Accreditation of higher educational institutions is carried out by national and regional accrediting agencies sanctioned by the Department of Education. Each agency designs and implements a set of review criteria that evaluates the quality of an institution itself as well as the educational aspects. But this does not mean all quality colleges must be accredited. There are exceptions, which confuses the accreditation issue even more.
The growth in diploma mills has wreaked a twofold effect on accreditation: accreditation of traditional programs is more imperative, but the ironic invention of accreditation mills—a scam similar to diploma mills--has necessarily fed doubt into the very system. Consumers ignorant to the business of degree mills are persuaded to believe that their “life experience” and professional training are enough to earn themselves Bachelor’s, Master’s and even a Ph.D. degree, as viable as any other traditional degree. While this may seem in opposition to commonsense, for wannabe students with little time on their hands and the need for a professional leg up, hundreds of fraudulent institutions rake in millions on the merit of a strong sales pitch: have your degree in less than 30 days. You’ve earned it.
The American system of private and public institutions is diverse, to say the least. This alone poses a challenge for accrediting bodies that must evaluate each educational entity on its own merits. Accreditors that review institutions are required to devise their own core criteria. General criteria include:
Within these larger concepts, traditional institutions are evaluated on more concrete terms such as types of degrees, faculty education, admissions processes, institutional resources, and academic departments. The overall accreditation process is lengthy and ongoing. Outside the on-site evaluation conducted by the accrediting agency, institutions must complete in-depth self-evaluations as part of the accreditation process. Reassessment assures the continued integrity and quality of programs, a requirement to maintain accreditation.
Degree mills are not accredited by any of the recognized agencies listed by the Department of Education or through the Council for Higher Education Commission (CHEA). This does not necessarily mean that every unaccredited college or university is a diploma mill. Consumers and students are urged to take extra steps to verify the authenticity and quality of an unaccredited institution’s programs and the usefulness of an unaccredited degree or coursework within the state government. The article, “How To Assess the Quality and Authority of Online Educational Sources,” provides helpful information and links to resources when accreditation is in question with online programs.
In the past, religious colleges and universities were generally deemed exempt from accreditation. Posing as religious institutions has been a tactic of diploma mills. Thanks to fraudulent activity, some states are quickly eliminating the exemption once accorded religious colleges.
According to the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization (ODA), states that have created laws regulating the use of an unaccredited degree for professional gain include: Oregon, North Dakota, New Jersey, Texas, Nevada, Washington, and Maine. In the future, more and more states will likely establish similar laws to stem the flood of displaced diploma mills looking for more fertile ground. But such laws are not without challenge.
When Oregon initially made it illegal for individuals to use an unaccredited degree for any purposes within the state, alleged diploma mill Kennedy Western University—recently renamed Warren National University--legally challenged. KWU argued persuasively and ultimately won an out of court settlement. Oregon edited its laws to instead require individuals to disclose when a degree is unaccredited.
Given the current climate of distrust, especially among online programs, and state laws prohibiting use of unaccredited degrees, lack of accreditation through one of the national or regional agencies is a growing liability for both reputable traditional and online universities.