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Understanding Accreditation

Accreditation exists to ensure an institution meets quality standards.

In the United States, no single agency has authority over postsecondary institutions. States have some statutory and regulatory authority, but in general institutions can be quite independent and autonomous. Because of this, institutions can vary widely in quality.

Accreditation acts as a means of conducting non-governmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. Private educational associations of regional or national scope have adopted criteria for a sound educational program. Accrediting agencies also developed procedures for evaluating institutions and programs to determine if institutions meet the established standards.

Why should I look for an accredited institution?

  • To verify that the institution or program meets established standards
  • To apply for funding to help with tuition – in general accredited institutions have broader access to funds

Why do institutions get accredited?

  • To qualify for private and public funding
  • To add credibility to their credentials
  • To assist other institutions in evaluating the credibility of transfer credits
  • To protect themselves against harmful internal and external pressure
  • To create goals for program improvement and enhancement
  • To stimulate a general raising of standards among educational institutions
  • To involve faculty and staff comprehensively in institutional evaluation and planning
  • To establish criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading courses offering such preparation
  • To provide one of several considerations used as a basis for determining eligibility for Federal assistance

How does an institution get accredited?

In general, there are six steps:

  1. Standards: The accrediting agency, in collaboration with educational institutions, establishes standards.
  2. Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation study that measures its performance against the standards established by the accrediting agency.
  3. On-site Evaluation: A team selected by the accrediting agency visits the institution or program to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.
  4. Publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the accrediting agency grants accreditation or pre-accreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or pre-accredited institutions or programs.
  5. Monitoring: The accrediting agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the agency’s standards.
  6. Re-evaluation: The accrediting agency periodically re-evaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or pre-accredited status is warranted.

What types of accreditation are there?

There are two basic types of educational accreditation: Institutional and Specialized (also known as Programmatic).

Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality. The various commissions of the regional accrediting associations, for example, perform institutional accreditation, as do many national accrediting agencies.

Specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional accrediting commissions. However, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are free-standing in their operations. Thus, a “specialized” or “programmatic” accrediting agency may also function in the capacity of an “institutional” accrediting agency. In addition, many specialized accrediting agencies accredit educational programs within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.

Is accreditation the only consideration when choosing a school?

No. Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers. Acceptance of students or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer. For these reasons, besides ascertaining the accredited status of a school or program, students should take additional measures to determine, prior to enrollment, whether their educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution. These measures should include inquiries to institutions to which transfer might be desired or to prospective employers and, if possible, personal inspection of the institution at which enrollment is contemplated.

Who governs accrediting bodies?

The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is the non-governmental coordinating agency for accreditation. Its purpose is to coordinate and improve the practice of accreditation. Information about CHEA may be found on the agency’s website, www.chea.org.

Source: Compilation of information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education