State Council of Higher Education for Virginia




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Explanation of Accreditation

Accreditation is a non-governmental, professional peer-review process by which educational institutions and programs are provided technical assistance and are evaluated for quality based on preestablished academic and administrative standards. It is a process that assures the educational community and the general public that an institution or a program has clearly defined and appropriate objectives and maintains conditions under which their achievement can reasonably be expected. Accreditation encourages improvement through continuous self-study and review and fosters excellence in postsecondary education through the development of principles and guidelines for assessing educational effectiveness and ethical business practices.

Functions of Accreditation

  • Certify that an institution or program has met established standards.
  • Assist prospective students in identifying acceptable institutions.
  • Assist institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credit.
  • Help to identify institutions and programs for the investment of public and private funds.
  • Protect an institution against harmful internal and external pressure.
  • Create goals for self-improvement of weaker programs and stimulating a general rising of standards among educational institutions.
  • Involve the faculty and staff comprehensively in evaluation and planning.
  • Establish criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading courses offering such preparation.
  • Provide one of several considerations used as a basis for determining eligibility for Federal
    financial aid assistance.

Types of Accreditation

There are two basic types of educational accreditation: “institutional” and “specialized” or “programmatic.” 

“Institutional” accreditation applies to the entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts contributes to the achievement of the institution's objectives.

Institutional accrediting bodies are either regional or national. The first difference between the two types is one of geographical scope. Regional accreditors concentrate on a specific area of the country, while national accreditors are available to any interested institution.

Another difference is their history and focus. The regional accrediting bodies started as leagues of traditional colleges and universities in a specific area. Historically, these institutions prepare individuals for advanced degrees. By contrast, the national accrediting bodies started as associations of institutions with a common theme and usually accredit institutions with career-focused curriculum.

“Specialized” or “programmatic” accreditation normally applies to programs, departments or schools that are parts of an institution. Programs such as law, medicine, pharmacy, engineering and business are examples of programs requiring specialized accreditation.

Accreditation does not mean institutions will automatically accept credit earned at another institution, nor does it ensure that employers necessarily will accept graduates. Acceptance of students or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institutions or employers. For these reasons, students should take additional measures before enrollment to determine whether or not their educational goals will be met by attending a particular institution. These measures should include checking with institutions to which the student might want to transfer or with prospective employers. It's a good idea if possible to make a personal inspection of the institutions the student is considering.

To ensure the school you are considering is accredited by a reliable accrediting agency; the accreditor should be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Additional information about accreditation and a listing of recognized accreditors can be found on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Unaccredited Schools

You can receive a quality education from a non-accredited school. A number of postsecondary institutions have legitimate reasons for not seeking accreditation. For example, accreditation is a lengthy process. Accreditors require an institution to operate successfully for a number of years to determine its viability before it will consider if for accreditation. 

Institutions focusing on vocational-training programs may choose not to seek accreditation and still offer widely accepted certifications. Their reputation and curricula may be deemed superior by the community as well as the workforce. In the end, each student must decide the value of the education the institution provides and the benefits he or she will receive from its programs.

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