Not All Accreditation is Equal

The proposition of higher education can easily leave someone confused to the point they don’t know whether to scratch their watch or wind their butt. Dozens of programs to choose from, endless forms to complete, and an additional array of acronyms to grapple with (RDS, FAFSA, RISE, UGETC and so on). I hope that this series will help you get a better handle on some of the more confusing points of pursuing education after high school.

The first constant we will examine is accreditation. It doesn’t seem like that would be terribly confusing — unless you have ever worked on a self-study. Better yet, why should you even care? After all, as long as the school has “College” or “University” in its name, then we’re good right? Wrong. There are two types of accreditation for institutions of higher learning; institutional, and programmatic. Again, this sounds simple enough, but not all accreditation are equal and universal. To gain a little more insight, I turned to the U.S. Department of Education.

The Role of the U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education is not responsible for accrediting institutions, but they are tasked with the oversight of accrediting bodies. The department is required by law to publish a list of accrediting agencies that have been found to meet a certain level of quality. To accomplish this, the department sets out to ensure that each accrediting agency has an established set of criteria and a process for granting accreditation status.

The process must involve peers, after all. Who better to determine if an agency is meeting the set criteria by implementing the latest industry standards. The list of recognized accrediting agencies does help protect students at some level, but unfortunately, it also muddies the water. For example, I filtered the list by Institutional Accreditors and found 26 different accrediting agencies. So, to peel another layer off of this onion, one must understand that each of these agencies has a different focus or scope.

I found agencies that accredit institutions of various performing arts, religious studies, and distance learning. These agencies are said to have a national scope. In contrast, others on the list, have an operational scope of a specific state or geographical region. This is where we get the terms “national” and “regional” accreditation.

Regional Accreditation

Let’s take a quick poll. Student one is sitting at the kitchen table, talking about his pursuit of an Associate’s Degree. He mentions the name of his online university and student two comments about that university’s lack of regional accreditation. The first student replies, “that’s okay, because his school is nationally accredited and that is better than regional accreditation anyway.” Raise your hand if you agree with student one.

If you raised your hand, I can certainly see why. It only stands to reason that something that boasts “national” will supersede anything “regional.” Unfortunately, that is wrong in this case. In reality, they can’t be compared because they are different. (Have you started scratching your watch yet?) In the world of higher education, six of the regional accrediting agencies listed by the U.S. Department of Education are considered to be the “Big 6.” The following is a list of the six and their geographical scope.

  1. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges covers colleges in California, Hawaii, and several U.S. Pacific territories such as Guam and Samoa.
  2. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accredits colleges in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
  3. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) deal with Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
  4. The New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) covers states such as Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  5. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) deal with colleges in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
  6. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accredits Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Latin America, and of course our beloved North Carolina and South Carolina.

As I stated earlier, regional and national accrediting agencies are different, so in order to make the best decision, one must weigh any advantages or disadvantages. Colleges and universities that carry the distinction of holding a regional accreditation from one of the “BIG 6” do have one huge advantage over those that are nationally accredited. If you attend and successfully complete classes at a regionally accredited institution, and later decide to attend another school, your credits are more likely to be accepted at ANY institution.

My educational journey is proof of a smooth transfer from one college to the next. After completing my Associate’s in Fire Protection Technology at Cleveland Community College, I never dreamed I would go on to pursue an advanced degree. However, several years later, I transferred to Fayetteville State University for a Bachelor’s in Fire and Emergency Services Administration. Both of these institutions are accredited by SACSCOC. I then went in search of a Master’s program that would allow me to branch out a bit. During that search, I found Southern Illinois University Carbondale. By exploring their website, I could verify they were regionally accredited by the HLC. Because of that fact, I was able to transfer seamlessly into an out-of-state university. One hundred percent of my credits were accepted with both examples. While that is my individual experience, I have also witnessed countless students transferring credits from regionally accredited schools to other colleges and universities with ease.

National Accreditation

Institutions that are accredited by an agency that have a “national” scope geographically seem to also have an alternative scope as well; such as a niche or specific discipline of study. We find many online universities fall under this type of accreditation. For example, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) accredits schools that are considered, “distance education institutions.” While these accrediting entities are recognized by the Department of Education, credits and degrees conferred by them are not always accepted by other institutions. What this means for a student is they may not be able to continue to an advanced degree with another college or university. Essentially confining their higher education experience to one institution. Many students that I have had conversations with want to branch out a little with their bachelor’s for a second career after the fire service.

In short, regional accreditation credits and degrees will essentially transfer to either national accredited or other regional accredited institutions. Credits form colleges and universities with national accreditations will not transfer to a regional accredited school and may not transfer out of the awarding institution. Therefore, your choice should be based on where your future career and education journeys may take you. Even still, I urge caution. I had no idea that I would not have retired from the city fire department. Life does come at you fast and unforeseen doors open and close. If you are going to invest your time and money in a higher education, why not ensure that your endeavor is a path that will maximize your future?

Programmatic Accreditation

The last type of accreditation is called programmatic accreditation. As you might have already deduced, this type of accreditation is for individual programs. Luckily, these waters are not as murky due to the small number of accrediting agencies dealing with fire and rescue service programs. The International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) may sound a bit familiar to you, because they are one of the two accrediting entities for fire certifications. IFSAC began in 1990 accrediting certifications. On a side note, you should be proud to know a driving force in the formation of this accrediting body were leaders from the North Carolina fire service. But to my point, in 1992, IFSAC started another accreditation assembly for fire and emergency services related programs. Currently, there are 42 institutions with IFSAC accredited degree programs in the world. Only four of the colleges and universities in North Carolina share in this distinction. They are Catawba Valley Community College, Cleveland Community College, Gaston College, and Guilford Community College. South Carolina does not have any accredited programs listed on IFSAC’s website.

I can testify from personal experience, that the quality of our program at Cleveland Community College benefited from the accreditation process. From the conversations that I have had with my counterparts that were accredited before us, they had the same sentiment. From a student’s perspective, I can say I noticed a marked difference in quality between the schools I have attended that have programmatic accreditation versus those that do not.

Other emergency service disciplines have programmatic accreditation entities as well. For our Emergency Medical System friends out there, there is the Committee on Accreditation for the EMS Programs (CoAEMSP). Emergency Management programs can be accredited by IFSAC as well as the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). Now, I will say that I do not feel as if this is an exhaustive list, but they seem to be the industry standards in our area. Any programmatic accrediting body that is either recognized directly by the Department of Education or by an entity acknowledged by the Department of Education (such as the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or CHEA) is what a student should view as a legitimate accrediting body.

As any good student should, just do a little extra research before committing your efforts to whatever program gets your attention. Keep in mind that not all accreditation is equal, and regional accreditation is the most versatile. If a program has received programmatic accreditation, that will only add value to your investment. In our next issue, we will look at what FESHE is and is not as well as its current state with our new National Fire Academy Superintendent. OK, so I think you are ready to wind your watch now, but wait, wash your hands first.

Richard Carroll has over 25 years of experience serving in volunteer, career, and combination departments. Teaching for the last 13 years, he is currently employed at Cleveland Community College (CCC) as Coordinator and Instructor of Fire and Rescue Training. Carroll has earned his Master’s Degree in Public Safety and Homeland Security Management. In 2018, he was awarded the Community College Excellence in Teaching Award at CCC and was a top three finalist for the same award at the state level. Carroll can be reached at

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