One of the worst things that can happen to a student, is unknowingly attending (and paying for) a college, university, or program that is not accredited. Attending an unaccredited school may have drastic consequences to the student. First, federal and state governments will most likely not provide financial aid. Second, credits earned may not transfer to another school that is accredited meaning the student needs to start over. Lastly, students may not be receiving the education they need to be employable in their chosen field. These consequences are why verifying a school's accreditation needs to be an important step in your college search.
How Accreditation Works
The purpose of accreditation is to protect the public by improving both the quality and accountability of colleges, universities, and programs. However, the U.S. Department of Education does not perform the accreditation. Instead, they rely on private associations that they've determined are reliable authorities. These authorities develop the criteria used to evaluate the education provided by schools and programs to ensure they meet acceptable levels of quality. Among other things, these accreditations can serve as a seal of approval to students and employers regarding the quality of education being provided. While the Department of Education allows students and employers to search a school or program's accreditation online it is recommended that you verify the information with the accrediting association instead as it is up to date.
Researching accreditation is an important part of the college search process as it will help students avoid 'diploma mills'. Diploma mills offer illegitimate degrees/certificates, many times unbeknownst to the students, in order to charge them money. Unfortunately, there are also 'accreditation mills' that offer bogus accreditation to make it appear as if a school/program is legitimate. Luckily, verifying accreditation is easy. Start by looking up an accrediting association with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA, which advocates and coordinates the U.S. accreditation process, provides a list called U.S. Recognized Accrediting Organizations. If the association is not on the list, then you should avoid the school. If the association is on the list, then follow up with them to verify that the school's accreditation is up to date.
Other Accreditation Considerations
According to CHEA, there are 87 accrediting associations in the U.S. that focus on schools as a whole (18) or on specific programs within schools (69). The accreditation associations that focus on schools as a whole fall into two types: regional and national. Regional accreditation associations focus on schools in specific geographical areas of the U.S. and are the most common accreditations that you will come across as those associations have been around the longest. National accreditation associations focus on schools nationwide. This means that accreditation takes on a new level of importance for students as it may affect the ability to transfer credits between schools that are accredited by different associations. Regionally and nationally accredited schools will normally accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools. However, it is not always the case that credits will transfer from nationally accredited schools to regionally accredited schools.
If you are concerned about a college accepting your transfer credits, first check with the school you are transferring to before making any decisions.