At least once a decade, virtually every degree-granting college — public or private — goes through the equivalent of a full-body MRI scan: Accreditation by a regional nonprofit inspection team. And just like that MRI image, the accreditation report can reveal hidden malignancies that weren’t outwardly visible.
High schools and school systems, too, must undergo accreditation if they want their graduates to qualify for acceptance to most mainstream colleges.
It’s rare for an institution to actually lose accreditation — normally, the regional accrediting bodies will place a troubled school in the purgatory of “provisional” accreditation, meaning that accreditation may be lost if certain deficiencies are not remedied. (Provisional accreditation also often is granted when a school or program is brand-new, so be clear that the tag “provisional” is not synonymous with “failing.”) But even if your institution does not lose its accreditation or is in no danger or doing so, accreditation reports can be a feast of news leads — doubly so at private colleges, where information often is otherwise elusive.
Is the institution financially stable? How does its graduation rate measure up against comparable schools? Are graduation requirements uniformly and fairly enforced? Is there diversity in leadership and teaching positions? Are the faculty well-qualified and teaching in their area of expertise? All these questions and many, many more are addressed in the typical accreditation report.
Because accreditation is of life-or-death importance, every education reporter should get familiar with accreditation reports — knowing what to ask for and what to watch for.
Two key documents are created during accreditation, and each can be revealing: (1) a self-study report created by the school itself, and (2) the accreditation agency’s report and recommendations. The latter document may identify defects that need addressing, and those are of course worthy of journalists’ attention. But just as revealing may be the trends that the accreditation reports illuminate: Are class sizes getting larger or smaller? Is employee turnover increasing? What is the mix of funding sources — federal, state, local, private donations, user fees — and how is that mix changing?
Getting access to accreditation reports is simple, even at a private institution that is not otherwise required to honor requests for public records. By law, any college that wants to qualify for federal financial aid must undergo accreditation and must make its accreditation reports available on demand to any current or potential student. (Of course, at a public college, public high school or school district, accreditation reports created or kept by the institution will be public record, anyway, under any state’s open-records law.)
Individual college programs also face accreditation by their own standard-setting bodies, such as the American Bar Association in the case of law schools. While these reports are of less broad importance to the reading audience, they can matter quite a bit to individual students, whose ability to transfer to other schools, to obtain admission to graduate degree programs, or to sit for license exams in their chosen profession can be hampered if their program of study loses accreditation.
As a helpful shortcut to get started, the U.S. Department of Education has a searchable database of all accredited colleges and universities here. The database will identify the accrediting agency, the date of accreditation, and whether any specialty programs have their own separate accreditation.
Finally, be aware that the term “accredited” can be slippery. Schlocky “diploma-mill” schools sometimes claim “accreditation” from entities that are little more than a Post Office box. If you have doubts about the veracity of a school’s claims, consult the Department of Educations’ database of recognized accrediting agencies to make sure that certificate of accreditation is worth the paper it’s printed on.