Elegant teacher with students sitting at the college lecture hall

Many of us have experienced a hospital stay, or been with a loved one during theirs. In most cases we have complete trust in the credentials of the caregivers, because after all, being a nurse or a doctor requires rigorous study and evaluation. However, recent news has shown a startling situation that in fact highlights the importance of educating students, their families, employers, and the community about the how high stakes of accreditation. 

In the recent Forbes article, How Thousands Of Nurses Got Licensed With Fake Degrees, Emma Witford and Janet Novak delve into exactly “the sale of 7,600 fake diplomas from three now-defunct Southern Florida nursing schools for $114 million. The certificates enabled untrained individuals to sit for the national nursing board exams and at least 2,800 of them passed.”  The “fake” nurses were then employed across various states in hospitals, assisted living facilities, homebound pediatric care, and veteran care. Not only is this extremely dangerous, it has violated the trust so many people place in individuals that are actually qualified with legitimate degrees. 

Most people are aware of for-profit colleges and the myriad of problems those have caused recently; in 2021 Education Secretary Miguel Cardona canceled $1 billion in student loan debt for about 72,000 defrauded borrowers. Included in these cases were Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, both accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), an accreditor that was stripped of its DoE recognition in 2016 for a history of non-compliance. While egregious and alarming, these examples hit home from a student financial standpoint – they were, in a sense, robbed by the institutions and the accreditor. 

However, in the case of the fake nurses, much more than money is at stake – quite literally lives are being endangered. While obtaining a fake degree in Basket Weaving is still obviously criminal, most professions do not deal in absolutes with harm, life, and death like nursing does. Healthcare, architecture, civil engineering, pilots, and many others hold safety in their hands, which is why those degrees and credentials require rigor. 

In addition to courses, training, and evaluation, it is imperative that stakeholders – students, employers, and the community – understand that these programs and institutions have another layer of rigor in the form of accreditation. Often invisible on a campus, the ongoing work to remain in good standing with an accreditor is extensive, and as this recent story points out, it is critical. 

What is Accreditation? 

While accreditation is voluntary, it has several benefits and signals to other institutions, programs, students, and employers that the program is valid and quality. 

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a U.S. association of degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations. CHEA is the only national organization focused exclusively on higher education accreditation and quality assurance. 

“Accreditation in higher education is a collegial, peer-review process that emphasizes continuous improvement, assesses academic quality, and advances public accountability of institutions and programs. This quality review process occurs usually every three to ten years, and involves four major activities: 

  • A comprehensive review, inclusive of a self-study that provides written documentation of how an institution or program meets the standards or criteria. 
  • An on-site evaluation with a team composed of peer reviewers who engage with the institutional and/or programmatic stakeholders to confirm the standards are being met. 
  • Review by the decision- making body of the accrediting organization that then renders a decision about accreditation.
  • Ongoing monitoring in between comprehensive reviews.”

What is the Value of Accreditation?

Accreditation provides a process for a neutral, expert peer, external party to review the quality of education provided by an institution or program and offer suggestions for improvement. It also: 

  • “Provides for eligible students to have access to federal financial aid if they attend institutions accredited by accreditors that are recognized by USDE.
  • Signals to prospective employers that an educational program has met widely accepted educational standards. A particular field may require graduation from an accredited program or institution” (CHEA)

Accreditation is all about “quality assurance,” says Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities.

“The key point is that by an institution being accredited, it’s not just that it becomes a link to federal financial aid for that university and the families and students, it means that there have been professionals that have evaluated it and it’s gone through a certain review process to assure that it’s a quality program,” she says (US News). 

How Can I Find Out if an Institution/Program is Accredited?

Fortunately finding information about accreditation is pretty easy, you just have to know where to look. 

  • The institution or program website: These sites should have an accreditation tab or area – if you cannot find it, try searching. Once you find it, confirm the accreditor listed is recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education. Email someone in leadership if you have any questions. 
  • Accreditor websites: Regional accrediting organizations will include lists of all member schools. 
    • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
    • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
    • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
    • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
    • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
    • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
    • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  • Look in a database: 

Even if a school or program is currently accredited, it’s always a good idea to investigate further on the accreditor’s website, to make sure they are in good standing. For programs like nursing and medical, find or ask about placement rates for clinicals and practicums. If the school cannot or will not provide them, or the rates are low, this could indicate an issue. 

Finally, follow your instincts. If something feels off or too good to be true, investigate. Especially if a school seems more interested in making money than in students. 

To discourage fraud and reduce danger, it’s important that everyone – students, parents/guardians, employers, and community members – are more aware of the value and process of accreditation. Accountability is critical in discouraging these types of scams, keeping people safe, and upholding the rigor and quality of our higher education system. 

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