Accreditation and the Transfer of Credits and DegreesNovember 30, 1999
"Is it accredited?" This is one of the most asked--and most misunderstood--questions regarding distance education. Even if the person asking the question can't define accreditation, he or she most often knows, in some vague sense, that it relates to the usefulness or quality of a degree. Education is an investment; if someone puts time and money into earning an online degree, he wants it to be recognized, to help him reach his goals: in a word, to be useful. Unfortunately, because of the way the system works in the U.S., the terms "accredited" and "useful" do not mean the same thing.
Part of what is misleading about accreditation is the word itself. It sounds so formal, official, and definite. It's not. Unlike almost every other country in the world, where it is the government that decides what is and isn't a legitimate institution of higher education, the U.S. does not govern who is and isn't accredited. The government does not actually prescribe which degrees are considered legitimate.
So, if not the government, who decides? Who passes judgment on the legitimacy of a degree? Quite simply, the gatekeepers of institutions that you compete to be a part of: namely, employers and people who make admissions or transfer decisions at universities.
Of course, employers and universities don't have the time and resources to monitor the quality of thousands of degree-granting institutions all over the world. And so accreditation has emerged as a tool to help human resource directors, admissions officers, and college registrars to make these decisions. They have come to trust certain accrediting agencies to tell them which online schools meet an expected level of academic quality.
What makes this all so complicated is that there are dozens of accrediting agencies out there whose judgment is not trusted nor is it recognized by most employers and universities. Anyone can set up an accrediting agency; any school can call themselves accredited. So rather than "Is it accredited?", a prospective student should be asking:
"Is this school accredited by an accrediting agency that is recognized and trusted by the people I need to recognize and trust it?"
Over time, the practices of employers and universities have become consistent enough where it is safe to make generalizations about accreditation standards. Guidelines such as GAAP, or Generally Accepted Accreditation Principles, are an attempt to describe the accreditation standards practiced by the academic and business communities in the U.S.
Every once in a while, though, it is important to check in with the arbiters of accreditation standards, to make sure that our generalized guidelines indeed reflect what's going on in human resource departments and registrar offices.