HIGHER EDUCATION: The Accreditation Debate

As a career firefighter, John started his academic journey by going to his local community college to earn an associate of science degree in fire science. Thereafter, a colleague from his recommended that he looks into a National Fire Academy...


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As a career firefighter, John started his academic journey by going to his local community college to earn an associate of science degree in fire science. Thereafter, a colleague from his recommended that he looks into a National Fire Academy (NFA)-accredited college to earn his bachelor of science degree. John did his homework and enrolled at a regionally accredited college that is one of the seven NFA-certified institutions of higher education to earn a BS degree in Fire Administration.

A year into the program, John was up for promotion to a leadership position and needed proof of a bachelor’s degree to qualify for promotion within a year’s time. John realized that the rigor of the college program would not help him earn his degree in time. John did further research and learned that he could earn a bachelor of science degree quicker if he joined a fast-track type of school. He quit the college and joined a nationally accredited online university. John earned his bachelor’s degree and received the promotion that drove his academic decision making.

A year later, John took interest in the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program. He was excited to apply to the EFO program, but soon learned to his disappointment that he was not eligible to apply because the university where he earned his bachelor’s degree is not regionally accredited. John returned to the regionally accredited college to earn a second bachelor of science degree to qualify for the EFO program, which cost him more time away from family and work and more money.

 

Types of accreditation

Understanding the types of accreditation is confusing for students, parents, teachers and administrators alike. When evaluating a school’s accreditation, it is useful to understand the different types of accreditation awarded to schools and the types of agencies that offer the accreditations. Federal and state financial aid is impacted by a school’s accreditation and when it comes time to find a job or transfer credits to another school, the type of accreditation is likely to affect the outcome.

Accreditation in the United States is a form of quality assurance for higher education. It has been around for over 100 years. It was originally established as a mechanism to identify which of the many post-secondary institutions should be considered colleges and universities. Another key characteristic of accreditation organization is that it is non-governmental, run by colleges and universities as a voluntary membership organization. For most institutions, accreditation is essential in order to have access to federal financial aid for their students. Since the 1950s, the federal government has relied on accreditation to determine where students can spend financial-aid money.

Accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education are referred to as “nationally recognized.” Schools accredited by these agencies are universally recognized in the U.S. as quality higher-education institutions. Only schools that have this type of accreditation may offer federal financial aid. Many employers and schools also consider schools accredited by agencies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as legitimately accredited schools. The agencies recognized by the two bodies overlap significantly.

Academically oriented, non-profit, degree-granting schools usually have “regional accreditation.” For-profit, vocational, technical and career schools typically have “national accreditation.” Many schools with regional accreditation accept transfer credits and graduate students only from other schools with regional accreditation. Although the criteria for recognition of the two types of agencies are the same, many regionally accredited schools view the nationally accredited schools as offering a different type of education that is not comparable to their own.

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