Accreditation: What does it mean?

Imagine that you’ve completed the hours of coursework, tests, and assignments leading to a master’s degree in education, only to be told later by a future employer that your degree doesn’t meet their standards.

While many online degree programs are legitimate and widely accepted as higher institutions of learning, some degree programs pass themselves off as more qualified than they actually are. These programs might claim to provide a quality education, but won’t benefit your career or growth as a teacher.

That’s why it’s important to research a university’s accreditation status before enrolling. Universities earn accreditation by passing rigorous standards set by approved accrediting agencies around the country. By ensuring your online university program is accredited, you will be confident that your degree will be recognized by future employers and other universities.

What is accreditation?

According to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), the goal of accreditation is to “ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.”

What’s the deal with accreditation?
The U.S. Department of Education lists several functions of accreditation:

  • Verify that an institution or program meets established standards
  • Assisting prospective students in identifying those standards
  • Assisting institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits
  • Helping to identify institutions for the investment of public and private funds
  • Protecting institutions against harmful internal or external pressure
  • Creating goals for self-improvement for weaker programs
  • Involving faculty and staff in institutional evaluation and planning
  • Establishing criteria for professional certification and licensure
  • Providing one of several considerations used for determining eligibility of federal assistance

The USDE doesn’t directly involve itself in the accreditation process, however. Instead, accrediting agencies and organizations recognized by the government assess universities and determine their accreditation statuses.

Universities voluntarily request evaluation for accreditation status from the three main types of accrediting agencies:

  • Regional Accrediting Agencies
  • National Accrediting Agencies
  • Specialized or Professional Accrediting Agencies

Degrees from universities approved by regional accrediting agencies are the most widely accepted and trusted by employers or state certification guidelines. If you’re worried about whether or not your degree will be accepted in your state, your best bet is to attend an online degree program that has been regionally accredited. There are six regional accrediting agencies in the United States, including:

While receiving a degree from a regionally accredited online university may be desired, that doesn’t mean your program won’t be accepted if it’s nationally accredited. Many online degree programs are accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).

Most employers will consider degrees accredited by the DETC as legitimate, and most degree holders don’t encounter difficulty when applying for jobs. Issues sometimes arise when a student attempts to transfer credits from a nationally accredited university to a regionally accredited one though.

However, the DETC notes that most students do not encounter these problems, and approximately 70% of students are able to transfer credits.

What do accrediting agencies look for?
When a university applies for accreditation, accrediting agencies determine whether they are eligible or not through a strict set of standards. While different accrediting agencies have different standards, here are some of the areas agencies commonly examine:

  • Admissions requirements
  • Field experiences
  • Qualifications of the faculty
  • Conceptual framework
  • Financial support

In addition to regional and national accrediting agencies, specialized or professional agencies also approve certain degree programs. Specialized accrediting agencies typically review individual university programs. For example, many online teacher degree programs are accredited through the Teacher Education Accreditation Council and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

When looking at universities that offer specialized accredited programs, students must examine their state’s specific teacher certification requirements to see if degrees are recognized from that university. This cannot be stressed enough. Even if a university claims to be accredited, that does not mean your state recognizes that accrediting agency.

Watching out for diploma mills

Unfortunately, some online universities attempt to pass themselves off as legitimately accredited when in reality, degrees from these universities are not recognized by agencies or employers.

These universities, sometimes called “diploma mills” often have low admissions requirements, little to no teacher contact, and give college credit on the basis of “life experience.” If you’re looking at an online university that seems too good to be true, chances are it is.

Diploma mills may be based outside of the country, and might claim to be accredited by various agencies. However, it’s important to research whether or not these accredited agencies are recognized by the USDE or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) provides several tips to students examining online degree programs. When looking at schools, watch out for some of the following red flags:

  • Degrees can be earned in less time than at a typical university
  • The list of accrediting agencies seems too impressive
  • Program places too much emphasis on offering college credits for real world experience
  • Tuition is paid on a per-degree basis
  • Little to no interaction with teachers
  • University name is similar to another well-known university

Just because some diploma mills attempt to pass themselves off as real universities doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate, effective, and quality online degree programs available. When looking to enroll at a university, you must do your own research and check to see if a degree program is recognized in your state.

Researching accreditation status

According to the USDE, there are 17 regional and national accrediting agencies and 41 specialized accrediting agencies.

While researching your desired degree program, you should take plenty of notes and try to obtain a full understanding of how the program is accredited, and if your state recognizes that accrediting agency. The USDE provides information on accreditation status of all universities, which can be found here.

Through the search function, you can obtain a list of the national, regional, and specialized accrediting agencies that have accredited your desired university. Unfortunately, even if your university is accredited by an agency, that doesn’t necessarily mean that agency is recognized in the state you wish to teach in.

Because every state has different standards for teacher certification, some individuals may encounter difficulty seeking licensure with a degree from on online university.

For example, if you receive a degree from a program accredited by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, you shouldn’t have issues obtaining certification in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, or Wyoming. However, if you’re trying to obtain certification in another state that is unlisted, you might encounter resistance from that state’s Department of Education.

Additionally, each state has certain approved teacher preparation programs required to earn licensure in that state. The most important step you can take before enrolling in an online degree program is to contact your state’s Department of Education to specifically ask if your program is approved.

Plan ahead

Doing the initial research into a university’s accreditation status will help save you from major headaches and issues when applying for jobs and teacher certification in the future. By ensuring your university is accredited, and that the accrediting agency is recognized, you’ll be well prepared to meet your state’s teaching standards.

If you’re interested in learning more about online education, request information from universities that offer master’s degrees in education.