Graduate School Accreditation
What Is graduate school accreditation?
Graduate school accreditation is a process which determines whether a graduate institution meets generally accepted minimum standards. To put it in crass terms, it is something like a seal of approval for educational programs, giving some assurance that the institution in question is academically reputable and provides a quality education.
American colleges and universities receive accreditation from one of a number of private, non-governmental councils. In the U.S., accreditation is voluntary. Schools may continue to enroll students and award degrees even if they fail accreditation or choose not to participate in any accreditation process. (U.S. higher education is unusual in this regard. In most countries, it is typically the government that accredits universities and authorizes them to accept students and award degrees.)
U.S. accrediting bodies include several national organizations as well as six regional associations of colleges and universities. The regional associations are the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the Northwest Association of Colleges and Schools, and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
The two kinds of graduate school accreditation
Institutional accreditation looks at a college or university as a whole. It reviews educational activities and standards as well as administration, governance, financial stability, admissions practices, institutional resources, student and faculty achievement, and relationships with other educational, governmental, and professional institutions. Institutional accreditation is traditionally awarded through the six geographically-based associations mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Institutional accreditation is a vote of confidence in the overall quality of a college or university. It does not necessarily mean that every department or program at the institution is of the same quality.
Program accreditation (also called specialty or professional accreditation) looks at the quality of a specific program. National (often professional) associations award program accreditation. For example, the American Bar Association accredits law schools; the American Psychological Association accredits psychology programs; and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredits engineering programs. Program accreditation does not exist for all professions or disciplines, and it is more important for some disciplines than it is for others.
Why is accreditation important?
As we noted earlier, educational accreditation in the U.S. is voluntary. Schools, colleges, and universities can operate even if they are not institutionally accredited. However, not having institutional accreditation has important consequences for a college or university – and for students.
Federal and state financial aid is generally available only to students attending accredited institutions. Bank loans, private scholarships, and employer tuition assistance may also be unavailable for study at non-accredited schools.
U.S. embassies might not grant student visas for study at non-accredited institutions.
Degrees and academic credit from non-accredited institutions might not be recognized or accepted by other educational institutions, or by employers. You may not be able to get a job or promotion on the basis of the degree, or transfer credit to another college or university, or gain admittance to graduate school.
Program accreditation matters more for some fields than it does for others. It is vitally important for fields such as law, medicine, nursing, and engineering. Holding a degree from a non-accredited school may bar you from employment. In other fields, such as business, study at a non-program accredited school can make it more difficult to enter graduate programs or to gain professional certification.
How do I know whether a college, university, or program is accredited?
Colleges and universities are proud of their graduate school accreditation. They will highlight this information in their catalogs and brochures and on their web sites. Admissions officers and other staff should be happy to provide this information as well.
You can also get information about accredited institutions and programs from the accrediting bodies themselves. The website of any accrediting body will have a list of the colleges and schools it recognizes.
The bottom line
Lack of institutional accreditation is always a red flag. There may be a perfectly good reason why an institution is not accredited. Even so, you will want to know what that reason is and what impact non-accreditation has on the school’s programs and degrees.
Program accreditation is absolutely vital for some fields. A degree from a non-accredited medical school, for example, is absolutely worthless. For other fields, program accreditation is less important, and you might want to focus on other factors in choosing a program.
Although accreditation is important, it is by no means the only thing you should consider in looking at colleges and universities. Keep in mind that even accredited institutions have programs that vary in quality. A university may have an outstanding liberal arts college but a relatively new and undeveloped computer science program. For that matter, an accredited school of journalism may have a top-flight print program but a weaker broadcast program. Accreditation can help you narrow down the list of colleges and universities you want to apply to, but it is only one of a number of issues you need to think about in choosing the school that is right for you.