Accreditation of Postsecondary Education in the United States

Prospective graduate students should have a basic understanding of accreditation and how it works

You may be wondering why it is important to know about accreditation—simply put, not every institution is what it appears to be. In order for you to become a smart consumer, you need to have a basic understanding of accreditation in the United States and how it works, the difference between accredited and unaccredited institutions, and the pitfalls of enrolling in an unaccredited institution or program.

Accreditation in the United States is a voluntary, nongovernmental process, in which an institution and its programs are evaluated against standards for measuring quality. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that the education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

The Secretary of Education, through the U.S. Department of Education, recognizes select accrediting agencies. Accreditation by a recognized accrediting agency is one of the requirements for institutions to participate in federal student aid programs. The Secretary and the Department of Education are not responsible for accrediting individual institutions. It is the responsibility of the accrediting agencies to accredit colleges, universities, and programs.

An accrediting agency that meets the Department’s criteria for recognition is determined to be a reliable authority in measuring the quality of education or training provided by the institutions it accredits in the United States and its territories. Agencies that meet these criteria are placed on the Department’s List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies.

Types of Accreditation 

There are two basic types of educational accreditation. One is identified as “institutional” and the other is referred to as “specialized” or “programmatic.”

Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality. The various commissions of the regional accrediting associations, for example, perform institutional accreditation, as do many national accrediting agencies.

Specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional accrediting commissions. However, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are free-standing in their operations. In addition, a number of specialized accrediting agencies accredit educational programs within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.

Accredited Institutions 

Accredited institutions have agreed to have their institution and its programs reviewed to determine the quality of education and training being provided. If an institution is accredited by a recognized agency, its teachers, coursework, facilities, equipment, and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education and get what they pay for. Attending an accredited institution is often a requirement for employment and can be helpful later on if you want to transfer academic credits to another institution.

Unaccredited Institutions 

Unaccredited institutions are not reviewed against a set of standards to determine the quality of their education and training. This does not necessarily mean that an unaccredited institution is of poor quality, but earning a degree from an unaccredited institution may create problems for students. Some employers, institutions, and licensing boards only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. With this in mind, it is recommended that students check with other institutions regarding the transfer of credit policy to determine if that institution would accept the degree and/or credits earned from any institution they plan to enroll in.

A word of caution—in some states, it can be illegal to use a degree from an institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, unless approved by the state licensing agency.

The Positive List 

The U.S. Department of Education has published the “positive list” of schools that are accredited by accrediting agencies recognized by the Secretary of Education. The list can be found at This is a list of postsecondary institutions and programs that have chosen to be accredited by accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. The database does not include postsecondary educational institutions and programs that elect not to seek accreditation but nevertheless may provide a quality postsecondary education. The positive list is simply one source of information; you may need to consult other sources if an institution does not appear on the positive list.

Listed below are the major regional and national institutional accrediting agencies:

Middle States Commission on Higher Education
(DE, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands)
(267) 284-5000

New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
(CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)
(781) 425-7785

Higher Learning Commission
(AZ, AR, CO, IL, IN, IA, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, NM, ND, OH, OK, SD, WV and WY)
(312) 263-0456

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
(AK, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT and WA)
(425) 558-4224

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
(AL, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX and VA)
(404) 679-4512

Western Association of Schools and Colleges, WASC Senior College and University Commission
(CA, HI and Guam.)
(510) 748-9001

The Distance Education and Training Council
(Accredits postsecondary institutions in the United States that offer degree programs primarily by the distance education method up to and including the professional doctoral degree.)

Source: U.S. Department of Education.