Online University Accreditation – National vs. Regional Accreditation
Distance learning has given access to higher education to many individuals who would otherwise be without it. The rise of online universities has created questions about how they are accredited as well as how the credits and degrees are perceived by other schools and employers. The two primary types of accreditation are used by all colleges and universities, but the differences between the the two types of accreditation are never clearly explained by these institutions. There is a major difference between national and regional accreditation, and prospective students should understand these differences when they are vetting a school to acquire a degree as it may affect how the degree will be viewed.
Accreditation agencies certify that its member schools have met a set of minimum standards. These standards are designed to ensure students receive an adequate education. Receiving accreditation is a long and thorough process. To receive accreditation, a school usually has to submit an application, pay fees, submit a self-study and be evaluated by a visiting accrediting team. There are two main types of accreditation: regional and national.
Regional accrediting agencies accredit colleges in a particular geographic area. For online schools without a physical campus, this is typically where the school is headquartered. This type of accreditation qualifies schools to apply for participation in government financial aid programs. Credits earned at a regionally-accredited school are generally recognized by both regionally and nationally-accredited schools. Degrees from a regionally accredited school are also generally recognized for professional licenses.
There are 6 regional accreditation agencies in the US, broken up by geographic area, and they are all recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). They are:
- Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Higher Education)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (Commission on Technical and Career Institutions and Commission on Institutions of Higher Education)
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (The Higher Learning Commission)
- Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Colleges)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities)
National accrediting agencies accredit colleges throughout the nation and is a designation used to evaluate and accredit particular types of schools and colleges. While there are a few, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT) evaluates career schools and technology programs and the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accredits colleges that offer distance education, which is most commonly used for online universities.
Schools with national accreditation are also eligible to apply for federal financial aid program participation. Transferability of credits earned at a nationally-accredited school may be limited, though. Nationally-accredited schools may grant credit for credits earned at a different nationally accredited school, but the number of regionally-accredited schools that accept credits earned at nationally accredited schools may be substantially smaller. Recognition of nationally-accredited degrees for professional licenses differs form jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It should also be noted that there are two main subsections of national accreditation.
A large portion of nationally-accredited schools are trade, vocational and career schools. There are accreditation agencies that primarily accredit these types of schools. Program areas often include cosmetology, building trades, culinary arts and computer technology.
Another large group of schools that are nationally-accredited are faith-based schools. This includes Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries. In addition to academic and institutional requirements, schools must often also accept the religious doctrine of the accrediting agencies. For this reason among others, some schools may prefer national accreditation over regional accreditation.
It is also possible that a regionally-accredited school may not be eligible for national accreditation. Further, it is important to note that a school can be both regionally and nationally accredited. Schools may see advantages or disadvantages to both. Prospective students should also be aware that no school is required to accept transfer credits from another school simply because of its accreditation status. As schools often (but not always) have one or the other type of accreditation status, they are not always comparable as there are reasons for choosing one type of accreditation over the other.
To summarize why it is important to know the difference a potential student should be aware of certain issues that may influence their decision to acquire a degree from a school with one or the other type of accreditation.
Transferability of credits. While nationally accredited schools will generally accept credits earned at other nationally accredited schools, regionally accredited schools are much less likely to accept credits earned at nationally accredited schools.
What this means is that, for example, if you earn an associates degree from an nationally accredited school, a regionally accredited school may not accept that degree and allow you to enroll in a bachelor program, you will have to start the process over. The same would apply for higher degrees. State colleges and universities are primarily regionally accredited, so trying to acquire credits or a degree to pursue another degree at a state school or college may backfire.
In a nutshell, if you choose a nationally accredited school for any degree or credits, you will probably be limited to moving up the degree ladder in only nationally accredited schools. That will not apply for degrees and credits earned at regionally accredited schools.
A final issue may be how an employer will regard a degree from a nationally accredited school. While many may know the difference, there is the possibility that a degree from a nationally accredited school may limit your employment opportunities. Only your employer or prospective employer can tell you if a degree from that type of accreditation is accepted if it is required for promotion to a particular position within that firm or company.
To find out the accreditation status of online universities, simply go to their official websites and search for their accreditation information. Go to website of the education department to see if the listed accreditation agencies are recognized by the government. Also, check with the accrediting agencies to see if the schools have any current accreditation issues of note.