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The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited institutions and educational programs. Photograph by Razihusin/iStock/Thinkstock
The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited institutions and educational programs. Photograph by Razihusin/iStock/Thinkstock

Credible Accreditation

Use the U.S. Department of Education database to get up-to-date information on accreditation for a measure of program quality and a pathway to financial aid.


Studying in the United States can be a wonderful experience. It’s a chance to experience American culture, to travel across the country and to grow intellectually and socially. It’s also a big investment of time and resources. So, before you make that investment, it would be a good idea to ensure the institution you’re thinking of studying at is accredited.

Accreditation is the recognition that an educational institution, or program, meets “acceptable levels of quality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation is a critical component of the financial aid process as well—only students attending accredited schools or programs are eligible for federal financial aid in the United States.

There are two basic types of educational accreditation—institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation usually applies to an entire institution, indicating each of its parts contributes to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, though not necessarily all at the same level of quality. Specialized accreditation, on the other hand, usually applies to programs, departments or schools, parts of a total college or other postsecondary institutions. The unit accredited may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline.


Accrediting agencies
Who decides which institutions or programs meet the requisite standards? Not the Department of Education, but nongovernmental organizations and federal or state government agencies that act as accreditors. The Department of Education recognizes accreditors, but only those which apply for its recognition, many do not. These accreditors establish operating standards for educational or professional institutions and programs, determine the extent to which the standards are met, and publicly announce the findings.


Determining acceptability
Recognized accreditors use several criteria to determine an “acceptable” level of quality for an institution or program, depending on the area of study. Some of the common criteria are retention and completion rates (how many students stay with programs and finish them), employment rates (how many students have jobs lined up after graduation), exam pass rates and student satisfaction (based on surveys and other qualitative data). The statistical and anecdotal data is collected as part of a larger process undertaken by accreditors in collaboration with educational institutions and programs. Based on these, accreditors and educators set the quality standards together.

The schools or programs seeking accreditation do a self-evaluation to measure their performance against the agreed-upon standards. After this, accreditors select teams of peers to conduct on-site reviews to determine, firsthand, if the institutions or programs meet the standards. Some accreditors may even conduct periodic unannounced visits to schools or programs.

 

It’s been only 10 months since I have been in the U.S., and I am already feeling this is the best decision of my life. I came here on a full-tuition waiver, thanks to the University of South Florida offering me a graduate teaching assistantship. Working as a teaching assistant, I could meet a lot of people. I realized the importance of networking very soon, and had a very strong network within three months of coming here. I got three internship offers, all because of referrals from my network. This country has been good to me so far, and I am sure it will keep treating me like this in future.

—Nisarg Shah is pursuing a Master of Science degree in business analytics and information systems at the University of South Florida.

ACICS accreditation
The Department of Education maintains a database of accredited institutions and educational programs. It’s important to check this database when applying to an institution, as it includes up-to-date information from only approved accreditors. This is a critical feature, as highlighted by the revocation of recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of the oldest and largest accreditors in the United States, in December 2016. President Donald Trump’s administration also has recently backed the decision to terminate ACICS’s recognition. A legal brief filed by the Department of Education in April 2017 says, “Among other deficiencies, ACICS failed to adopt and properly implement standards relating to student achievement, failed to demonstrate its ability to monitor effectively the institutions it accredited, and failed to initiate in a timely manner adverse action against institutions engaging in misconduct.”

 

ACICS, founded in 1912, accredits approximately 900 campuses—245 main and 674 additional locations—in 47 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. The decision to revoke its recognition affected more than 16,000 international students attending around 130 Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified schools and programs, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The ACICS-accredited institutions have filed paperwork with the Department of Education to retain their federal aid eligibility for 18 months while seeking a new accreditor.


International students
International students must take action if they are participating in an ACICS-accredited English as a Second Language (ESL) program or are attending an ACICS-accredited school and wanting to participate in a 24-month science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) optional practical training (OPT) extension in the future.

For detailed information and guidance, you should visit ICE.gov/SEVP. If you have a specific question, you may also contact the SEVP Response Center.

There are, of course, many other regional and national accreditors which are still recognized as reliable authorities on the quality of education. These include Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges; Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training; Distance Education Accrediting Commission; and Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

It should be noted that not all educational exchange programs between India and the United States require Indian students to attend accredited programs. It would help to look at the specific requirements for your visa or course of study when selecting your program. Also, keep in mind accreditation alone does not ensure your credits will transfer to other universities; that’s a question you need to ask the specific schools you’re applying to. Don’t hesitate to talk to potential employers as well to determine their opinions of particular programs.

Although not the only criterion, accreditation is definitely a good starting point to help narrow down your choices of U.S. institutions with the highest educational standards.

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.