As Jim Wright sought to continue his higher education to encompass a bachelor's degree, he found some institutions willing to take life experience and distill it into credit hours that would make his learning and class time minimal. A few of these online-only institutions required little effort...
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According to Elizabeth Kraus, co-founder of website Myusearch.com, "Most students don't even think to ask whether their school is regionally or nationally accredited, but this can be a huge mistake. I think there is a severe lack of education concerning accreditation…and most students don't find out about it until it is too late. Intuitively, you would think that nationally accredited programs provide more than regionally accredited programs; however, this isn't necessarily the case. Both accreditations have their ups and downs and both are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Most traditional schools (Big Ten, Pac-10, etc.) are actually regionally, not nationally, accredited. This is because regional accrediting agencies started as leagues of traditional colleges, and national accrediting agencies started as associations of institutions that served schools that weren't originally colleges or universities," her website points out.
Kraus advises potential students to look at five implications of accreditation:
- Will your credits transfer? Nationally accredited institutions are highly likely to accept credits from regionally accredited institutions, but regionally accredited schools do not accept credits from nationally accredited institutions.
- Do you plan to pursue graduate school? Again, regionally accredited schools will not accept your undergraduate degree from a nationally recognized school.
- Is your budget an issue? Perhaps one of the better applications of "you get what you pay for," nationally accredited schools usually are less expensive than their regional brethren.
- What is your target employer? A small fire department is unlikely to ask or care about regional or national accreditation; a large metropolitan department may.
- Are you seeking personal fulfillment or career advancement? If your plan is to gain a degree, then a national school offers no problems. If you decide to put your credentials out for scrutiny as a future chief, maybe a regional school is best.
Other higher education advisors offer a more hierarchical approach to the merits of accreditation bodies, listing the most-to-least valuable. According to Jason D. Baker, writing about the relative merits of accreditation for his site, Baker's Guide to Christian Distance Education, an organization that has been offering online higher education advice since 1997, "The simple answer is that regional accreditation is the most preferred form of accreditation — it is the most recognized and accepted type of accreditation and would be considered the gold standard for accreditation. In fact, many colleges and universities only recognize regional accreditation when considering transfer credits and admissions. In lieu of (or sometimes in addition to) regional accreditation, an organization might seek accreditation from one of…(the) national agencies," he says. "In that case, I would offer the following subjective ranking of accreditation status presuming that the institution only has one type of accreditation":
- Regional accreditation — Undergraduate or graduate
- Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) — Undergraduate; or Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) — Graduate
- Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) — Undergraduate or graduate
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) — Undergraduate or graduate
Arguably, one of the best ways to begin screening potential colleges is when you first see an advertisement or receive an e-mail. Sometimes, the obscured details in the fine print or lack of information are keys to what an institution has to offer.
"Institutions that do not post detailed faculty information on their websites should be suspect," Smeby says. "When requesting information, ask for background and education of faculty." He says that the real test of a quality education, which happens after the fact, is how it serves recipients in the profession. "If you take a job as a fire chief and don't have the tools that a good education will provide, you probably won't be very successful."
The experts agree: stay away from programs like those that Nevada's Wright found too easy to be of educational value. "If the program looks too good to be true," Gollin reiterates, "well then, it probably is."