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The Quality Factor

Accreditation is a stamp of acceptability and a gateway to financial aid at U.S. universities.

Want to study in the United States? There are lots of things to think about: Which school? Which program? Which location? How long will you stay? How do you know if a school or program is strong in your field? Is financial aid available?

While some of your decisions will be based on personal preferences, knowing whether a program is accredited can help assure you of its quality and lay the groundwork for the financial aid application process. In the United States, only students attending accredited schools or programs are eligible for financial aid from the federal government. Accreditation means that either a nongovernmental organization or a federal or state government agency has determined that the institution or the program meets “acceptable levels of quality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But what’s acceptable? Although the answer depends upon the area of study, some of the common criteria that accreditors consider include retention and completion rates (how many students stay with programs and complete them), employment rates (how many students have jobs lined up after graduation), examination pass rates and student satisfaction (based on surveys and other qualitative data collection).

Gathering this data—both statistical and anecdotal—is part of a larger process accreditors undertake in collaboration with educational institutions and programs. Together, the accreditors and educators set quality standards. Then, the school or program seeking accreditation does a self-evaluation to measure its performance against the agreed-upon standards. Next, the accreditors select a team of peers to conduct an on-site review to determine, firsthand, if an institution or program meets those standards. Some accreditors like the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools also check if the schools have organizational plans in place to ensure their long-term effectiveness and financial stability from year to year. Such accreditors may conduct periodic unannounced visits to schools or programs as well.

After confirming an acceptable baseline level of quality, accreditors like the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools issue their accreditations on one of two levels: institutional or specialized/programmatic. An institutional accreditation applies to an entire institution and signifies each of its entities contributes to the achievement of its objectives. A specialized or programmatic accreditation certifies the quality of specific programs, departments or schools within an institution. The unit accredited may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Periods of accreditation last three to eight years with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, but they may vary with other accreditors. During this period, accreditors monitor institutions and programs to ascertain that they remain in compliance with the set standards. At the end of the accreditation period, the institutions and programs are reevaluated and accreditors decide whether to continue their accreditation or condition it on certain changes and developments.

Accreditation has long been a part of the U.S. education system. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools was founded in 1912. Accreditation came about because of the decentralized nature of U.S. higher education—universities and colleges have a great deal of autonomy and independence and, as a result, can differ widely in their quality and their approach to learning. By establishing accreditation as a system of peer review, the United States could set a minimum standard of quality in post-secondary education without inhibiting the freedom of institutions and programs to teach as they see fit.

The search for the right program in the United States can be exciting, yet overwhelming. As it’s not possible for all to travel overseas to check out a program in person, accreditation is a guarantee that someone else has taken a look. And, it can be a good starting point as you narrow down your choices.


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