Finding the Right School

With so many different institutions to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right university for you. Make the search personal. Consider location, cost, type of program and size of institution. Think about cultural issues, the weather and your academic goals. If you can, visit the universities that you are interested in. Find ways to speak with students, staff and faculty. Get recommendations from other international students. Utilize the vast array of good resources online.

One of the most important factors to take into consideration is accreditation. In most countries, the central government is responsible for maintaining the quality standards of institutions of higher education. In the United States, that is not the case. Each state has its own system of licensing public and private institutions of higher education. The states assume varying degrees of control over education, but, in general, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs. This marketplace of options is a tremendous boon to students, of course, but does mean that international students must do considerable research before making such an important investment.

How can you know if a U.S. institution or program has met certain standards for quality? In the United States, institutions and programs may demonstrate that they meet and maintain certain educational standards through the practice of accreditation. Accreditation is carried out by private, non-governmental organizations called accrediting bodies or accrediting associations, which determine and regulate educational standards. To be an accredited institution of higher education in the United States, an institution has to meet and adhere to the standards of a particular body or association. Being licensed in a particular state is not the same as being accredited. While the Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions and/or programs itself, the Department does publish a list of nationally-recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary of Education has determined to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education. Be wary of any accrediting agency not recognized by the Department’s Office of Post-Secondary Education. Consult the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for additional information.

There are two types of institutional accreditation: regional (the primary type used) and national. Six organizations, which cover different geographic regions of the country, carry out the regional accreditation process. Another six, which cover career-related and faith-related programs, carry out national accreditation. While the requirements for regional accreditation vary between different areas of the United States, they are generally considered more stringent than those for national accreditation. Some institutions hold national rather than regional accreditation because they are unwilling or unable to meet the standards of regional accreditation. For example, regional accrediting bodies require that between one-quarter and one-third of the institution’s curriculum be allocated to courses in general education (humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences); this is a problem for some specialized institutions.

Note that many regionally accredited U.S. institutions do not recognize credits or degrees earned at other institutions that are nationally accredited or accredited in another region. Be sure to check about this if you decide to transfer from one U.S. institution to another part way through a degree program, or if you plan to pursue degrees at different U.S. institutions; for example, a bachelor’s degree from one school and a master’s degree from another. If you are considering a U.S. institution that holds national accreditation but not regional accreditation, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • Will my home country’s government, professional associations, and employers recognize a degree from an institution accredited by a national accrediting body but not a regional accrediting body?
  • Will educational institutions in other countries recognize a degree from a nationally accredited U.S. institution?
  • Have graduates of this U.S. institution been able to use their degrees to do what I want to do with my degree? For example, how many have gained entry to a particular field of employment or were accepted into a more advanced degree program offered at another institution?

If the school you attend is not properly accredited, you may find that your degree is not recognized in the United States or other countries, and not acknowledged by other universities, professional associations, employers and government ministries. Before you apply to study in the United States, check with your home country’s department or ministry of education about whether there are any restrictions on the recognition of U.S. degrees or courses completed at U.S. universities. For example, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates’ Cultural Division in Washington DC makes available a very helpful university database for Emirati students. In particular, ask if there are specific requirements concerning the accreditation of U.S. institutions or programs. Once you have identified institutions in the United States to which you intend to apply, check again with your home country’s department or ministry of education to determine whether a degree or academic credits from those institutions will be recognized. For more on accreditation, visit EducationUSA.

Still have questions? Visit our Frequently Asked Questions page for some good suggestions.