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College Accreditation FAQs

College Accreditation FAQs

January 20, 2010

There are hundreds of colleges and universities in the world that do not have recognized accreditation. They range from totally fraudulent degree mills run by ex-convicts who sell worthless degrees to anyone willing to pay, to major new academic endeavors, well-funded and run by experienced educators of good reputation, and extremely likely to become properly accredited before too long.

Unaccredited Schools Offer Shortcuts

In almost every instance, the unaccredited schools cost less, and offer a faster path to a degree, with more flexibility. It is a tempting consideration, and a common dilemma for many people in search of a school. As a result, this is probably the most common question we get:

"Should I pursue an unaccredited degree?"

Since we cannot know each questioner's situation and needs, we typically reply by saying, "If you are absolutely confident that an unaccredited degree will meet your current and your predictable future needs, then it might well be appropriate to pursue such a degree."

Note: For the purpose of the following discussion, we include schools with accreditation claimed from an unrecognized accreditor as equivalent to unaccredited, for that is how such schools are almost certain to be treated by evaluators and decision makers.

Should I get an accredited or an unaccredited degree?

The simplest answer is that you can rarely go wrong with a properly accredited degree. We do hear from a moderate number of people who have made good use of an unaccredited (but totally legitimate) degree, but we hear from many more who have had significant problems with such degrees, in terms of acceptance by employers, admission to other schools, or simply bad publicity.

Will an unaccredited degree be accepted as legitimate?

Acceptance is very low in the academic world and the government world, though somewhat higher in the business world. One large and decent unaccredited school, in operation for a quarter century, can only point to a dozen instances in which their degrees were accepted by other schools, most of those on a case by case basis. Some companies have no clear policy with regard to accreditation, and indeed may not even understand the concept.  Such was the case with the head of human resources for one of the ten largest companies on the planet, who told us of her astonishment at learning there were unaccredited schools and fake accrediting agencies.

Can anyone benefit from an unaccredited degree?

The unaccredited option may work for people who really don't need a degree, but rather want one, either for self satisfaction ("validating my life's work" is a phrase we hear often), or to give themselves a marketing edge. One large subset of satisfied unaccredited degree-users, for instance, are therapists, who typically need only a Master's degree for their state license. But they feel that if they have a PhD, and use that title in their advertising, they will have an edge over competitors without the doctorate. The same is the case with owners or executives of small businesses. A real estate agent with an MBA or a business planner with a doctorate in finance, may get more clients because of the higher degree, and indeed may have additional useful knowledge.

What problems can arise?

We get a lot of mail from people who were having major problems with a previously satisfactory unaccredited degree. This situation occurs after one of two events. One is a change in employer policy. A company that may have accepted or tolerated or unwittingly gone along with unaccredited degrees may have a change, either due to new personnel policies or new ownership, and previously acceptable degrees no longer are. Similarly, when an employee seeks work at a new company, he or she may learn that the degree held is no longer useful. The other is when there is bad publicity, and the light of public scrutiny is focused on the school or the degrees. In recent years, the media have devoted more and more attention to these matters. 60 Minutes, American Journal, Inside Edition, Extra, and dozens of local television consumer reporters have addressed the matter of bad schools and degrees. When American Journal devoted a long segment to a popular unaccredited school, and when a large daily newspaper gave an 8-column page with one headline to the state's lawsuit against another large and popular unaccredited school, many students and alumni of those schools had some highly uncomfortable moments.

Does the level of the degree make a difference?

We think it does. We can find very few reasons why it would ever make sense to pursue an unaccredited Associate's or Bachelor's degree. There are two reasons for this. One is that there are so very many distance Bachelor's programs with recognized accreditation, and those degrees can actually be faster and less expensive than some of the unaccredited ones. The other is that a person with at least one accredited degree, as the foundation, is seen to be someone clearly capable of doing university level work; if they chose to pursue an unaccredited Master's or Doctorate after earning the accredited Bachelor's, they must have had a good reason. Alternatively, a person with only an unaccredited degree, or series of degrees, will often be under a cloud of suspicion, especially in a world where it is possible to get a not-illegal Bachelor's degree in three months or less.

Will degrees with recognized accreditation always be accepted?

Most annoyingly, no. In the sometimes-snobbish world of higher education, schools without regional accreditation are sometimes seen to be inferior. As one simple but telling example, Regents College, one of the largest and best-respected distance learning schools in the US, itself with regional accreditation, will not accept degrees or credits from schools accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, a recognized accreditor. Quite a few regionally accredited schools will accept DETC accreditation, in our experience, but by no means all. This depressing fact is just one more reason to 'shop around' to be sure any given degree will meet your needs.

Another factor in acceptance is regional accreditation versus professional accreditation. In some fields, such as psychology, architecture, and engineering, accreditation from the relevant professional association can be especially important. For example, there are job descriptions for therapists that require degrees accredited by the American Psychological Association, a professional accreditor, which accredits fewer than half the psychology programs in America.

What happens if my school becomes accredited after I earn my degree?

Theoretically one only has an accredited degree if it was earned after accreditation. For many practical purposes, however, it is unlikely that an employer will say, for instance, "Did you earn your degree from the Graduate School of America before or after November 17, 1997?" Once a school has been accredited, it is likely (but not certain) that all its degrees will be regarded as accredited, whenever earned. Some schools offer the option of going back and doing a modest amount of additional work, and earning a "replacement" degree after the accreditation is gained.

What happens if the accreditor is recognized after I earn my degree?

In this scenario, the student earns a degree from a school that is accredited by an unrecognized agency, and later the agency is recognized by the Department of Education. This is such a rare situation, we really don't know if there is a precedent. Common sense suggests that if the school or degree was accredited all along, and if the only change is that the accreditor becomes recognized, then the student would have a degree with recognized accreditation. But common sense does not always prevail in the world of higher education.

Is unrecognized accreditation worse than none at all?

In many cases, we think so, because it adds one more layer of possible irregularity to attract the attention of investigators, regulators, decision-makers, and others. When, for instance, a national magazine did an extremely unflattering article on the unrecognized World Association of Universities and Colleges (Spy, February 1995), the caustic comments and the various revelations led readers to think less favorably of the schools this association had accredited. On the other hand, some of the larger distance learning schools make no accreditation claims whatsoever (California Coast, California Pacific, Fairfax, Southwest, Greenwich, etc.), and still manage to attract students.

It is common for unrecognized accrediting agencies to talk or write about their intention to become recognized by the Department of Education. In our opinion, however, of the more-than-thirty active unrecognized accreditors listed under Non-GAAP Agencies, only one has even a remote chance of recognition, and that one, the National Association, has been turned down many times over the past twenty years. Some of these accreditors suggest that it is their choice not to be recognized, by writing things like, "This association has not sought recognition..." or "... does not choose to be listed by the Department of Education."

And we have chosen not to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

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