The GI Bill is one of the most valuable benefits offered to service personnel. Used wisely, it can fully fund your tuition and fees for a course that will kick-start your future career – all while providing assistance with housing costs. How could you go wrong?
Sadly, many service personnel have gone wrong.
The world of vocational and higher education is a little murkier than it seems. Increased federal funding for programs like the GI Bill has generated an explosion of institutions keen to cash in on fee-paying students. Unfortunately, the academic rigor of the courses and the ongoing viability of the institutions haven’t always mirrored the sales pitch you will hear from their recruiters.
Some veterans using the GI Bill have:
- Discovered that credits completed at a school accredited by one agency were not transferable to other college programs.
- Failed to be selected for post-graduate programs because their undergraduate school was not considered academically rigorous enough.
- Found themselves without a qualification despite thousands of dollars spent on tuition after the financial collapse of their for-profit college.
- Been unable to gain employment in their chosen field because the course they took did not have specialized industry accreditation.
Dr. Erin Colvin, affiliate professor in the Computer Science Department at Regis University, experienced this first-hand. After starting her master’s degree with a nationally accredited college, she experienced great difficulty trying to transfer to a regionally accredited program. She was faced with the difficult choice of completing a master’s degree that might not allow her to undertake her doctorate, or re-commencing her master’s with a regionally accredited institution.
So what is accreditation and why is it important?
There are different types of accreditation. Just because a course or institution is accredited doesn’t mean that it will open career doors for you.
Some accredited institutions offer non-accredited courses, some accrediting agencies do not hold weight in your chosen field, and some employers do not recognize qualifications unless a school that is accredited by a specific accrediting agency gives them. There are also so-called “accreditation mills” – groups that will accredit schools with minimum standards.
To begin your research into your prospective school’s accreditation, there are three major types of accreditation you need to understand:
- Regional Accreditation. This is the most widely recognized and accepted accreditation and is used by approximately 85 percent of colleges. There are six regional accrediting agencies and the institutions they accredit are usually academically oriented, non-profit, or state-owned.
- National Accreditation. Historically, national accreditation has been used by technical and vocational schools. The catch with undertaking a nationally accredited program is that regionally accredited schools will rarely recognize or accept credits from national accredited courses.
- Specialized Accreditation. Program-based accreditation is accreditation of the learning course or department. In industries such as medicine, dentistry and law, students who undertake a course that does not have this form of accreditation may find their qualification is not recognized and they are not allowed to practice in their field.
Examples of agencies that provide specialized accreditation include:
- The American Medical Association (AMA)
- Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET)
- American Dental Association (ADA)
- National Nursing League (NLN)
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
How do I know what type of accreditation my school or course has?
Don’t rely on the recruiter at a school to provide you with information on accreditation. Recruiters have a vested interest in bringing you on as a student, so may convince you that the accreditation their school has is “what you need,” or the equivalent. Do your own research.
The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of school accreditations and also provides useful information on Diploma Mills and Fake Accrediting Agencies.
You should also explore the following resources:
- Regional Accreditation: Contact details for agencies authorized to provide regional accreditation can be found at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. You should check the current status of your chosen school and program on the independent regional website.
- National Accreditation: The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a list of National Faith-Based Accrediting Agencies and National Career-Related Accrediting Agencies with links to their independent websites.
Dr. Susan Wurtzburg, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has had many veterans pass through her classes. Some had previously used GI Bill funds on courses that did not lead to any usable qualifications.
Her advice, “If a school is aggressively pursuing you, accepting you for a program that sounds too good to be true, offering you a place without looking at your transcripts, or promising you a qualification with a remarkably low number of contact hours, there might be a problem. Do your research. Find out what people with a degree from that institution earn and where they end up working.”
Using your GI Bill is a big investment. Don’t make a hasty decision or sign up for something you don’t feel completely confident about.
As Dr. Colvin noted, “You wouldn’t buy a house based on the sales brochure. Take your time to research a school and its accreditation, contact an academic adviser and discuss their plan for your academic future, talk to graduates of the program, and ask probing questions about graduation rates, follow-on study and employability.”
The bottom line: Verifying the value and legitimacy of your school’s accreditation is critical. You worked hard for your GI Bill benefits and don’t want to waste your time or money on a course that won’t help your future career.