Understanding Accreditation, the "A" word that got Westwood in trouble

Last week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing by Texas based Westwood College. Although the college was accredited by a national educational accrediting agency, the credentials awarded to graduates of the college’s criminal justice degree programs did not meet the accreditation conditions most local, state and federal law enforcement agencies required their candidates to possess.

So, what is accreditation anyways?

In regards to accreditation the U.S. Department of Education states, “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” Accrediting agencies are organizations that have set certain standards of excellence for institutions of higher learning to follow. The accreditation process is purely voluntary, varies by agency and is initiated by colleges. Generally, during the candidacy period, institutions of higher learning often go through a vigorous cycle of self examination, site inspections, reviews, etc. If an institution of higher learning is found to meet the standards of the agency, the agency may grant them accreditation. Although there is some prestige to be had for being accredited by an agency, the main reason colleges seek accreditation is so that federal financial aid programs can become available to their students.

There are three types of accreditation agencies: Specialized, national and regional. Specialized accrediting agencies set standards for specific programs. For instance, the Council for Interior Design Accreditation or CIDA, accredits programs in the field of Interior Design just as the American Bar Association or ABA accredits law schools.

Generally, national accrediting agencies accredit institutions of higher learning that focus on trade, vocational and/or career training. Due to the relative ease of obtaining it (in comparison to regional accreditation), many new colleges seek out this type of accreditation when they first open their doors. Oftentimes, students mistakenly believe that a national accreditation is superior or somehow has more recognition than other types of accreditation. This is simply not the case.

There are six “regional” accrediting agencies in the U.S. Although any institution can technically attempt to seek candidacy and ultimately, accreditation from any of these six agencies, the process is very costly, very difficult and very time consuming. As a result, oftentimes institutions of higher learning that are regionally accredited are held in higher esteem by students and employers.

Because each accrediting body has its own distinct standards, there’s no real body that’s better than the others. In fact, some colleges may be accredited by various bodies. For example, when I worked at The Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago a few years ago, they were nationally and regionally accredited and several of their programs had specialized accreditation as well.

Why is knowing types of accreditation important?

Many Westwood College Criminal Justice students were unable to find jobs in their chosen field of study because the agencies they wanted to work for would only accept credentials from regionally accredited colleges. As a result, these students wasted years of their lives and now owe tons of money for a degree that is useless to them.

In some states, accreditation affects financial aid. In Illinois for example, students not attending regionally accredited colleges in the state generally cannot qualify for the Monetary Award Program or MAP which can award upwards of $4500 per year for school related expenses.

As previously stated, each accrediting body has differing standards. As a result, schools often won’t accept transfer credits from other schools that don’t share the same accreditation.

How to find out accreditation of schools

Oftentimes, college applicants will ask an admission officer, “Is your college accredited?” This is not the right way to inquire about accreditation because the admission officer will usually say “Yes,” and you will have learned nothing. Instead, directly ask the admissions officer, “What agencies/bodies is your college accredited by?” Once they respond, jot down their response and double-check directly with the agency they mentioned.

Look out for language on a school’s website or printed material that states something to the effect of “We are candidates for accreditation with X agency.” The first statement merely means that they aren’t accredited by X agency yet. Also, no program is ever partially accredited so look out for statements like “We are fully accredited.” Often, these statements are meant to deceive or at least confuse students.

Always check the print date of the webpage or printed brochures you may be reading as these may contain outdated information. For the latest information, conduct a web search using the National Center for Education Statistic’s (NCES) free database.

According to the NCES, the following is a list of all bachelor degree granting colleges and universities in Chicago, Illinois that lack regional accreditation.

  • International Academy of Design & Technology
  • Westwood Chicago Loop
  • Westwood College-O’Hare Airport

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