Generally, accreditation is the process by which a facility becomes officially certified as providing services of a reasonably good quality, so that the public can trust in the quality of its services.
In the United States, the term is most often used with reference to schools and hospitals, neither of which are directly certified by the federal government. Instead, because of the long tradition of libertarianism in the U.S., accreditation is performed by private nonprofit bodies known as accreditors.
In contrast, in other countries, higher education institutions must receive the permission of the government to operate, and thus accreditation is performed by the government. For example, in Australia, higher education providers generally need approval of the federal or state governments (or a non_government body to whom this power has been delegated), or an Act of Parliament, depending on the nature of the institution. This system differs in that unaccredited institutions are often illegal, and thus diploma mills are much less of a problem in these countries.
Accreditation of schools in the U.S.
Accreditation is very important for schools in countries that operate under federal systems of government, like the United States of America. Because the federal government's Department of Education currently lacks direct plenary authority to regulate schools (in contrast to the powerful Ministries of Education in many other countries), it cannot vouch for the quality of any school's degree.
Therefore, educational accreditation has traditionally been done in the U.S. by private accreditors. These are formed, funded, and operated by their members; obviously this puts them in an uneasy balance between maintaining the public's trust and not kicking out too many of their poorly performing members (who are also their source of revenue). They are not government agencies, although they often appear to have quasi-governmental powers to the extent that their blessing can make a postsecondary school's students eligible for federal student aid.
Today, there are two major types of accreditors: regional and national.
Each regional accreditor encompasses the vast majority of public and nonprofit private schools in the region they serve. They include among their membership nearly all elementary schools, junior high schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, public universities, and private universities.
Because of their size, prolonged existence, and visibility, the regional accreditors have the strongest credibility of any accreditor with each other, private employers, and the federal and state governments. People graduating or earning credit from any regionally accredited school usually have little difficulty having their degrees or units recognized at other regionally accredited schools. Of course, that assumes they can meet the other school's admission requirements, if it has a selective admission policy.
Here is a list of the regional accreditors:
The national accreditors include a variety of professional and vocational accreditors, and get their name from their common policy of accrediting schools nationwide or even worldwide. Of the professional accreditors, the most powerful is probably the American Bar Association; its accreditation of one's law school is a prerequisite to sitting for the bar exam in nearly all states (California is the famous exception). Next would probably be the Association of American Medical Colleges for medical schools, and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business for business schools.
There are many other national accreditors out there, which are too numerous to list here. These are usually formed by vocational or trade schools whose admission requirements and curricula are not stringent enough to qualify them for membership in the regional accreditation organizations. The result is that most regionally accredited schools will not accept transfer credit from most nationally accredited schools. A few unsophisticated students enroll in vocational schools every year without understanding this important distinction, and are horrified when they discover that their units are non-transferable (after they have racked up thousands of dollars in student loan debt).
Despite the credit transfer problem, many national accreditation organizations for vocational schools are legitimate and the certificates or degrees issued by their members are generally considered to be a bona fide prerequisite for working in certain fields.
However, every year, one sees the occasional diploma mill (where both the student and the proprietor know the student is buying fraudulent academic credentials) or scam (where the student is not aware of the fraud), where the "accreditor" is a post office box or Web page owned by the proprietor of the school.
Prospective vocational students should carefully research the credentials they will need to work in their chosen vocation, and find out which organization is considered by employers to be the legitimate accreditor for that field. By the time the student discovers their selected school and its accreditor are a scam, the proprietor may have signed up the hapless student for gigantic student loans. At that point, the student may have few legal options available. Student loans usually cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, it is extremely difficult to arrange for the forgiveness of student loan debt, and few attorneys specialize in such matters.
- Office of Degree Authorization - Official State of Oregon Website (http://www.osac.state.or.us/oda/unaccredited.html)
- Non-accredited Schools (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/Non-accreditedSchools_78090_7.pdf) (Michigan gov. document)
- Wired News (http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,63436,00.html)
- CBS News (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/10/eveningnews/main616664.shtml)
- WOAI (http://www.woai.com/troubleshooters/story.aspx?content_id=9786AD9F-9742-448A-B78B-5C42B4241302)