If you are planning to study in the U.S., it is important to know if the school in which you plan to enroll is accredited. Accreditation helps to ensure that the school is of high quality and that you will receive the programs and services that the school describes in its promotional materials.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a process of external quality review. Accrediting agencies develop standards of excellence in areas such as faculty, curriculum, administration, and student services. Institutions and programs that meet the standards and that are granted accreditation continue on a path toward ongoing improvement.
What are the benefits of accreditation?
Through the public recognition that accreditation provides, students, sponsors, employers, and others can identify schools that meet the standards for educational quality. Employers often want to know that an employee graduated from an accredited school. Accreditation is also important in the transfer of credit from one school to another, and it can be a means for access to federal education funding. In addition, accreditation is a means for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to certify schools that are eligible to issue the necessary documents for international students to enter the country on a student visa.
Who are the accreditors?
Accreditation in the United States is carried out by private non-governmental organizations. These agencies set standards and establish policies and procedures for accreditation. There are two types of accreditation.
Institutional accreditation applies to entire institutions, such as 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, both public and private, and single-purpose institutions such as private career institutions. Regional and national accrediting agencies carry out institutional accreditation. Six regional accrediting agencies operate within the U.S. Examples are the Middle States Association of Colleges and School and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. National accrediting agencies, such as the Distance Education and Training Council and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, accredit single-purpose institutions.
Programmatic accreditation focuses on programs that are part of an accredited institution. Such accreditation is carried out by specialized and professional accrediting bodies, which operate to ensure that students receive an education consistent with standards for entry into practice into their respective fields or disciplines. Examples of such agencies are the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.
Specialized accrediting agencies may function as both institutional and programmatic agencies. The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) is an example of a specialized institutional and programmatic accrediting agency. CEA accredits both independent English language schools and intensive English programs in accredited universities and colleges. International students who want to study English in the United States can use CEA accreditation to identify accredited English language schools and intensive English programs in colleges and universities.
How does a program or school become accredited?
Institutions and programs go through a series of steps to obtain and maintain accredited status. They prepare an extensive self-study in which they respond to the agency’s standards, undergo a multiple-day site visit by a peer review team, are reviewed by a board or commission that makes the accreditation decision, and participate in annual reporting and re-accreditation on a set cycle. Throughout the process, there is improvement of the education program and services. Accreditation is an intensive process that involves faculty and staff, and even some students.
How do I know the accrediting agencies are reliable authorities on educational quality?
Accrediting agencies may go through a recognition process in which their standards, policies, and procedures are evaluated. Some agencies choose to apply for recognition by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). USDE recognizes accrediting agencies whose programs or institutions administer federal student aid funds or that have other links to federal government programs. The department’s regulations require accrediting agencies to establish standards in specific areas (curriculum, faculty, student achievement, fiscal and administrative capacity, student services, etc.) and to implement accepted accreditation policies and procedures. All accrediting agencies—regional, national, and specialized—that are recognized by the USDE as reliable authorities regarding the quality of the programs and schools they accredit are listed on the USDE website at http://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html?src=qc.
Another way for accrediting agencies to gain recognition is through the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private organization that recognizes national, regional, and specialized accrediting agencies and is a voice for voluntary accreditation and quality assurance. Agencies that accredit institutions and programs that grant degrees are eligible to seek CHEA recognition; a list of these agencies is available at: www.chea.org.
In addition, specialized and professional accrediting agencies can become members of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA). ASPA’s mission is to represent its members on issues of education quality, while also advancing the knowledge, skills, good practices, and ethical commitments of accrediting agencies. More information can be found on the ASPA website at: www.aspa-usa.org.
Accreditation is a very useful tool that international students can use to identify quality schools that meet their needs. The U.S. Department of Education, CHEA, and ASPA websites are useful tools that can lead prospective students to those institutions and programs that have met quality standards through the rigorous accreditation process.
Please contact the nearest EducationUSA advising center if you have questions about the U.S. accreditation system, and an adviser can guide you through the process.
Diploma Mills and Accreditation Mills
While there is no single definition of a diploma mill, these are generally illegal institutions that grant degrees in exchange for money, often without requiring students to show proof of course mastery or complete substantive coursework or testing. With the rapid spread of the Internet, diploma mills have been appearing more frequently and are increasingly difficult to track. At first glance, many diploma mills are difficult to distinguish from legitimate institutions of higher education, so it is important to check accreditation when choosing a program.
If you encounter a diploma mill, please report it to an appropriate authority (such as a local government education agency or the an EducationUSA advising center). Diploma mills not only harm their graduates by taking their money in exchange for bogus degrees; they also hurt society in general and damage the reputation of legitimate alternative and non-traditional education.
Helpful Links for Avoiding and Reporting Unaccredited Institutions and Diploma Mills
Diploma Mills and Accreditation: Resources and Publications: U.S. Department of Education Website
Postsecondary Educational Institutions and Programs Accredited by Accrediting Agencies and State Approval Agencies Recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education Accreditation website designed to help students avoid online diploma mills. Provides a searchable list of institutions accredited by federally approved organizations.
Avoid Fake-Degree Burns by Researching Academic Credentials
Report from the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Trade Commission with guidelines on unaccredited degrees and tips for spotting diploma mills.
State of Oregon's Student Assistance Commission, Office of Degree Authorization: Includes information on accreditation, diploma mills and unaccredited institutions. Also provides a list of unaccredited institutions, some of which are diploma mills, whose degrees cannot be used in the State of Oregon.
Federal Trade Commission Scholarship Scams Website: Includes information on how to spot fraudulent scholarship organizations and a list of organizations that are currently defendants in scholarship fraud.
STEP 1: Define Your Education and Career Goals
Defining the goals for your education and career will help you select the most appropriate graduate programs and will help motivate you through the application process. It will also assist you in writing the application essays in which you often will be asked to explain your career goals and how they relate to your application for graduate study. Lastly, defining your career goals will lead you to find out exactly what qualifications are required for that career and whether or not U.S. credentials are recognized in your home country.
To help define your education and career goals, ask yourself these questions:
- What career do I want to pursue? Is employment available in my country in this field? What advanced degree is required to enter this profession?
Speak to people already working in the field and to representatives of professional associations. Educational advisers or career advisers in your country may also have information about the skills and background required for various professions, as well as knowledge of the need for professionals in different fields in your country.
- How will study in the United States enhance my career? Will a graduate degree help me earn a higher salary?
Consult educators, government officials, and working professionals in your country about the value of U.S. study for you at this stage in your career, including any increased earning potential. Take into account in your planning any revalidation or certification requirements for employment in your particular field when you return home.
- What is the system of recognition for U.S. degrees in my country?
In many countries, a U.S. degree is highly valued, and recognition of degrees is straightforward. However, in some countries, particularly those with educational systems markedly different from that of the United States, graduate degrees from the United States may not be officially recognized, or they may be recognized at a different level. If this is the case, you may still wish to consider U.S. study to gain knowledge and experience. Check on the situation in your country with your nearest EducationUSA information and advising center or with the ministry of education or other appropriate authority before you begin your applications. Refer to the section on accreditation. This step is especially important if you are planning to undertake a professional program in the United States, because requirements for professional education usually are rigorously upheld and vary greatly from country to country.
STEP 2: Consult an EducationUSA Information and Advising Center
"You can easily get information from everywhere, but knowing how to select the right program can be much harder."
– Germanic languages and literature student from Hungary
Trained educational advisers in these offices provide information and advice about study in the United States. Advisers are available to assist you in answering questions about:
- equivalency between the educational system in your country and the United States;
- entry requirements for study in your field;
- using reference materials to find institutions that are appropriate for you;
- sources of financial assistance available in your home country and in the United States;
- testing and other application requirements;
- preparation of your applications;
- planning your education;
- adjusting to academic and cultural life in the United
- using your education after you return to your home
To find the information or advising center nearest you, contact the American embassy or consulate in your country, or consult the list at http://www.educationusa.state.gov/centers.htm. EducationUSA information and advising centers may be located in U.S. embassies, Fulbright Commissions, binational centers, American libraries, or in some countries at other non-governmental organizations.
When you contact the center, you should be able to provide the following information:
- the degree(s) you have already earned;
- your field of study;
- when you want to begin study in the United States;
- your English language proficiency;
- whether or not you need financial assistance.
In addition to educational advisers, graduates of U.S. colleges and universities who have recently returned home are excellent resources for advice about study in the United States.
STEP 3 Develop a Short List of Programs
Deciding which institutions to apply to is one of the most important decisions you will make. Since there is a great deal of diversity in graduate programs, it is especially important to clearly articulate what it is you wish to accomplish and find out which institutions offer the kind of program you are seeking.
Identify Universities That Offer Your Field of Study
Your first and most important step is to identify institutions that offer your subject area and any specializations you wish to pursue within that subject area. Finding the right academic "match" between you, the department, and its faculty by using the various human, electronic, and printed resources below can be the key to a successful graduate experience in the United States.
Printed Directories: There are several general directories that list institutions by degree program and include helpful articles on graduate study (see the bibliography). Professional associations for different subject areas also publish directories of university departments in the United States, including information on different specializations and faculty research interests. University catalogs provide the most specific information about the institutions and their programs. You will find many of these directories and catalogs at EducationUSA information and advising centers and in some university libraries.
Contacts: Discuss your plans with faculty members at your institution and with students who have studied in the United States. They are likely to have their own contacts in the United States and suggestions of universities to consider. Also, do not be afraid to contact universities in the United States directly with questions about their programs or to communicate with other international students in the department you're interested in.
"Talk to someone who has gone through the process. They can provide you with information you won't find in any school brochure."
— Medical student from Ghana
College Websites and E-Mail: The United States leads the world in using the World Wide Web. Almost every U.S. university and college has a website that offers information about degree programs, application procedures, academic departments, faculty members, facilities on campus, and other topics. In many cases, you will also find a copy of the college catalog that you can study online or download to read later. Don't forget that many sites also give e-mail addresses for current students, including international students, who often are happy to answer your questions about applying to the school and about campus life. Once you have narrowed down the colleges and universities you are interested in, you may wish to e-mail professors and admissions personnel to have specific questions answered before you finally decide where to apply.
College Searches on the Web: Some websites are independent of colleges and universities and allow you to search for institutions by the subject you are interested in studying, by geographic preference, or by a range of other criteria that you can specify. See 'Related Links' for websites offering university searches. Staff at U.S. educational information and advising centers can assist you in the use of search sites on the Internet and offer suggestions for locating information on specific programs.
"Contact universities so that you can be sure the program you are considering is exactly what you wish it to be."
— Logistics student from Portugal
Three additional sources of information are:
U.S. University Fairs and Visits: Representatives of U.S. universities may come to visit your country. Your information or advising center can tell you about upcoming U.S. university fairs or other types of visits where you can talk to admissions officers or faculty members face-to-face. Since many fairs and tours will take place in the spring or the fall of the year before you intend to start your studies, it is important to start your research early.
Visiting Campuses: If you are able to take a vacation to the United States, this could be a great opportunity to visit campuses that interest you. Many universities organize campus tours that are led by current students; check with the admissions office for further information. Visit the academic and housing facilities, the student union, and the library to get a good sense of the campus. Americans are famous for being friendly, so talk to the students to find out what U.S. university life is really like.
Educational Consultants and Recruiting Agents: In many parts of the world, private agents or agencies work to recruit international students into U.S. colleges. There are also private educational consultants who charge a fee for assisting you with the process of choosing U.S. universities and putting together your applications. Often these educational consultants and private agents are graduates of U.S. colleges or people who are dedicated to promoting the benefits and advantages of the U.S. education system. However, sometimes they are not, so it is important to check the credentials and past performance of educational consultants or agents before using their services.