Accreditation is a voluntary, nongovernmental process that includes a rigorous external review of a school’s ability to provide the highest quality programs. The accreditation process is a comprehensive review of a school’s mission, faculty qualifications, and curricula, and the process includes self-evaluations, peer-reviews, committee reviews, and the development of in-depth strategic plans. Accreditation ensures that students are learning material most relevant to their field of study, preparing them to be effective leaders upon graduation.
Institutional accreditation is an overall review of the entire university, and is typically done by a country’s national or regional accrediting body (such as the six regional accrediting bodies in the United States). These national agencies perform a review of the entire university, from its operating budgets to its student services.
Depending on where the university is located, it must be approved by one of these agencies in order to grant degrees and be considered legitimate in the country in which it operates. In most cases, institutional accreditation must be maintained, requiring a school to be reviewed every few years.
Once institutional accreditation is earned, universities can take accreditation a step further and seek "specialized" or "professional" accreditations for each of their disciplines. Specialized reviews are done by nongovernmental, private agencies that are knowledgeable about a particular field of study. For example, a College of Medicine can apply for specialized accreditations that specifically review its medical programs.
Specialized accreditation communicates to other schools, potential employers, and the general public that the university’s degree programs in a particular field have passed a rigorous review, and that students are learning all they need to know about that area of study. Specialized accreditation also must be maintained.
Specialized accreditation can affect the ability of students/graduates to find employment, transfer classes between universities, and pursue additional degrees at other institutions. However, not all specialized accreditations are alike. Some are recognized only within its home country, while others are recognized worldwide.
There are specialized accreditations that only evaluate community/vocational colleges and two-year programs, and those that include undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degree programs.
Determining Which Accreditation Matters
Today, a lot of universities claim to be "accredited." But, the question is, by whom? Since not all accrediting bodies are recognized, it is important to always learn more about the type of accreditation a school holds. The best place to start investigating an accrediting body is through the government or educational ministry where the school is located. But, be careful. In some regions of the world, a school may not be recognized outside of that country. Therefore, if you wish to study in one country, but plan to begin your career or continue your education in another, you must determine if the accrediting body is recognized internationally.