Educational institutions are granted accreditation by specific accrediting agencies. There are three different types of agencies in the United States: regional, national, and programmatic. Each type of agency accredits a different category of schools and programs.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
Regional accrediting agencies each serve a certain geographic region of the United States, and some of them serve international regions, as well. They accredit postsecondary institutions as well as primary and secondary schools. Each of these agencies is primarily concerned with the accreditation of academically oriented, non-profit schools, rather than technical or career-based schools. The University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University, for example, have each received accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. This type of accreditation granted by regional agencies is known as institutional accreditation. It acknowledges that all components of an institution are functioning and working towards specific goals. There are six regional accrediting agencies that operate in the United States:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education, serving Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, serving Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, serving Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, serving Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, serving Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges, serving California, Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa.
National Accrediting Agencies
National accrediting agencies have a slightly different function. As their name suggests, national agencies accredit schools across the entire country. They typically accredit vocational, technical, or career-based, for-profit schools. While some agencies, such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, focus primarily on providing institutional accreditation, others, such as the American Academy for Liberal Education, offer both institutional and programmatic accreditation.
One of the key issues concerning regional and national accrediting agencies is the transfer of credits earned. Many regionally accredited institutes will not accept credits from nationally accredited institutes, and vice versa. Schools will, however, generally accept transfer credits from schools with similar types of accreditation, because that indicates that they have comparable curriculums and standards.
Programmatic, or specialized, accrediting agencies concentrate on programs, departments, and schools within larger universities. Institutions that receive accreditation from programmatic agencies generally also have institutional accreditation. While some programmatic agencies offer both programmatic and institutional accreditation, many institutes choose to pursue institutional accreditation from a regional agency. One of the prominent programmatic agencies is the National Architectural Accrediting Board , which bears sole responsibility for accrediting all architectural programs within the United States.
Just as institutions apply to these different agencies for accreditation, the agencies apply to the U.S. Department of Education for federal recognition. The process is somewhat similar: the Department of Education establishes standards that recognized agencies should meet, and teams evaluate the agencies to see if they satisfy those criteria. An agency recognized by the government is analogous to an educational institution accredited by an agency. Universities and colleges can trust that such an agency is a valid, reputable source for accreditation.
When you are browsing colleges, don’t just check if a school is accredited. Check that the accrediting agency is also recognized by the Department of Education. If the agency is not recognized, the school should be avoided, just as if it had no accreditation at all. The Department of Education maintains a list of recognized accrediting agencies at its website.
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of Education Accreditation Database
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Middle States Commission on Higher Education
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
American Academy for Liberal Education
National Architectural Accrediting Board