What is accreditation, and why does it matter for you?

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Exploring higher education accreditation

Anybody pursuing a Master’s in Social Work must seriously consider the accreditation status of the program they are hoping to attend. Each state has different requirements for a variety of social work-related certifications, and most will have some sort of mandate regarding accreditation. Understanding what is necessary where you hope to work is critical in helping you choose the right program.

However, accreditation isn’t just something you need to check off a list; it can be an important indicator of how a program will impact your long-term career prospects and educational experiences.

What is accreditation?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Post-secondary Education, accreditation is meant to serve as a baseline for identifying institutions and programs that achieve acceptable levels of quality in the educational experience they offer students. Accrediting bodies determine whether institutions have achieved these baseline standards. Certain accrediting bodies are private associations that represent specific industries. However, industry-specific accreditations are typically a second, program-specific step. Regional accreditation, on the other hand, is a benchmark used to assess the entire college or university. Many institutions will go through regional accrediting bodies, which analyze details like faculty standards, curriculum, facilities, and student support services, to obtain recognition of quality.

For example, in social work, the most prominent accrediting body in the U.S. is the Council on Social Work Education. This organization uses a deep reservoir of knowledge pertaining to demands in the social work sector and longstanding educational best practices to evaluate programs. While regional accreditation is vital in assessing an institution, specific accreditation are often tied to professional certifications and licensure. As such, they come with highly nuanced ratings systems.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges is an example of a regional accrediting body. Specifically, the organization’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education evaluates colleges and universities in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Additionally, it has affiliations with a few institutions outside the U.S. The commission examines factors like transparency, undergraduate programs, and technological resources.

Students can generally treat accreditation as a stamp of approval. It verifies that the program is of a high enough quality to be valuable for those pursuing a career in a given sector. This broad affirmation is valuable, but it’s important to keep in mind that accreditation focuses on foundational standards of quality. You’ll still want to research the faculty, learning goals and the program’s mission to assess its curriculum and fit for your personal learning style and career goals.

How does accreditation work?

Accreditation is typically a long process in which evaluators systematically analyze an institution or a specific program to ensure it lives up to industry standards. According to the CSWE, its accreditation work is performed based on standards set forth by the group’s Commission on Accreditation and within the larger context of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The CSWE’s commission focuses on creating standards, policies, and criteria around accreditation. The group also plays a critical role in managing the accreditation process.

For social work programs, accreditation involves assessing the curriculum, faculty, internship requirements, and similar aspects offered and ensuring they are sufficient to prepare students for their careers. As of June 2018, there were 261 accredited MSW programs and 28 MSW programs in candidacy with the CSWE.

Once accredited, an institution will continue to interact with the CSWE to track program changes and complete ongoing checks to maintain its status.

Why is accreditation important?

In simplest terms, accreditation adds legitimacy to a degree program. This is especially important considering the wide range of institutions and learning methods available in the higher education sector. With students having so many opportunities at their disposal, they need to be able to identify institutions that don’t live up to the necessary quality standards.

Accreditation gives a degree weight when employers are considering job applicants. Going through the accreditation process can be particularly invaluable for online programs, as some students may wrongly assume distance learning won’t be as thorough as a traditional on-campus experience. Accreditation bodies don’t differentiate between online and traditional programs. If an MSW program is accredited, that’s what will ultimately matter when it comes to jobs and certifications, not whether you took your courses online or on-campus.

Understanding accreditation terminology

The CWSE offers three stages of accreditation, and it’s important to know which status a program you are considering has obtained. Licensure and certification standards may have specific requirements when it comes to accreditation, so it’s important to distinguish between these three stages:

Pre-candidacy: A social work program in the pre-candidacy process with the CSWE is in the early stages of potentially becoming accredited. Pre-candidacy is triggered when an organization submits its application to be reviewed as a candidate for accreditation, but when that review has not yet taken place.

Because a program in pre-candidacy has not been reviewed, the CSWE will not have confirmed its compliance with the organization’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards.

Candidacy: The CSWE will apply candidacy status to a program when it has demonstrated progress toward assessment criteria based on peer review. The actual accreditation process typically takes three years of candidacy as assessors evaluate compliance with standards. It is possible to achieve candidacy status while not in full compliance as long as the program is showing progress.

Accreditation: If a program complies with the CSWE’s standards during the candidacy process, it will be recognized as an accredited institution.

Understanding these three stages isn’t just important when checking off what is required for licensure in the state in which you hope to work, but it can also impact which program is the right fit for you.

Programs in pre-candidacy need to, in essence, graduate to candidacy status. Students needing a program that is at least a candidate for CSWE accreditation must ensure that candidacy is achieved before the end of their academic year, or the institution won’t be considered a candidate on diplomas it issues. However, students attending a program that attains candidacy before or within their first year of study will be retroactively counted as having completed an accredited program if initial accreditation is achieved.

The Regis College MSW program is in the pre-candidacy phase of the process with the CSWE, and Regis College is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Contact us today to learn more about what our program offers and how it may fit into to your career and licensure plans.

Recommended Readings:

What are the benefits of Regis?

What are the benefits of online degrees?



Master of Social Work by Regis College

Accreditation by the Office of Post-secondary Education

Accreditation by the CSWE

Commission on Accreditation by the CSWE

Frequently Asked Questions by the CSWE

About Us by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education