Accreditation is a process of voluntary peer review and evaluation unique to education in the United States (Blauch, 1959), where post-secondary education is governed by private non-governmental accreditation agencies that serve as an independent validation of performance management for the continuous improvement of training services, for both internal and external assurance. The accreditation process entails the assessment of the educational quality and the continued enhancement of educational operation through the development and validation of standards (CACRER, 2003). The conditions associated with accreditation provide credentials to the public and the academic community demonstrating that an institution and/or its programs have accepted and are continuing to meet the demands for commitment of quality education.
Accreditation is a process by which an association or agency evaluates and recognizes a program of study or an institution as meeting certain predetermined standards or qualifications (CFAI, 1999). The essential purpose of accreditation is to provide a professional judgment as to the quality of the educational institution or program offered and to encourage continual improvement thereof (ACCET, 1999).
As the fire service progresses forward and continues to put more emphasis on education, the firefighter/first-responder needs to answer the following questions. Where do I want to go to school, how much do I want to pay, do I want to do it face to face or online, and probably the biggest question is, what am I going to do with the degree when I leave the fire service?
The last question is really the deciding factor on where you want to go to school. Do you want to go to a school that has national accreditation or regional accreditation? Although the school with national accreditation may seem the way to go, it is not. Regional accreditation is the standard bearer for public and private institutions. Regional accreditation is the standard that is accepted internationally as well as within the United States. Institutions of high recognition including Carnegie Research designations are Regionally Accredited.
There are currently six regional accrediting bodies, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges. These six distinguished bodies are responsible for accrediting public and private institutions across the country. The process is incredibly intense and takes a look at the institution from the highest-level administrator to the everyday staff in the various offices across the institution.
Why Regional Accreditation? Some departments just require that a degree be it nationally or regionally accredited. Many departments require the degree to be regionally accredited because that is the standard bearer for education. Once a firefighter/first responder acquires a degree, what is the plan for the future? Very few regionally accredited schools will accept any work completed from a nationally accredited school, if one is seeking to move on to higher degree. Once the firefighter/first responder retires or pursues to work part time many employers will not accept the degrees from a school that is only nationally accredited, especially if one is seeking to teach at a state college or university. There are also those departments that will only pay tuition reimbursement for attendance at a regionally accredited school. Also, there are some organizations that award scholarships that will only provide funding to students attending a regionally accredited school.
Don’t get me wrong; there are many universities that have excellent programs who have chosen for whatever reason not to seek regional accreditation. However, do your homework!
Thoroughly investigate the school or schools that you might like to attend. Keep in mind, it makes no difference if you want a degree in the Fire Service or Underwater Basket Weaving, which school is going to give you the most bang for your buck and which school is going to get you the furthest in your career. Don’t wait until you get your degree to find out that all of that work you did was for nothing!
In the end, you have to go to the school that you feel most comfortable with and that will provide you with what you are looking for in an education. As with anything, just remember: BUYER BEWARE!!
Gary D. Kistner is Program Coordinator/Director of Graduate Studies at Southern Illinois University where he teaches and develops a variety of fire service courses. Kistner has his MS in Technology Education and BS in Career Occupations from Eastern Illinois University, Charleston. He majored in Fire Science at Community College of the Air Force.