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Accreditation - Make Sure It's the Real Deal

Getting a college degree requires time, effort and money. These three things are as precious to you as sleep — and like sleep, they are often in short supply. As a result, if you’re thinking about getting your degree, you might be tempted to go through a mail-order or online program that saves you the hassle of taking classes and offers a college degree for just a flat fee. Don’t do it.

While there are programs available online through correspondence courses, remote site or distance-learning facilities that will get you a degree, you must make sure that the degree you receive from that particular institution is accredited. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Accreditation in the United States involves non-governmental entities as well as governmental agencies.

Accrediting agencies are private educational associations of regional or national scope that develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then accredited by that agency. In fact, in many respects, accreditation is more important than the degree itself. (Without accreditation you don’t have a degree; you just have a $5,000 piece of paper.)

Having said this, the question now becomes, “How do you know if a school or institution is accredited?” Easy. There are a number of things you can do to validate an institution’s accreditation status.

1. Ask: Accredited schools will tell you if they are accredited. Moreover, they will tell you in what states they are accredited and which educational governing bodies have accredited them. If you still have doubts, check with the institution that accredited them and make doubly sure.

2. Verify: Accredited universities will be recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and will be listed on their website at www.chea.org.

3. Research: Check with the Better Business Bureau for any listed complaints at www.bbb.org.

4. Look for Their Operating License: Every institution of higher learning must have a charter for operations in a particular state. (Even big-name schools like USC need permission and a license to operate.) When in doubt, take a look. If they don’t have one, then they are operating illegally, and you need to steer clear of them.

5. Financial Aid: To qualify for Federal Student Aid (FSA), Tuition Assistance and the GI Bill, an institution must petition the federal government and demonstrate its accredited status. If the school doesn’t pass muster, it doesn’t qualify. So, if Uncle Sam won’t pay for you to go there, chances are there’s a reason, and that reason is generally lack of accreditation.

The bottom line is that you are going to have to spend time, energy and money getting your degree. To ensure that you do not waste any of them, check out the school first. Ensuring that your school of choice is accredited before you enroll will save you a lot of heartache later.

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