As a student, how do you know if you are getting the right value for your time and money when you select a master’s degree program? You would probably start by conducting extensive research on your own, including some combination of looking at rankings of accredited graduate degree programs, requesting information from prospective schools, visiting their campuses or websites, and talking to students and faculty.
Programs can differentiate themselves in many ways, from their formats (online, on-campus, hybrid, full-time, part-time, etc.) to the expertise and research interests of their faculty members. However, one of the biggest differentiators between programs, especially in the domains of online and distance learning, is accreditation.
Accredited programs are credible in the eyes of employers, professional organizations, and other colleges and universities, being recognized for their quality and overall compliance with agreed-upon academic standards. In contrast, unaccredited programs provide no such assurances. They might grant course credit or entire degrees on the basis of irrelevant criteria and in general not prepare students for the realities of the fields they are entering.
Accreditation: What it is and how online degree programs can attain it
There are multiple types of accreditation.
Institutions of higher learning may voluntarily earn accreditation from either a national or a regional accrediting authority. National accreditation is handled by a group of agencies overseen by the U.S. Department of Education and the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These agencies include the Distance Education Accrediting Council, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, and Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. National accreditation is most common with for-profit colleges and vocational and technical programs.
Regional accreditation is more common among nonprofit colleges and usually the result of a much more rigorous process than national accreditation. There are six regional accreditors in the U.S. as of 2019:
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
The George Washington University (GW), which offers an online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR), is regionally accredited by the MSCHE. The MSCHE’s official guidance for regional accreditation features a set of fundamental requirements each institution must meet, as well as a more detailed collection of standards.
The basic requirements stipulate that, among other qualifications, an affiliated institution must comply with all applicable federal and state laws, adhere to MSCHE policies, have a general mission statement, regularly evaluate its programs, and ensure “rigor, coherence and appropriate assessment of student achievement” throughout them.
The MSCHE standards cover more ground. The 13th edition defines seven of them:
- Mission and Goals: The institution has clearly defined goals that align with its educational mission and are periodically reassessed for relevance.
- Ethics and Integrity: The institution respects multiple forms of free expression, including academic freedom, and is honest in communications like PR announcements.
- Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience: Students receive coherent learning experiences from knowledgeable and available faculty and also have ready access to educational opportunities and resources for fulfilling program requirements.
- Support of the Student Experience: Students can consult the institution’s policies and procedures for guidance on a wide range of matters, including financial aid, program placement and postgraduate job seeking.
- Educational Effectiveness Assessment: The institution conducts “organized and systematic” assessments of student achievement and using these reviews to inform decisions about pedagogy, curriculum and more.
- Planning, Resources and Institutional Improvement: The institution has clearly documented processes for educational improvement as well as for its financial operations, human resources and infrastructures/facilities.
- Governance, Leadership and Administration: The institution has a coherent governance structure and a legally constituted governing body that oversees its processes and programs.
Accreditation is an ongoing process. MSCHE-accredited institutions like GW undergo reaccreditation on a regular schedule. Each accreditation process is usually a multi-year event that requires a self-review, an on-site visit from members of other accredited institutions and a final decision from the accrediting body itself.
Beyond national and regional accreditation, there is also program-specific accreditation that applies to specific schools and degrees. For example, a business school offering a Master of Business Administration degree could be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. This special accreditation is in addition to the underlying accreditation of the school and isn’t a replacement for it.
The advantages of accreditation for online degree programs
Traditional and online degree programs are accredited according to the same guidelines, with institutions needing to present evidence that they comply with the applicable standards. Students can be confident that accredited online programs meet a high standard of quality.
If you are considering online education, be sure to check that any program you are applying to is currently accredited. Accreditation is usually listed on the program’s website.
By attending an accredited program, your degree is likely to be better received and trusted by employers and other educational institutions. Accreditation also makes you eligible for financial aid in the form of grants, loans and work-study programs. If you need to transfer credits between schools, accreditation simplifies that process as well.
The GW SPR degree helps student broaden and deepen their knowledge of public relations in the modern media environment, with the help of GW’s accomplished faculty. GW’s regional accreditation from MSCHE is proof of the program’s fundamental quality and ongoing improvement. To learn more about the SPR’s requirements, visit the curriculum overview page. For information on applying, answer a few simple questions at the top of the program main page to receive a free copy of the SPR brochure.