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The Ultimate Guide to Accreditation for Master’s Students

Not all master’s degrees are created equal, especially when it comes to accreditation. School and program accreditation can make or break the value of a master’s degree, ultimately determining if students can use their degree to reach their dreams. Use this guide to learn everything you need to know as a master’s student about accreditation so you can make sure to get a reputable and valuable degree.

Author: Mikala Lugen

Editor: Staff Editor

A smiling woman sitting on a couch, reading a document in a well-lit, cozy living room.

If you’re a graduate student looking to further your career path by earning a master’s degree, you know there is a lot to consider when seeking the right program. These factors include cost, student services, course offerings, and maybe even accreditation. But, before you get too far in your decision-making process, take some time to learn about the importance of accreditation and how it can impact your future.

Degrees from accredited programs and schools lead to more job opportunities, enhanced learning, and show hiring employers that you’ve attended and graduated from an academic program that meets widely accepted and agreed-upon standards and criteria. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, it can impact your ability to receive federal financial aid. If you’re in the process of choosing a master’s program and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with the process, our guide outlines all the information you need to ensure the graduate program you’re planning to enroll in is properly accredited and can enable you to achieve your dreams in your desired career field.

The Impact of Accreditation on Master’s Students

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), accreditation is a review process of the quality of higher education institutions and programs. All colleges, universities, and postsecondary schools can be accredited through 19 recognized organizations, while schools’ specific programs can become accredited through 60 recognized organizations. Attending an accredited graduate program is critical to ensuring your hard work will be recognized and respected through the highest standards of education. Obtaining a graduate degree through an accredited school and program can impact your success in your desired field after graduation, and a school’s accreditation determines its students’ eligibility for federal and state financial aid, transferable credits to another school, and recognized professional licensure in their fields.

Financial Aid Opportunities

A strong determining factor for most students when they consider enrolling in a graduate program is the cost. When you’re seeking to further your education and excel in your desired career field, you want to make sure that the money you’re investing in your education will prove to be a good return on your investment and help you climb the career ladder. Attending an accredited institution will ensure that you’re eligible for both state and federal grants and loans. Additionally, employers will ask if a graduate program is accredited to determine tuition assistance to current employees. According to The American Council of Education, 20% of graduate students receive financial assistance directly from their employers, but only if it’s through an accredited program.

School Reputation

Are any of the schools or programs you’re considering attending not accredited? You’d be wise to steer clear of them, or you could end up wasting your hard work, time, and money. Attending an accredited graduate program will ensure you’re investing your time in a trustworthy and respected educational institution. Accreditation validates the integrity and respect of your coursework and transcripts and it enables you to be able to transfer between other accredited institutions. Attending a graduate program through a non-accredited school or program can leave you with a massive amount of debt, lead to time wasted at a non-reputable school, and can restrict you from exceling on your desired career path without recognizable certifications.

Transferability of Credits

While you may not expect to transfer graduate programs, circumstances may arise where you could need to transfer to another graduate institution or program. Maybe you might need to move cities for a spouse’s career, or perhaps you need to be closer to an aging relative. Making sure you enroll in an accredited program ensures that your course credits will be up to academic standards so you can stay on track to finish your degree and transfer your credits without falling behind.

Career Opportunities After Graduation

Accredited graduate schools, universities, and programs adhere to a specific set of education standards and criteria to uphold academic rigor. When searching for the right graduate program for you, you’ll want to make sure you’ll be dedicating your time to achieve your career goals with an accredited school to obtain an accredited, respected, and recognized degree. Many employers will favor prospective employees with a master’s degree from an accredited school or program over other candidates with unaccredited and unreputable degrees, resulting in more favorable career aspects post-graduation.

Overall Education Quality

Accredited institutions and graduate programs must go through a rigorous accreditation process and a multi-step renewal process to ensure that the level of education they are offering meets specific requirements and criteria. Obtaining a graduate degree takes a level of dedication, so make sure you’ll be dedicating your time to a program that offers high quality courses, materials, and professional faculty. Cutting corners to merely obtain a graduate degree at a non-accredited institution or program will likely leave you without the quality education, courses, and research study needed to excel in your career field.

The Different Types of Accreditations for Master’s Students

Now that you know to focus on accredited graduate schools and programs, what’s next? First, you need to understand the types of accreditations. While all accreditations generally fulfill the quality of education standards and financial aid opportunities mentioned above, each accreditation is slightly different and adheres to different accrediting standards. You’ll want to look into if your desired graduate program is accredited as regional, national, programmatic, or institutional and what that means for you.

Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is given to colleges and universities by one of several gold-standard accrediting organizations. For a school to achieve regional accreditation, it must meet a peer-reviewed quality requirement standard. The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) is composed of seven regional accrediting agencies recognized by CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education. The following accrediting bodies review the educational services, faculty and staff, course offerings, policies, and more of schools throughout the country and beyond.

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) – This organization awards accreditation to associate degree-granting institutions in career or technically oriented baccalaureate degrees to colleges throughout California, Hawaii, the Territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC) – The HLC awards accreditation to degree-granting institutions of higher education incorporated in or operating under federal authority in the United States. It includes associate, baccalaureate, master’s, or doctoral degrees (both research and professional).
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) – This commission awards accreditation to degree-granting institutions offering one or more postsecondary educational programs, including those offered via distance education, of at least one academic year in length at the associate or higher level in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and any other geographic areas in which the commission elects to conduct accrediting activities within and outside of the United States.
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) – NECHE awards accreditation to degree-granting institutions that offer associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees that include in their offerings at least one program in liberal studies or another area of study widely available at the baccalaureate level of regionally accredited colleges and universities in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and internationally.
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) – NWCCU offers accreditation to postsecondary degree-granting educational institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and internationally, and the accreditation of programs offered via distance education within these institutions.
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)– This accrediting body awards accreditation to degree-granting institutions of higher education in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Latin America, and other commission-approved international sites, including programs offered via distance and correspondence education within these institutions.
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) – WSCUC awards accreditation to degree-granting institutions of higher education in the U.S. and internationally that offer the baccalaureate degree or above.

National Accreditation

National accreditation is typically awarded to for-profit and vocational, career, or technical programs. Most nationally accredited schools focus on career or religious education. This differs from regionally accredited schools, because national accrediting agencies don’t focus on the geographic location of the school. The accreditation process includes directly comparing schools against other similarly designed schools and evaluates the specific type of education these schools offer.

Programmatic Accreditation

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, programmatic accreditation focuses on a particular program in a subject, such as chemical engineering or business. The accreditation process varies depending on the specific educational criteria and standards for each program. Some individual professions, such as nursing, dentistry, engineering, and psychology, are covered by their own specialized accreditation agency. Most programmatic accreditors require that accredited programs be housed in an institutionally accredited school.

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  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – Recognized by CHEA, CAEP accredits educator preparation providers (EPPs) that offer bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral degrees, post-baccalaureate, and other programs leading to certification, licensure, or endorsement in the U.S. and internationally.
  • Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) – Recognized by The U.S. Department of Education, MACTE accredits certification programs based on the evidence schools have that prepare competent, caring, and qualified professional Montessori educators and hold the capacity to monitor and improve their program’s quality.
  • National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) – Recognized by CHEA and U.S. Department of Education, NCATE accredits teacher education programs in U.S. colleges and universities.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) – Recognized by CHEA, NAEYC accredits programs at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels that prepare candidates to work in the early childhood education profession. The degree program must be offered at an institution of higher education that is located in a U.S. state, district, or territory and currently accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency recognized by the CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) – Recognized by CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education, TEAC accredits undergraduate and graduate professional education programs to assure the public about the quality of college and university programs. The education program, not the college, school, department or other administrative unit of the institution, receives TEAC accreditation.
  • If you plan to pursue a graduate degree in education, make sure your program is accredited through one of the accrediting organizations above. Explore top-rated accredited programs for education that adhere to accreditation standards to excel your career.

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Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation involves assessing and accrediting an entire college or university. This may involve confirming if the school at large has sufficient educational resources, such as libraries and journal subscriptions, student services, qualified faculty, and policies that adhere to a specific set of requirements and guidelines. It usually also requires a record of successful post-graduate students from the college. Institutional accreditation also makes it easier for graduate students to transfer between institutions and receive federal financial aid. Employers usually give preference to applicants who have graduated from schools that have this type of accreditation.

A Closer Look at the Graduate School Accreditations

Now that you know the various types of accreditations to be aware of when looking into graduate school, it’s good to research the pros and cons of each so you can make the best decision on which type of accreditation is best for your desired field of study. Let’s compare the different accreditations so you can learn which ones align with your education and career goals.

Regional vs National Accreditation

According to Drexel University, 85% of U.S. colleges and universities are regionally accredited while only 15% are nationally accredited at the institutional level. Regional accreditation is the most desirable and widely recognized type of accreditation. Regionally accredited schools are accredited by the organization responsible for overseeing all schools within a certain geographical location. They accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools and their students are eligible for federal and employer financial aid and tuition assistance. These schools are normally nonprofit institutions that adhere to competitive admission requirements.

National accrediting agencies oversee the accreditation process for institutions across the country that have an overlapping career focus or curriculum. Nationally accredited school credits can only be transferred to other nationally accredited schools. Additionally, nationally accredited schools are not always eligible for federal or corporate financial aid. Some of these schools may have less stringent admission standards and some are for-profit institutions that earn revenue through enrollment. Employers don’t always accept nationally accredited degrees.

Programmatic vs Institutional Accreditation

While a school or institution may be accredited, an individual program may not be. Not all programs are accredited, but you’ll usually find that programs requiring specialized licensing or credentialling, such as nursing or social work, are accredited. When selecting a graduate program, it’s important to make sure that both the institution you’ll be attending is accredited as well as the graduate program, if you’re pursuing a degree that comes from an accredited program. Ensuring that both your school and program are accredited will provide you with full eligibility for financial aid, completion of the program with respective credits and a valid license in your desired field. Look out for red flags if the price of a graduate program is too good to be true. This is often a good indication that the school isn’t accredited and you’d be wasting time earning a non-accredited graduate degree.

How to Check a School’s Accreditation

Now that you know what all of the different accreditations are, we’ll help you learn about how to check a school’s accreditation. With so many different accrediting organizations and multiple points of information, it’s important to verify and cross-check between multiple sources to ensure your school and graduate program hold updated records of their accreditations to students. While you would think validating a school’s accreditation status would be easy, there can be misinformation online and even fake accrediting agencies that schools will promote to make it seem like they are valid. Learn some of the basic steps you can take to check a school’s accreditation status.

Use the U.S. Department of Education’s Database

One of the easiest ways to check a school’s accreditation status is to use the U.S. Department of Education’s database. Here you’ll find a list of nationally recognized institutions that are validated as accredited. You can also search for a specific school you’re interested in and get results showing the name of the accrediting agency and the date of accreditation.

Check Individual Accrediting Agencies

Each of the seven regional accrediting agencies also have their own website where you can check if your school or institution is listed. The same is true for all national accrediting agencies. You can scroll through each accrediting agency’s directory of schools and institutions that they have granted accreditation to. This is a great and easy way to verify if your school is accredited through a verified accreditation agency. CHEA also has a full directory of CHEA and USDE-recognized accreditation organizations that link out to a directory of schools and programs that are accredited.

Browse a School’s Website to Find Information

Another easy method to check if your school is accredited is to browse the school’s website. Most schools will include accreditation information on their website to proudly show prospective students their higher standards of education and research criteria. You can often find this information on the home, about, or academics page of a particular school or program’s website.

Options for Students with an Unaccredited Degree

Have you already graduated with an unaccredited degree or are you already enrolled in an unaccredited program? We’ve got the information and tools you need to make the best choice for you when it comes to your graduate degree journey and overall career goals. There are several action steps you can take right away to get back on track to earning an accredited degree and getting closer to achieving a well-earned education and diploma.

Transfer Credits to an Accredited Institution

While transferring credits to an accredited institution may not be the easiest option, it could end up being worthwhile to your overall quality of education. Most regionally and nationally accredited institutions won’t take credits from an unaccredited institution, so courses will often have to be repeated. While this will cost more time and money, you’ll be learning in an enhanced and quality educational environment that will set you up with the skills and knowledge you need to excel in your career. This is the fastest and easiest route to getting an accredited degree.

Continuing Education

Have you considered continuing your education? If you have a bachelor’s degree from an unaccredited institution, you can pave the way to your career success by obtaining a master’s degree from an accredited institution. Look at your options for adding accredited courses on top of your education alongside your already enrolled unaccredited program. This will help you enhance the value of your degree.

Seek Recognition from a Professional Organization

If you hold a degree from an unaccredited school, some professional organizations may still accept and recognize your education if you meet certain requirements. This could include completed internships, completed or current relevant field work outside of the classroom, and more.

Explore Alternative Paths to Certification

While obtaining an accredited degree is highly recommended and can help place you in your desired field of work, some career paths may have alternative paths to advancement and opportunities. Careers in specific trades or vocations – like construction, electrical, forestry, and culinary – usually don’t require an accredited degree or license but instead rely on experience and apprenticeships.

Final Thoughts and Advice for Navigating Accreditation as a Master’s Student

The benefits of having a graduate degree are well-documented but without accreditation, you risk not being able to take full advantage of the rewards. According to Northeastern University, people with a master’s degree earn an average of 23% more than those with a bachelor’s degree. With the expense involved with earning your master’s degree and the potential reward at stake, it’s simply not worth risking insufficient accreditation for your program.

By taking the time to do the proper research, you can ensure that the properly accredited program you choose will help you achieve your future goals.