What you need to know about accreditation

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If you are considering returning to graduate school for an advanced degree in counseling, you should keep a number of important criteria in mind. You will have to research the kind of institution that you wish to attend and decide whether you want to study online — an option that presents greater ease and flexibility for working professionals — or on campus. Your commitment is full-time regardless of your preferred method of delivery, but the online option allows you to consume knowledge asynchronously. It also is crucial to make sure that the university and program to which you apply is accredited. Accreditation of academic curricula is a feature that conveys graduating students will be eligible to be certified and licensed. In this sense, academic accreditation is a prerequisite to becoming a practicing counseling professional. In the U.S., the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) has sanctioned programs’ curricular content since its inception in 1981. Students who graduate from CACREP-accredited programs are eligible for certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors in the U.S. Additionally, this certification credential enables professionals to seek for licensure in counseling. Graduates of either online or campus-based programs in counseling from Bradley University are eligible for these credentials.

Accreditation is important for other notable reasons, and this guide offers a comprehensive look at the accreditation process, providing you with important information you need to know before you begin a graduate school application process.

What does accreditation mean?

As detailed by the U.S. Department of Education in a list of frequently asked questions, accreditation is a process that institutions of higher education can opt to go through to demonstrate that the education offered on their campuses meets widely agreed upon mandates of quality. In other words, a university’s accreditation indicates to potential students that the institution offers education that meets high levels in terms of standards and quality, and that the qualifications offered are legitimate.

Accreditation is determined by independent agencies and not the federal government, as is often widely assumed, according to Betsy Mayotte, writing in U.S. News & World Report: “Rather, the federal government is in charge of student aid and financing, while state governments grant permission for educational institutions to operate. The independent agencies are responsible for setting guidelines for best practices for universities and programs and then work to assess institutions to ensure that those rules are adhered to.” However, Mayotte noted that the federal government does have some influence on the accreditation process. The U.S. Department of Education “recognizes” accreditation agencies as legitimate, and a school only can receive government aid if it has been accredited by a federally recognized agency. In that sense, the U.S. Department of Education regulates the accreditation boards and ensures that all institutions of higher education receive accreditation from trusted sources.

Student holding laptop

Types of accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education reported that accreditation typically falls under two categories — institutional and programmatic (or specialized). According to the department, institutional accreditation is bestowed upon an entire school. Accreditation agencies will assess the education establishment as a whole to ensure that its programs, faculty, research and so on maintain a specified level of quality and comply with designated mandates. Specialized (or programmatic accreditation), on the other hand, is much more specific in terms of the scope of assessment. Agencies concerned with specialized accreditation will focus on either specific educational departments — for example, the Department of Counseling Education — or particular educational programs, such as a master’s-level program or a doctorate-level degree in a given subject, reviewing the curriculum to ensure that educational standards are met.

Guidelines published by The Council for Higher Education Accreditation elaborated that accreditation agencies also can be broken down into several categories — regional, national and specialized. As explained, specialized accreditation agencies offer accreditation based on specific education programs. Regional accreditation agencies primarily offer accreditation to entire institutions, most of which — as much as 98 percent — are non-profit institutions offering degree programs. National accreditation organizations are similar in that they assess entire organizations, but they differ in the respect that they tend not to deal with traditional non-profit, degree-granting educational establishments. Rather, national accreditation bodies will assess mostly for-profit institutions and those that do not offer traditional degree programs. Therefore, if you are looking to earn an advanced degree, it is important that the accreditation agencies used by the institution you are considering are regional.

Why is accreditation so crucial?

Accreditation is important for several reasons. According to Mayotte, they are as follows:

  • Accreditation ensures that the educational institution or program in question meets designated standards and is of a high academic quality, ensuring that you will receive a decent and comprehensive education.
  • Employers often, although not exclusively, prefer candidates with degrees from accredited institutions.
  • Academic credits are incredibly difficult to transfer if they have been attained at non-accredited institutions.
  • Employers sometimes will fund all or part of an employee’s course of study at the advanced degree level; however, many employers will refuse to do so unless the school is accredited.

Given the importance of accreditation, it is important to ensure that the institution and program to which you are applying is accredited. As Mayotte detailed, it first is necessary to find out if the institution to which you are applying is accredited and secondly, if that accreditation agency is of a reputable standard. The way to ascertain this standard is to research whether the accrediting body is recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Mayotte elaborated that there are countless accreditation groups that are not recognized by these bodies, rendering the research even more critical, as it is easy to apply to institutions that lack credibility. This problem is especially common when it comes to online degree programs.

Consider Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program

If you are looking to earn an advanced degree in counseling, consider applying to Bradley University’s online MAC program. With two specialties to choose from — Clinical Mental Health Counseling or Professional School Counseling — and a flexible curriculum designed to help you study where you reside, the online MAC program could be a great first step on your journey to a new career. Most important, the online MAC program is accredited through the CACREP, which is further recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in the U.S. In addition, Bradley University is accredited and authorized to offer distance learning programs by the Higher Learning Commission. To learn more, click here.