Institutional – Regional

What is regional accreditation? Regional accreditation means that a school met quality standards through a peer review process performed by an independent agency. Most nonprofit and public colleges and universities hold regional accreditation. The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions is a group of seven regional accrediting agencies, listed below:

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (and some schools in Asia)

Higher Learning Commission

Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming

Middle States Commission on Higher Education

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands

New England Commission of Higher Education

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some international institutions

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia

WASC Senior College and University Commission

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (in addition to certain schools in Asia)

Regional Accreditation vs. National Accreditation

Several differences exist between regional and national accreditation, and both types of accreditation present pros and cons.

Regional accreditation offers greater prestige and wider acceptance. Many employers prefer or require job candidates from regionally accredited schools, particularly for specific professions like education, social work, and engineering.

Although regionally accredited schools may charge higher tuition rates than nationally accredited schools, they may receive better access to federal financial aid. Regionally accredited institutions usually only accept transfer credit from other regionally accredited schools. Nationally accredited institutions may offer greater affordability than regionally accredited ones by charging less for tuition.

Some cons of attending a nationally accredited school include potential difficulty transferring credits, especially to regionally accredited schools. Also, students who plan to attend graduate school may find it more difficult to qualify for admission than those who earn an undergraduate degree at a regionally accredited university.

Specialized or Programmatic

While regional and national accreditation deal with educational institutions as a whole, programmatic or specialized accreditation assures the educational quality of smaller academic programs or departments. Many professional fields require individuals to hold a degree from a programmatically accredited program to qualify for licensure or certifications. For example, to qualify to receive a nursing license, nurses need a degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Other well-known programmatic accrediting agencies include the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, and the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs.

Some specialized accrediting agencies provide accreditation only to certain degree levels within a field, while others accredit all education levels. For example, the American Psychological Association provides accreditation to doctoral graduate programs in psychology, but not to bachelor’s or master’s programs.

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) provides national accreditation to online schools.

Which Accreditation is Best?

The best type of accreditation depends on each student and each situation. Regional accreditation is typically the best choice. It offers a better option than national accreditation for students who might want to transfer to another school or pursue careers like teaching or engineering. National accreditation may present the best option for students seeking a specific religious or vocational program that is not available at a regionally accredited school.

How Does Accreditation Work?

Each independent accrediting agency creates its own evaluation standards and accreditation process. Schools and programs typically apply for accreditation only after first familiarizing themselves with and preparing to meet that agency’s eligibility requirements. Once a school decides to apply, it typically must perform a self-evaluation, complete an application and readiness assessment, and undergo a curriculum review and third-party assessment.

The final step of the accreditation process usually includes an onsite evaluation. Once a college receives formal accreditation, it can publish its designation. Accredited schools must also periodically report information to maintain accreditation status.

Online schools and programs must meet the same eligibility requirements as traditional brick-and-mortar schools, but accreditors also evaluate the ability of the program or school to specifically serve online students.

Eligibility Requirements

Eligibility requirements for accreditation vary depending on which accrediting agency sets them, but they tend to be rigorous and comprehensive. Common requirements include demonstration of institutional stability, educational programs that meet minimum standards, presence of high-quality faculty members, and integrity in communication efforts with the public and the accrediting commission in question.

Accrediting agencies also typically require that institutions demonstrate the legal authority to operate in their state of residence, financial accountability, the presence of a mission statement, evidence of academic freedom, and a consistent admissions policy.

For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) includes 19 eligibility requirements that colleges and universities must fulfill to qualify for accreditation. HLC eligibility requirements include a history of stable operations, educational programs appropriate for a postsecondary institution, financial capacity, employment of qualified faculty, and access to adequate learning and support services.

Eligibility requirements for online accreditation through DEAC differ slightly from those for schools with traditional on-campus programs. Accredited online schools must offer at least 51% of instruction at a distance or through correspondence, hold appropriate state licenses, and demonstrate evidence of financial stability.

The DEAC Accreditation Handbook lays out additional eligibility requirements.


The process of institutional self-evaluation gives schools the opportunity to evaluate their institution’s educational quality in the context of the accrediting agency’s eligibility requirements. Colleges use the self-evaluation period to think about institutional accomplishments, future goals, and overall effectiveness. It also gives institutions the chance to identify areas of weakness and create plans to address them on their own prior to independent evaluation from a third party.

Self-evaluation reports must include an explanation of how institutional practices and policies align with the accrediting organization’s eligibility requirements. Evaluation metrics include evidence of student learning outcomes, evidence of quality program review, evidence of quality student support services, and evidence of financial integrity. Online schools must also complete self-evaluation reports.

The timeline for self-evaluation varies. Small schools may complete the process in a few months, but larger institutions may require up to one year. Applicants work out an expected timeline with their accrediting agency.

Accrediting organizations host accreditation workshops for schools in the self-evaluation phase. An accreditation workshop lets potential applicants gain a clearer understanding of an accrediting agency’s procedures and standards. Participants also share and learn from the experiences of other schools pursuing accreditation.

Application and Readiness Assessment

After a school completes self-evaluation, it can submit a formal application. An application for accreditation typically remains valid for up to one year after submission. The entire accreditation process takes 18-24 months. Smaller institutions usually complete the process faster than larger ones. The application fee varies significantly by accrediting agency and other factors. For example, an institution applying for accreditation from the DEAC for the first time pays $8,000-$15,000.

Traditional brick-and-mortar applicants include the self-evaluation report, along with information like faculty rosters, achievement data, evidence of student learning outcomes, and evidence of quality program review.

For online schools applying for accreditation for the first time, the DEAC requires a readiness assessment with an independent expert evaluator. The evaluator and a DEAC staff member read the self-readiness report and determine if the college is ready to undergo a full onsite exam by an evaluation committee. The readiness assessment determines if the school’s self-evaluation includes enough information for a successful committee review.

The readiness assessment also gives the evaluator an opportunity to provide feedback to the school and suggest ways it can better prepare for the accreditation review. The readiness assessment also includes a thorough vetting to make sure the institution meets the DEAC’s eligibility criteria. If a readiness assessment deems a school not ready, the institution gets six months to revise and resubmit its self-evaluation report.

Curriculum Review and Third-Party Assessment

Only online schools undergo curriculum review and third-party assessment. In this part of the process, the DEAC selects a sample of courses required for review. Schools submit required course materials, including textbooks, kits, hardware, and tools to undergo a thorough vetting by third-party subject specialists.

The curriculum review takes up to six months, including the search for subject specialists and initial review. The DEAC does not return course materials submitted as part of the institution’s application. Institutions must respond to any problematic findings from the curriculum review at least two weeks prior to the onsite evaluation.

Onsite Evaluation

The onsite evaluation consists of a scheduled peer-review process in which an independent group of evaluators travels to the school. The peer-review group completes a comprehensive assessment and determines if the school meets the accrediting agency’s requirements. The onsite team evaluates the institution based on the information in its self-evaluation report and gathers additional information for the accrediting agency.

The onsite team may include an education evaluator, a specialist for each subject area, a business evaluator, an accrediting agency staff member, and observers from state or federal agencies. The team also includes a chair who oversees the onsite evaluation and makes sure that everyone on the team completes their work. Prior to the onsite evaluation, everyone on the team reads the self-evaluation report


The team meets with important faculty members, staff, and board members during the visit. They may also talk to current students, recent graduates, deans and college administrators, and student affairs officers. The onsite evaluators also tour and observe classrooms, libraries, faculty offices, distance-learning sites, and clinical facilities.

If a school does not meet the accrediting agency’s standards during an onsite evaluation, it receives a report describing why the institution does not meet the standards and gets a chance to respond.

Publication and Maintaining Accreditation

Once a school receives notification that it passed the onsite evaluation, it must submit its final evaluation information. The school then waits until the accrediting commission gives it permission to publish its new accreditation status.

Pre-accreditation status refers to when a program or school is currently in the process of pursuing accreditation and is likely to receive full accreditation soon. A school can advertise its pre-accreditation status once the accrediting agency tells the institution it has met all requirements.

Once a school receives full accreditation, it must maintain accreditation by undergoing periodic quality assurance evaluations from its accrediting agency. Schools participate in continuous review processes that take place every 3-10 years depending on the accrediting agency.

If the agency finds significant changes that cause it to question the institution, it may require a complete reevaluation. Schools must report information that could lead to loss of accreditation, such as significant growth or decline in enrollments, number of programs, or changes in financial condition.

Students can typically find a school’s accreditation status on the school’s website or the accrediting agency’s website. Another resource for determining a school’s accreditation status is the ED’s searchable Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

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