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How To Make Sense of College Accreditation


June 22, 2015

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In 2007, British police made a startling discovery: one of Britain’s respected forensic investigators had never studied forensics.

It was a plot worthy of Scotland Yard and Sherlock Holmes. Investigators learned Gene Morrison had purchased a fake Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. from Rochville University. Ever since, he had been working as a forensic investigator, even testifying as an expert witness in court — without ever having studied his field!

In the end, Morrison went to jail along with some of the people he had convicted, having swindled hundreds of thousands of pounds. Police had to re-open all 700 cases he handled to ensure justice had really been served. Because of this, many people scratched their head, wondering how this elaborate deception started with a couple college degrees with no substance behind them.

So who decides colleges are legitimate and which ones are fake? What makes our college degrees have value in society? And who is it in the shadows, approving some colleges and denying others?

In short, it’s about whether a college is accredited. But not all accreditation is the same. Here are the four kinds of college accreditation in the United States, and what it means for a college decision.

1. Fake Accreditation

First, the diploma mills.

Diploma mills are scammers who will give a paper diploma in exchange for money. They often involve lofty titles like The Association for Online Academic Excellence or The International Accreditation Commission for Online Educational Institutions.

Those sound pretty official, right? Don’t let them fool you: they’re total fakes.

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The only return for your money at a diploma mill will be a lovely inkjet-printed degree with the finest certificate paper the con artist can afford. You can find a list of known fake programs here.

2. Non-Accredited or Unaccredited

Next we move to the schools which have no accreditation. Sometimes a Bible school or small training program chooses not to apply for accreditation in order to have more freedom to control the curriculum. Other times, a school may lack accreditation because its program is not considered academically rigorous enough to meet the requirements.

Unaccredited degrees are often cheaper than accredited ones. However, the school may lack accountability, and the degree you earn likely won’t transfer to other schools for advanced study.

If you’re sure this degree is the last education you will need, an unaccredited degree might work for you. But if you think grad school or wide public acceptance of your degree is in your future, you may wish to explore additional options.

Calvary Chapel

3. National Accreditation

Schools in this system represent 6% of total students in the U.S. Nationally accredited schools are usually for-profit, tech, or religious schools like Stratford University, Virginia College, and Patrick Henry College. Most regionally accredited programs will not accept credits from these nationally accredited schools, but other nationally accredited programs often will.

While nationally accredited programs can be academically sound, students who want to transfer their credits to a bigger school or pursue a master’s degree should do careful research to avoid a painful loss of time and money.

Virginia accreditation

4. Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is the most respected type of accreditation, representing 90% of college students in the U.S, and holding to the most stringent academic rules. The wording choice is tricky here, because national sounds bigger than regional, but don’t let that fool you. Regional accreditation is the gold standard for colleges in the U.S.

While the U.S. Department of Education technically recognizes 60 regionally-accrediting institutions covering specific industries, six of these organizations are what you’re most likely to see when looking for a regionally accredited college degree. They are:

These six regional organizations are the gatekeepers who bestow accreditation on schools meeting the most widely recognized college standards. They accredit schools like Harvard University, Yale, Grand Canyon University, Boise State, New York University, UCLA, and the University of Texas.

Want a master’s degree or Ph.D. from a prestigious school? With regional accreditation, you’re good to go, as long as you meet any other normal entrance requirements.

Another important point about regional accreditation: regionally accredited colleges usually only accept transfer credit from other regionally accredited schools. If you’re attempting to transfer credit into a particular institution, find that college’s “academics” or “accreditation” page. There, you can often determine what kind of accreditation they have.

Harvard accreditation

Thomas Edison State College accreditation

Each regionally accredited college undergoes a rigorous evaluation to earn their stripes. (Think finals week, but for college presidents!) And in order to keep them, they are re-evaluated every few years by their accrediting association. If a college fails to meet certain requirements, they may go on probation or even lose their accreditation, like Indiana Dabney University did in 2014.

As usual, with something as complex as accreditation, there are a few exceptions to these broad guidelines. For instance, if you want to enter certain highly-regulated fields like engineering or nursing, you may need a degree which is recognized by an industry-specific accrediting group. For example, according to the Department of Education, engineers usually also need ABET accreditation, and nurses need recognition from NLNAC. But these are “stacked” atop regional accreditation, and only for certain fields.

By doing a little research before you start, you can protect yourself from degrees that limit your future and find a college program that fits your goals.

But we get it—this stuff is complicated. That’s why our team here at Unbound are here to help you out. We have over 10 years of experience researching and understanding school policies, accreditation, transfer credit, and any other technical “college-ese” that may get in your way of a flexible, affordable education.

If you want to ensure the your chosen college is the best choice for your goals—accreditation or otherwise—get a free Degree Plan (assembled by a credit-transfer expert) today.


We think college can be affordable, flexible, and purposeful. And we’re here to show you how.

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