College Accreditation - Regional vs National Accreditation: A Guide

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When choosing which school to attend, it's important to find a college or university that is accredited. Accreditation means that a school has been evaluated by education authorities, to ensure it's offering high quality learning opportunities, be it regional accreditation, national accreditation, or specialized accreditation. 

Accreditation is not a "one size fits all" concept. There are different types - including regional, national and specialized accreditation. Once you understand the different classifications, you'll be better equipped to make the online colleges choice that's right for you!   

regional vs national accreditation

Regional Accreditation

If an online college chooses to apply for regional accreditation, it is evaluated by the regional agency that presides over its home state. These are the only six bodies that can award regional accreditation, that can declare a college is regionally accredited, and they're all recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). You can learn more about these regional accrediting agencies, including which schools they accredit as regionally accredited colleges, by visiting their individual Web sites.

In the United States, there are six regional accrediting agencies that each cover a different section of the country. They include:

Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools

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New England Association of Schools and Colleges

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North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

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Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges

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Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Western Association of Schools and Colleges

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National Accreditation

National accreditation is given by certain CHEA-approved agencies that typically focus on a specific type of education, such as technical, vocational, or distance learning. Any school within the United States may receive national accreditation as a nationally accredited school, provided it meets the purpose and criteria of the specific accrediting agency. Agencies are typically reevaluated every 3 to 5 years to ensure they remain up to the standards of the CHEA for granting national accreditation, which verifies the institution is nationally accredited. 

These agencies may include:

  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Specialized Accreditation

Specialized accreditation, also known as program-based accreditation, is awarded to specific programs or departments within a college or university. Specialized accreditation is offered by agencies that represent specific fields of study or professional organizations. These agencies do not accredit entire colleges. Instead, they accredit the programs within certain colleges that prepare students for their industry.

Professionals should also investigate specialized accreditation -- including students who study medicine, engineering, dentistry, nursing, or law as they generally need to graduate from a program with specialized accreditation:

  • American Medical Association (AMA) accredits medical programs
  • Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits engineering programs
  • American Dental Association (ADA) accredits dentistry programs.
  • National Nursing League (NLN) accredits nursing programs
  • American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law school programs
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits business and accounting programs

Issue to Consider

Transfer-ability of Credits

While nationally accredited institutions will usually accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions.Considering that state colleges and universities are all regionally accredited, and that state schools are an inexpensive local option for many students, this is definitely something to keep in mind.

Tuition Cost

Another important issue is cost. There are a few nationally accredited schools that may be inexpensive, and low tuition rates can be enticing. However, if you're eligible for financial aid and scholarships, you may be able minimize the cost difference that comes with a regionally accredited school.

Acceptability by Prospective Employers

Realistically speaking, most employers may not know the difference between the two types of accreditation. However, if you do run into concerns about your school or its accreditation, you may want to direct your employer to the U.S. Department of Education's Web page on accreditation issues.

If you have a specific employer in mind, you might want to ask a Human Resources employee about the school(s) you are considering.