Accreditation is important in higher education, but it takes on added importance in certain fields. Engineering is one of them. Engineering accreditation is actually an essential requirement if you plan to become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). So in addition to seeking out a college or university with accreditation from a Department of Education-recognized accreditor, your career goals may require you to seek out a school with an engineering program that has earned programmatic accreditation.
In the engineering field, programmatic accreditation must be granted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in order for the resulting degree to confer licensing eligibility. Of course, there are additional steps toward becoming a Professional Engineer, including passing The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam and amassing a minimum of four years of professional experience. However, this is only possible after you’ve earned a minimum of a bachelors’ degree in engineering from an ABET-accredited program.
This accreditation requirement is essential whether you’re earning a traditional engineering degree through a brick and mortar school or you’re pursuing an online degree in engineering. Click here for a look at the best ABET-accredited online bachelor’s in engineering degrees.
What Is Accreditation?Before diving into programmatic accreditation for engineering, it’s important to understand a few major distinctions in accreditation. Speaking in the broadest terms, there are two overarching types of accreditation—programmatic accreditation and institutional accreditation.
What Is Programmatic Accreditation?
Programmatic accreditation refers to a type of accreditation granted to a specific degree program, or to a specific school within a larger university. Programmatic accreditation agencies typically represent specific disciplines, and are often affiliated with professional associations in the related field. Programmatic accreditation, like institutional accreditation, must be recognized by the Department of Education.
Some professions may place only limited emphasis on programmatic accreditation. For instance, programmatic accreditation will not likely play a major role in the career prospects of liberal arts or philosophy majors. However, some professions place a major emphasis on programmatic accreditation, and may even require you to earn a degree with a specific type of accreditation before you can earn a license to practice in your field.
Accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology is a prime example of the latter type of programmatic accreditation. Recognition from this programmatic accrediting agency is a critical determinant of how far you can advance in the professional engineering field.
What Is Institutional Accreditation?
Institutional accreditation refers to the seal of accreditation granted to a college or university. Institutional accreditation is exceedingly important, not just because it provides certain assurances about the quality and credibility of a university, but also because only schools which are accredited by accrediting agencies with approval from the Department of Education may receive federal student aid. Any student hoping to receive federal financial aid of any kind must attend a college or university with Department-approved accreditation. Before you can even begin to explore the question of engineering accreditation, you will need to choose a school with the proper institutional accreditation.
Within the broader category of institutional accreditation, there are two major forms of accreditation. Regional Accreditation and National Accreditation. The technical difference between regional and national accreditation is one of jurisdiction. Regional accreditors generally hold jurisdiction only over schools in the states comprising their region, whereas national accreditors hold jurisdiction over schools in all states.
However, practically speaking, the biggest difference is one of quality. Regional accreditation is widely regarded as a more rigorous standard of quality and credibility than national accreditation. Attending a college or university which is not regionally accredited could limit your opportunities. For instance, most regionally accredited graduate schools will not recognize credits or degrees earned from undergraduate schools which are not regionally accredited. A student who earns a bachelor’s degree from a college which has only national accreditation will have a very difficult time gaining access to a regionally accredited graduate school.
The same may be true of access to certain professional licenses, certifications, and employment opportunities, where regional certification is the basic threshold for eligibility. That said, it is important to note that recent changes in Department of Education policy may in fact be eroding the distinctions between regional and national accreditation. While the differences noted below still remain pertinent at the time of writing, the institutional accreditation landscape is undergoing change.
To read more about changes to the accreditation system, check out Major College Accreditation Overhaul–What’s Changing and Why it Matters.
What Is Regional Accreditation?
Regional accreditation is widely considered the gold standard in accreditation, and generally superior to national accreditation. The most influential colleges and universities will have received regional accreditation, indicating that their curriculum, faculty, and degrees meet certain standards of quality and credibility.
There are six regional accrediting commissions that have been recognized by the Department of Education. Each regional accrediting commission holds jurisdiction over a group of states within a specific region of the United States:
- The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on 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)
What Is National Accreditation?
National accreditation agencies are educational accreditors that provide accreditation for schools from across the United States. National accreditation is commonplace among trade or vocational schools, religious institutions, and some for-profit colleges. (Though some for-profit colleges are regionally accredited.)
In order to be recognized by the Department of Education, national accreditation agencies must meet the same criteria as regional accreditors. However, national accreditation has a lesser reputation than regional accreditation and is regarded as a less rigorous standard of review and validation. To this end, most regionally-accredited colleges do not recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges which lack regional accreditation.
Because national accreditation is commonplace in certain trade, vocational, and technical fields, there are numerous ways to gain engineering skills and receive practical training through nationally-accredited schools. And this may be both an affordable and expedient route if your goal is to become a technician, or to build valuable technical skills. But it may not be the best option if you plan to pursue a four-year degree or an advanced degree at a regionally-accredited institution, as your credits and degree would not likely transfer. This suggests that nationally accredited schools are a better option for students interested in becoming engineering technicians than for those working to become licensed Professional Engineers (PE).
Why Does Programmatic Accreditation Matter in Engineering?
Programmatic accreditation is especially consequential in engineering because a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited institution is a basic threshold for becoming a licensed Professional Engineer (PE).
It also provides certain assurances about the quality of your program and the credibility of your degree. ABET accreditation provides assurances that a program meets the basic standards required for adequately preparing students to enter the global workforce in various STEM fields. Once again, this is particularly important in the case of engineering because you can only become a licensed PE after you’ve earned an undergraduate degree from a program with ABET accreditation.
But ABET accreditation indicates more than just meeting the basic threshold for professional entry. In addition to qualifying you to sit for your licensing exam, an ABET-accredited program will:
- Provide support for your entry into the profession through the stages of licensure, registration, and certification;
- Meet the global standard for technical education in your field;
- Significantly improve your employment prospects in an increasingly global field; and
- Impact your eligibility for most federal student aid, grants, or scholarships.
What Is the Right Programmatic Accreditation for the Engineering Field?
As noted above, the proper accreditation for aspiring engineers is granted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Founded in 1932, ABET is the preeminent accreditation group in the U.S. for engineering as well as for college and university programs in applied and natural science, computer, and engineering technology.
At the time of writing, ABET notes that 4,144 programs at 812 colleges and universities in 32 countries have received its stamp of approval. This means that more than 100,000 students earn ABET-accredited undergraduate and master’s degrees each year, both in traditional classrooms and through online engineering programs.
ABET is a nonprofit, non-governmental agency providing specialized accreditation for degree-granting institutions that have received either national or regional accreditation.
What Does ABET-Accreditation Indicate?
According to ABET, its review process not only verifies the quality and credibility of your engineering program, but it also provides the program with valuable data and insights that can be used to improve educational experiences for students and advance professional opportunities for graduates. This process of review is both intensive and highly collaborative, dispatching more than 2,000 reviewers from academia, industry and government to handle each application. Successful completion of this rigorous process indicates that a program:
- Promotes educational best practices
- Engages faculty and staff in self-assessment and continuous quality improvement
- Employs strategies based on learning outcomes, as opposed to teaching inputs
- Has a streamlined process for measuring the acceptability of transfer credits
Can I Become a Licensed PE With International Accreditation?
While ABET is an international accrediting agency, its influence is concentrated primarily in the U.S. However, many nations and regions of the globe also offer accreditation. In most cases, forms of international accreditation that are certified by the International Organization for Standardization are recognized as roughly equivalent to ABET accreditation.
For instance, The Engineering Council (EC) is the U.K.’s primary regulatory authority in engineering as well as the preeminent accrediting agency for U.K. engineering education and training. An agreement called the Washington Accord–one of seven mutual recognition agreements overseen by the International Engineering Alliance–recognizes that there is substantial equivalence in the standards met by programs with either ABET or EC accreditation.
In spite of this and other such agreements, licensing opportunities are not always guaranteed to international students with accreditation from an agency other than ABET. Licensing is granted on a state by state level. Some states acknowledge the Washington Accord while others ignore it.
If you are seeking licensure in a state that doesn’t adhere to the Washington Accord, it may be possible to apply (and pay) for a process of review. Here, the state engineering licensure board will conduct an investigation into the quality of your degree program as well as its accreditation status. If your program is accredited by a internationally certified agency such as the EC, there is a good chance that your state’s review board will find you eligible to sit for licensure.
How Can I Be Sure My Online Engineering Degree Is ABET-Accredited?
You should be able to determine your program’s accreditation status by visiting the website for your engineering program or school or by directly contacting your department.
The ABET website also offers a listing of all accredited programs under its purview.
Learn more about what you can do with an online degree in engineering with a look at these key resources:
- Engineering Career Guide: What to do with Your Engineering Degree
- How to Survive Your Online Engineering Degree Program: Tips and Tricks
- Contacts and Associations for Online Engineering Students
Or, check out the very best online bachelor’s degree in engineering programs to get started!