A Student’s Primer on Accreditation
This article is a companion to our searchable database of accredited higher-education institutions and programs in the Arab world and Turkey.
What exactly is accreditation? And why does it matter so much?
Perhaps no decision matters more for putting a career on a lifelong, solid path than choosing a suitable institution of higher education or an appropriate degree program. But how to choose from among the growing plethora of educational options online and offline can be daunting, confusing and fraught with hidden dangers.
In deciding whether to apply to an institution or program, it pays to do a little homework on the quality of the university or a particular degree program. Doing some research up front on accreditation can save potential students from making costly mistakes and to be sure their degrees will be accepted by employers, government agencies, or universities where the students might want to pursue an advanced degree.
In Arab countries, the licensing of private and public universities can be strict, but follow-up monitoring is generally weak. (See the related article “A Regional Survey: How Arab Countries Regulate Quality in Higher Education.”) So for many degrees, both universities and students have come to rely on European and American agencies to review the quality of educational programs. Rankings of universities tend to be heavily weighted toward the research a university produces, but accreditation is more focused on teaching and the resources available to students.
Accreditation, while not perfect, is perhaps the most powerful guarantee of quality assurance in education.
Accreditation is a formal and independent decision indicating that an institution of higher education or a program (such as a business or engineering school) meets certain standards. Accreditation is a multi-step process that begins with self-evaluation by the applicant institution and proceeds on to external assessment by independent experts and a final decision based on internationally accepted quality assessment standards. Typically the independent experts who review an institution’s application for accreditation are also university professors or administrators who visit a campus to see the applicant university’s programs in action and to inspect physical facilities.
Accreditation is typically carried out by an independent, nongovernmental agency that sets its own standards. Some accrediting agencies specialize in an academic field, such as law or engineering. Others focus on a type of vocational schooling, such as hotel management. Still others give an overall stamp of approval on a university’s programs.
Accrediting organizations should be independent from government, individual higher educational institutions and professional associations. They should list their quality assurance measures publicly.
Attending an internationally accredited institution increases the chances that someone studying there as an undergraduate can go on to another institution to get a master’s degree or a doctorate. Accreditation is also important when applying to a professional or vocational school, when seeking a diploma that has a major online component, or in making sure a private or for-profit university will deliver a degree with value.
Accreditors require institutions or programs to provide truthful answers to important questions about issues such as admission requirements, whether an institution will prepare students for a career (such as getting a license); total costs; the odds of getting a job after graduation; the average salary of graduates; teacher qualifications; if courses are transferable to other institutions; and whether a process exists for students who believe they have been unfairly treated to appeal an institutional decision.
Unfortunately, as with many other important decisions in life, the world of accreditation includes phony bodies and fake accreditors, so students also need to know how to flag these poseurs. ‘Diploma mills’ and worthless degrees have become the stuff of front page, international news of late. (The Al-Fanar Media database of accredited institutions, which has recently been updated, only includes valid accreditors.)
Faked or weak accreditation is a growing problem in Arab countries. (See a related article “Faking Quality Control for Universities.”)
Al-Fanar Media discovered in 2015 that the International Accreditation Organisation helped universities bilk money out of students for degrees that were almost worthless. The reporters also discovered IAO accredited institutions that bilked students out of money, such as the Royal Institute of Medical Sciences in Jordan, which had a phony address and had changed its name after not meeting the country’s licensing requirements. It is no longer in business.
In a typical accreditation process, a decision takes three to five years and can cost an institution as much as $30,000, not the $1,000 that International Accreditation Organisation charged for a days-long accreditation process.
What is more, unaccredited fraudulent online universities engage in high-pressure sales tactics and give fake scholarships as a lure to take money from unsuspecting students who end up with worthless degrees. These universities often say they are based in the United States and make quick scholarship offers as an enticement to students in the Arab world. After an email exchange or an online chat, such fake universities can demand immediate payment of other fees. Checking on valid accreditation is one way students can protect themselves from falling for such scams.
Agencies based in Europe and North America have the longest developed tradition of accreditation.
The United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education does not review foreign institutions but does check the quality of programs that British universities deliver outside the country. No centralized European accreditor exists, but the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education seeks to foster cooperation among those interested in the field. In the United States, the Department of Education doesn’t accredit universities, but it does recognize accreditation bodies, as does the U.S.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Students should look for a U.S. higher-education institution accredited by an agency that is recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. U.S. accreditors also review some Middle Eastern institutions.
For a decision that will largely determine the future course of a career, an ounce of prevention in winnowing down a list of possible schools recognized by the best international accreditors could save a lifetime of buyer’s regret.