Feb 15, 2021
As a doctoral student, you are essentially seeking the highest level of recognition, achievement, and credentialing in your field in the pursuit of your degree. Attending a school and program with proper accreditation protects the integrity of all your effort and hard work. It acts as an independent quality assurance measure and ensures that you receive a degree from a reputable institution that exhibits rigor and excellence.
This guide details everything you need to know about accreditation as a prospective online PhD or doctoral student, including what’s involved in getting and maintaining accreditation and the differences between the available forms of accreditation. We also provide a comprehensive list of some of the best-known and recognized organizations that administer the process.
Types of Accreditation for Online Doctorates
Accreditation is important in any postsecondary education school or program, but not all forms are the same. Differences between institutional, programmatic, specialized, and professional accreditation are important to understand, but not always apparent. The following are some key accreditation distinctions you need to know.
Institutional accreditation is the most essential form of accreditation. You should not attend a postsecondary school that doesn’t have institutional accreditation. Some schools or programs may possess other forms of accreditation, but without institutional accreditation those extra credentials don’t matter much. This form of accreditation is comprehensive and applies to the entire school, not just specific programs.
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) promote public education policy and establish accreditation guidelines, but they do not play a direct role in the process. In order to safeguard the independent nature of institutional accreditation, they instead recognize autonomous accreditation bodies. Those organizations oversee the process largely based on geographical region.
The CHEA and the Department of Education both maintain active directories of recognized accrediting agencies. These bodies work to maintain quality assurance by granting institutional accreditation. They ensure that schools and the programs they administer meet acceptable standards of rigor and excellence.
Once a school receives institutional accreditation, it is listed in the agency’s directory. It goes on to enjoy all the benefits and advantages associated with those credentials, as do its students and graduates. For example, students who wish to receive federal financial student aid must attend an institution that has received accreditation by an accrediting agency approved by the Department of Education or the CHEA. Once a school has received institutional accreditation, it must work to maintain its status.
Institutional Accrediting Organizations
The list below outlines the main institutional accrediting organizations for universities that administer online PhD and doctorate programs. It includes all six regional accrediting agencies as well as four additional institutional accrediting bodies.
Regional Accrediting Organizations
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)The HLC offers accreditation to institutions in over a dozen states in the central U.S. Its service area includes Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)Established in 1887, the MSCHE covers the mid-Atlantic region and accredits schools in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)The NECHE accredits hundreds of regional institutions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)Colleges and universities in the Pacific Northwest receive regional accreditation from the NWCCU. It covers schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and British Columbia.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)Headquartered near Atlanta, Georgia, SACSCOC oversees accreditation for schools in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
- WASC Senior College and University CommissionSince 1962 this organization has granted regional accreditation to institutions in California, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and other Pacific Island nations.
Additional Institutional Accreditation Organizations
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)This body provides accreditation for programs that offer career, vocational, and technical training in a variety of fields.
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)The ACCET provides institutional accreditation to schools that offer continuing education and English-language training.
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)This agency provides institutional accreditation to schools that administer applied programs and other non-degree courses of study in technical education.
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)The DEAC provides institutional accreditation to colleges and universities with distance or online learning programs.
Program & Specialization Accreditation
Sometimes schools or programs within schools hold forms of accreditation above and beyond institutional accreditation. While not as crucial as institutional accreditation for most programs, these accreditations can provide additional discipline- or occupation-specific backing. These forms of accreditation do not replace or supersede institutional accreditation; they complement it in ways that could be pretty important depending on your field.
Like institutional accreditation, these forms of accreditation are often administered by organizations officially recognized by the either the ED, CHEA, or both. The terms programmatic, specialized, and professional accreditation are often used interchangeably in this regard, but there are important differences.
Professional accreditation refers to the credentialing and quality assurance process for programs that prepare students for very specific occupational roles. In some instances, the accrediting body also doubles as a trade organization as with the National Architectural Accrediting Board or the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education. In other cases, like the American Bar Association, for example, there is significant overlap with doctoral study.
Programmatic or specialized accreditation works differently and ensures the quality of individual sub-fields or concentrations within an academic program. As with other forms of accreditation, this credential offers further, more specialized verification. It validates expert-level programming within a department at an institutionally accredited college or university. Examples of prominent accrediting organizations include the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, and the American Library Association Committee on Accreditation.
Programmatic Accrediting Organizations
While not exhaustive, the list below outlines some of the most prominent programmatic accreditation organizations.
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)One of the oldest organizations of its kind, the ACEN promotes quality assurance and educational excellence. It accredits programs in nursing education and practice.
- American Occupational Therapy Association Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (AOTA-ACOTE)Founded in 1923 and recognized by both the Department of Education and the CHEA, this agency accredits programs in occupational therapy and occupational therapy assistantship.
- American Physical Therapy Association Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (APTA-CAPTE)Based in Alexandria, Virginia, the APTA-CAPTE offers accreditation to programs that train physical therapists and physical therapy assistants.
- Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM)This commission focuses its efforts on improving quality assurance for technical programs in information management, health informatics, and healthcare information systems.
- Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)For over 50 years, this organization has ensured the integrity of graduate healthcare management education by providing programmatic accreditation.
- Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA)Headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, COSMA offers programmatic accreditation to programs in sport management and athletic administration.
- Commission on the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)One of the premier accrediting organizations in healthcare, the CAAHEP administers credentials to programs in allied health professions.
- Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)Established in 1954, this body offers programmatic accreditation to courses of study in K-12 education.
- Council on Social Work Education Commission on Accreditation (CSWE-COA)CSWE-COA focuses its accrediting efforts on programs that offer education to case managers and social workers.
- International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE)The IACBE ensures quality and excellence for graduate-level business, management, and administration programs.
PhD- and Doctorate-Specific Accreditation
Some PhD or doctoral programs may hold additional forms of accreditation specific to their level of rigor and attainment. Pharmacy, psychology, and counseling programs may possess this type of accreditation, while other disciplines may not extend it all. The main rule of thumb with doctorate-specific accreditation is that any program you enroll in should be housed within a school that has institutional accreditation administered by a body recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education.
If you’re interested in a doctoral course of study without doctorate-specific accreditation, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the program. It just means the accrediting body doesn’t extend to doctorate programs or that you’re in a discipline that does not use additional forms of accreditation. Depending on your field, doctoral-specific accreditation may be low on your priority list, so be sure to do your homework. Start with institutional accreditation — the most important form — and then move to consider programmatic, specialized, or professional accreditation, saving doctorate-specific accreditation for last.
PhD and Doctorate Accrediting Organizations
Below are a few organizations that provide accreditation to PhD and doctorate programs. As with the other lists, this one is not comprehensive, but it does provide a good sense of what these organizations offer.
- Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)First established in 1932, this body accredits programs that provide doctoral training for aspiring pharmacists. It also evaluates continuing education programs for working professionals in the industry.
- American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA)Based in Washington, D.C., this organization grants accreditation to PhD and doctorate programs in psychology. This includes programs for clinicians, psychologists, and scientists in psychology.
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)Programs that provide professional and doctoral training for counselors and other mental professionals often receive accreditation from this agency.
Why Online Doctorate Accreditation Matters to You
There are quite a few reasons why prospective PhD and doctoral students should care about accreditation. Ultimately, it will have a significant impact on your future — both in terms of job prospects and the quality of your education and training. This list includes several concrete reasons why accreditation should matter to you.
It ensures academic quality at the highest levels.
Proper accreditation safeguards your education. It is a way of verifying that the school you’re attending offers high-caliber programming that meets benchmarks widely recognized across institutions and industries. It also ensures that graduates hold a degree from a college or university that values solid education, rather than a diploma mill that offers illegitimate credentials in exchange for a fee.
It provides additional backing for your doctoral credentials.
Earning a doctorate means that you qualify as a top expert with the ability to meet all the challenges, rigors, and demands specific to your field. That standing is only recognizable to others if it is granted by a reputable school or program with sound accreditation.
It verifies and validates your status as a solid job candidate.
Accreditation not only protects the integrity of your education, it also validates your potential as a desirable candidate on the job market. Employers across job sectors often check the schools granting degrees to their job candidates as a regular part of the vetting process. Holding a doctorate from an accrediting institution puts you in a better position to get a second look from a recruiter.
It means you can transfer credits in the future.
There’s a reason why virtually every higher education transfer policy only accepts credits earned at an accredited institution. This practice ensures sound learning objectives and uniform outcomes. If you plan to pursue additional continuing education opportunities at some point, holding transferable credits from a school with institutional accreditation will save you a lot of time and effort. It means you won’t need to retake courses or satisfy remedial requirements.
It qualifies you for broader financial aid opportunities.
In most cases financial aid eligibility and proper accreditation go hand in hand. Only schools with institutional accreditation have access to the benefits that come with federal financial aid and student loan opportunities. Even other organizations that sponsor scholarships — like national nonprofits and local businesses — typically make accreditation a primary part of their eligibility criteria.
It makes you more mobile and versatile.
Unlike professional licensure and certification, which are often state-specific, a degree from an accredited institution is universally recognized and keeps its staying power over time. That means you can cross state and even national lines without needing additional skills or knowledge to back up your hard-earned credentials. Depending on your profession, you may still need to obtain licensure or certification, but those credentials almost always require a degree from an accredited college or university.
It ensures your professional standing as an expert in your field.
Accreditation provides general quality assurance in education, but it also offers additional, discipline-specific validation. Depending on what you study, this could make a significant impact. In psychology, for example, accreditation from organizations like the APA goes a long way toward solidifying your status as an expert. It can provide more opportunity for future success and career advancement as a result.
It can lead to higher earning potential in the long run.
Agencies assess many things when determining whether a school or doctoral program deserves accreditation. According to CHEA, one of the pieces of information they look to verify is the earning power of graduates and their likelihood of obtaining gainful employment with their degree. By attending an accredited institution, you are ensuring that your degree will put in you the best possible position for success after graduation.
Higher education accreditation is a process that requires multiple tasks and deliverables to ensure ongoing compliance and satisfaction. Both CHEA and the Department of Education provide guidelines that most accrediting bodies adhere to, although each organization implements them in different ways. However, the process itself tends to remain the same across the board and includes multiple steps widely recognized across institutions.
The process typically begins with a self-study produced by the institution up for accreditation. This is usually done by a committee comprised of staff, faculty, and administrative officials. The study acts as a wholescale performance review and the goal is for the school to determine how it measures up against the standards set by the accrediting agency. Once the agency has had a chance to review the study, they perform an on-site evaluation. A team of officials will visit to verify the self-study and determine if the school meets acceptable standards of quality and excellence.
That team of officials will then generate a report and publish their findings, both internally and across the school seeking accreditation. If everything is in order and all requirements are met, the school becomes a “candidate for accreditation” or receives “pre-accreditation status” (the language on this varies by agency). During this probationary period the agency continues to monitor the school to verify its compliance and make sure its performance matches appropriate benchmarks.
Monitoring continues even when the school finally obtains full accreditation status. Each accrediting agency regularly reevaluates their institutions in an effort to maintain quality control and ensure further compliance. Most institutions continue their accreditation status, but in some special cases schools may go back to their pre-accreditation status. In those cases, the agency may ask for additional deliverables (another self-study, etc.) but could also revoke credentials depending on the situation.
- CHEA Accreditation Toolkit
Developed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, this resource provides vital accreditation information for students, faculty, and institutions.
- ED Information on Accreditation
This site details the history and development of higher education accreditation in the U.S. It also discusses the role the ED plays in the accreditation process.
- Higher Education Compliance Alliance
Sponsored by the National Association of College and University Attorneys, this organization provides a common repository of information on federal laws and regulations pertaining to accreditation.
- Higher Learning Advocates — Higher Ed 101s
This resource outlines information crucial to better understanding higher education policy, including the accreditation process and its overall objectives.
- National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity
A federal initiative, this organization does not play a direct role in accreditation, but it does offer some background on how the government supports and promotes the process.