The hard part is making the commitment to go back to school. That, after all, involves exploring all the fields of study that interest you as well as undertaking a bit of soul-searching. But once you have made the decision to continue your education, you'll be faced with a seemingly endless selection of programs from which to choose. Some of them are traditional and classroom-based. Others are held entirely in Cyberspace. The question, then, is this: How are you supposed to know whether these programs are legitimate? And why does it matter in the first place? Isn't the simple fact that you're earning your degree what's truly important?
This is where accreditation comes into play.
But first, a cautionary tale:
In 2004, the Fox television network began broadcasting a reality show called "The Swan," in which women who believed they were unattractive were given complete makeovers, including (but certainly not limited to) plastic surgery, dental treatments, and psychological counseling from a therapist named Dr. Lynn Ianni. But in May of that year, it was discovered that Ianni was not a doctor at all.
"Ianni received her bachelor's degree (in psychology and elementary education) from the State University of New York and then got her master's in 1978 from Notre Dame. Twenty years later, 'Dr. Ianni went on to get her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from California Coast University,' [her bio on the Fox's website noted].
"But the Santa Ana school isn't your standard institution of higher education. California Coast 'does not require formal on-campus attendance or classroom attendance' and its degree programs 'have not been designed to meet any particular local, state, or national licensing or credentialing laws,' according to a 2003-04 school catalog. In fact, the for-profit California Coast charges a flat fee for particular degrees (Ianni's 1998 doctorate would have set her back about $4000)...Prospective students are often recruited via advertisements placed in in-flight magazines." (www.thesmokinggun.com)
The moral, of course, is that enrolling in an accredited program is of the utmost importance. Had Ianni checked up on the school she chose for her "doctorate," she might still be with Fox today.
But even this can seem a bit murky. In order to clarify the situation, then, we have compiled the following primer on accreditation.
Before you get too excited about a specific program, you should make sure it is accredited. This means that an outside, not-for-profit organization has reviewed the structure and nature of the program itself in order to ensure that it complies with a specific set of standards.
There are, however, several different types of accreditation, and not all are created equal.
Regional accreditation, for example, is the highest level a school can attain. This means that it has been certified as acceptable by one of the six nationally-recognized accrediting organizations in the country. These include the following:
The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, for example, "is one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States, each [of which is] responsible for a specific geographic area. Within these six associations, there are eight commissions serving postsecondary education.
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
"Regional accrediting associations accredit institutions as a whole, not specific programs. Academic programs are reviewed as part of the evaluation of an entire institution, and they are included within the scope of the institutional accreditation." (www.msche.org)
In other words, a regionally accredited program will actually provide a legitimate education, and the degree you eventually earn will have weight in the workforce. A degree from an unaccredited institution will not be considered nearly as impressive - or, for that matter, legitimate at all.
There are other forms of accreditation as well, but regional accreditation still tops them. This is because the standards by which these six recognized organizations consider each individual school's application for accreditation are the most stringent. Therefore, a degree from a regionally-accredited school is the most impressive, and will carry the most weight.
But this does not mean that nationally accredited schools or programs are necessarily inferior. It simply means that they may likely carry less weight than their regionally-accredited counterparts. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, "National accrediting organizations operate throughout the country and review entire institutions...Many are single purpose institutions focused on a specific mission such as education in information technology or business. Some are faith based." In other words, while the standards set by these national accrediting organizations may be rather high, the types of institutions they accredit are often much more specialized than the institutions that have been accredited by the regional organizations.
There are also "Specialized accrediting organizations...[that] review programs and some single-purpose institutions." (www.chea.org). These organizations accredit institutions that offer education in specific and often practical areas of study. The American Board of Funeral Service Education and the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists are two examples of specialized accrediting organizations.(www.chea.org)
Beyond all this, even the accrediting organization itself must be accredited by the United States Department of Education. This is truly a multi-layered process.
Once a program has finally been accredited, however, prospective students can feel confident that they will be getting an education that is worthy of all the time and money they will be investing in it. (www.ed.gov)
The most important thing you can do to ensure that the program or institution you are considering is accredited by a legitimate organization is to visit either www.UCEAdirectory.org or the Department of Education's website (www.ed.gov) for more information. You can also contact the institution itself to find out if it is in fact accredited (and if so, by whom), and then research the accrediting organization to verify that it is legitimate and government-recognized.
You cannot be too careful. This is, after all, your education. And you don't want to fall into the same trap as "Dr." Lynn Ianni, from "The Swan." There is, sadly, no makeover show for careers ruined by faux-degrees from illegitimate educational institutions.
Send this article to a friend
Back to the Student Information Center