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 (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.

Actually, more for-profits are becoming regionally accredited. The latest data show that most for-profit institutions have regional accreditation. So while it’s true that more and more nonprofit and public institutions have regional accreditation, almost all the big for-profits are regionally accredited, as well as many smaller ones. There are three reasons why more for-profits don’t get regionally accredited. The first is eligibility – a good number of for-profits are non-degree-granting or are single-subject schools, which some regional accreditation agencies will not accredit. The second reason is practical in nature and relates to the fact that accreditation translates to easy access to financial aid. For-profit schools can get access to financial aid through national accreditation, so there is no greater incentive to go for regional accreditation. The final reason is that many for-profits schools choose not to go through the rigorous evaluation process required by the regional accreditation agencies, which demand specific requirements that don’t always match the for-profits’ mission or business model.

The discussion about which form of accreditation is most beneficial – national vs. regional – continues to grow as the debate in Washington intensifies about the for-profit colleges and universities in the context of financial-aid malpractice and the new law of “Gainful Employment.” This debate would intensify further as we undertake the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The current reauthorization may mark a period of great divide between accreditation agencies and the federal government on the issue of accountability. No party involved will be well-served by this circumstance. All would benefit from the accreditation community and the federal government coming to terms with this issue, which is vital to sustaining the quality of higher education and ensuring access to colleges and universities.


Accreditation & accountability

Currently, members of Congress and officials in the U.S. Department of Education are seeking significant changes to how accreditation addresses accountability based on four scenarios. The first scenario offered by many in higher education quarters is to do nothing, arguing that “this, too, shall pass.” The second scenario seeks to affirm the value and effectiveness of current accreditation practice as adequate evidence of accountability. The third scenario offered by a member of Congress seeks to separate accreditation from the HEA under the pretext that the differences between what accreditation does and what government wants cannot be reconciled. The fourth scenario seeks to bridge the divide between what government wants and what accreditation does by urging accrediting organizations and higher education institutions to take steps to address the current accountability expectations in the next HEA reauthorization, but only in the context of the federal government, acknowledging that these organizations and institutions (not government) have primary responsibility for judgments about academic quality, including institution and program performance and student learning outcomes.

Wherever this debate leads, the public ought to rely on facts rather than opinion or ideology to make decisions about which institution and which form of accreditation will best suit their long-term professional and personal goals. The facts reported from the field are as follows:

• Regionally accredited degrees from almost anywhere would be acceptable to most employers as long as the major can be demonstrated to be of value to that employer

• Units earned at a regionally accredited institution are guaranteed to transfer toward a similar or higher degree to another institution of higher education

• In most instances, a nationally accredited degree is acceptable to employers, unless there is a specification for a “regionally” accredited degree

• In most cases, regionally accredited institutions do not accept units completed at a nationally accredited institution; the reverse is not necessarily true

So is a regionally accredited degree better than a nationally accredited one? It depends on who you ask.

A regionally accredited degree makes more sense for someone who:

• Is relatively young (early 20s to mid-30s)

• Is likely to change jobs a few times during their career

• May even change careers once or twice

• May want to teach one day

• Would like to work their way into a more prestigious school

• Would like to simply put the whole debate behind them and not have to worry about it in the future

• Can get a regionally accredited degree for the same expense and effort as a nationally accredited one

• Works in a state that has educational standards to where only regionally accredited degrees are recognized by that state for licensure or employment

A nationally accredited degree makes more sense for someone who:

• Likes the teaching method of a particular nationally accredited school and otherwise would not attend college

• Is fairly established in their career and is not likely to change jobs anytime soon, if ever, and the degree meets the standards of their current employer

• Wants a fairly lenient and generous credit transfer

• Is self employed or simply wants the knowledge that comes with the degree

• Is earning the degree for reasons different than that of economics, such as personal pride or achievement


Doing the research

The guiding principle for making a worthy decision about which school to attend and which accreditation to value rests ultimately with an individual’s long-term professional and personal objectives. For personnel of the fire and emergency services, it is worth considering a school and program offering the NFA’s Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) curriculum and which has regional accreditation, especially if the ultimate goal is to earn EFO certification, an equivalent to a master’s degree.

To learn more about the FESHE curriculum, visit: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/index.shtm

To independently identify the accreditation type of a certain school, visit the USDOE website: http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.aspx